Symbolism stems from a powerful idea, that Reality can convey deep truths through mundane sensations. It means that our every-day life is a constant revelation, offered to the acute man in a myriad of insignificant images. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) based this theory of knowledge in the idea that we must forge a sense for existence, and we must creative an heroic epic out of the shabby deeds of Modernity. He invites his readers to give significance to their life day by day, in a constant effort against the void. Artistically, Symbolism is an inhomogeneous movement, born in Central Europe and expanded to the whole continent. Although, as any style, it is possible to pinpoint some common features among its representatives, Symbolism is highly influenced by the personal approach of each artist. Dull generalisations, bold statements, and a superficial look might severely damage our understanding.
Les Voluptueux – Victor Prouvé – 1889 – oil on canvas – Nancy, Musée des beaux-arts
In Les Voluptueux, the artist depicts a scene of Dante’s Comedy, where the poet visits those damned for their lust. These are condemned to turn restlessly as cranes (that is the image used by Dante) in an eternal storm, as in life they turned from one bodily passion to another with no rest. In the painting, Prouvé does not include the writer, but he focuses on the sinners, grouped in a tangle of naked bodies. The violent streams of air around reproduce the curve of the flaccid corpses, passively subject to the torment. The skill of the artist is here representing both abandon and suffering, distorting the expression of ecstasy into a cry of desperation.
Cleopatra – Gaetano Previati – 1888 – oil on canvas
In Symbolist art, sex and death are often connected. A famous trope is the so-called femme fatale. This is a beautiful, yet evil and dangerous figure, a woman who charms and eventually ruins the man who falls in love with her. Obsession, lust, and desire are the basic ingredients of a macabre cocktail of sensuality and perversion. In Previati’s Cleopatra, the connection is made explicit through the expression of the dying queen. At first, the viewer barely notices the snake, hanging onto her flesh below the breasts. Yet, he sees the powerfully vital body, twisted in rapture, and the face turning away from the viewer in an idiosyncratic mixture of pain and pleasure.
Une Demoniaque – Joseph Middeleer
In Symbolism, it is customary to blend different artistic vocabularies, mixing holy and profane, intellectual and bodily. For instance in Une Demoniaque, Joseph Middeleer models the woman’s expression on the godly ecstasy of some Baroque saint. Yet, both the title and the context suggest that what is seeing is not Heaven, but this does not make the experience necessarily less pleasurable. She is indeed holding a book, probably the prompt to some sinful thought, or the door to a prohibited world of associations. All around, red flowers of voluptuous shapes flourish abundantly. On the other hand, this is not a scene of spring, and everything is dark, sombre, visually pleasant but deeply unsettling.
Day Awakens the Night (detail) – Gaetano Previati – 1905 – oil on canvas
In this post, I have briefly hinted at one specific quality of Symbolism. This is, its ability to blend different contexts and visual vocabularies into a single image. It is a heterogeneous movement, wherein various souls and human efforts converge. It is the attempt to investigate reality starting from the brief, passing inspiration of an image, expanding it into an intense, bodily experience. It is, in the end, the glorification of images over the pure intellect, of the senses over logic in a century when Positivism and science dominated. It is the feeling of the irrational, which was soon to ravage Europe through the absurd bloodshed of the First World War, the cultural anxiety preceding a dense segment of history.