The last time I told someone that I would attend an art exhibition dedicated to Symbolism, I saw the bewilderment in the eyes of my interlocutor.
The bewilderment typical of someone who was trying to recall at least the name of an artist, either a painting or a definition, in order to understand what I was talking about.
It has always been difficult to define Symbolism, because it’s an art movement which doesn’t identify a precise group of artists, whereas it’s a general trend which affected each artistic and creative sector between 1880 and 1919.
I’m trying to clarify the matter in this post.
My interlocutor was a close friend of mine and, in the attempt to help her to understand what Symbolism is, I told her that I would enjoy paintings by Gustave Moreau (she was bewildered), by Gaetano Previati (the expression on her face was incomprehensible), by Segantini (she had a revelation…and said to me “no, wait…Segantini was a Divisionist painter, wasn’t he? He separated colours instead of mixing them, didn’t he?” She asked me.
My friend was right. Segantini was the main proponent of Italian Divisionism, but he was also considered to be a Symbolist, because at one point of his career, his painting were crowded with symbols, allegories and topics typical of Symbolism, such as feminine figure and motherhood.
Definition of Symbolism
Symbolism rejects progress and modernity.
It is a refusal to represent reality in order to seek refuge into dream and mythological imagery, devoting to taboo topics such as death, sin and sexuality.
After the euphoria of Impressionism, in the late 19th century the trust in science and progress suffered a crisis. The artists didn’t accept that only reason could explain reality and nature was ruled by immutable laws. During the second half of 19th century the successful art forms lost their appeal, because they weren’t able to represent the human desire for poetry and imagination.
Impressionism was too close to the attempt to imitate nature, whereas the Symbolist artists tried to venture into the land of dream and myth.
Baudelaire’s work would be fundamental to the Symbolists. His poetic language was based on the skill of word at evoking nightmare and dream, angels and demons, light and darkness, good and evil.
Enjoying Symbolist paintings, sculptures and poems means being thrown into a dimension without pre-established laws, where illusion mingles with reality, mixing the opposites.
From “Les Fleurs du mal” – “The Flowers of Evil” (1857 Edition) by Charles Baudelaire (1857 Edition)
Nature’s a fane where down each corridor
of leaving pillars, darkling whispers roll,
-a symbol- forest every pilgrim soul
must pierce, ‘neath gazing eyes it knew before
like echoes long that form afar rebound,
merged till one deep low shadowy note is born,
vast as the night or as the fire of morn,
sound calls to fragrance, colour calls to sound
(Translation by Lewis Piaget Shanks: Flowers of Evil By Charles Baudelaire, New York: Ives Washburn, 1931)
Read also: Post-Impressionism. Why did confusion reign in the art world between 1880 and 1900? Many things were changing and a new language emerged from Impressionism.