Some artistic movements evolve naturally out of decades of cultural change, others emerge with new technology or invention. But near the end of the 19th century, movements sprouted from the feverish pens of writers.
In 1886 Jean Moréas, a poet and art critic, published The Symbolist Manifesto in Le Figaro, one of France’s most respected newspapers. At the time, Romanticism had been the dominant voice in art and literature throughout Europe for more than 75 years, and Moréas’s screed called Romantic expression ‘dried out and shriveled’ and worse, ‘full of common sense.’ In its place Moréas called for a new manifestation of art, an expression of subjective ideas instead of purely realistic depictions of the world.
It was a tremendously appealing idea to the painters of the time, a call to focus on subjective visions and a return to a mysterious world of myths and legends. Artists flocked to the new method, developing a formal, simplified style reminiscent of early Grecian sculpture. Paul Gauguin became a poster boy for imbuing simple images with mythic weight, and Puvis de Chavannes turned everyday scenes into column rituals. Odilon Redon pushed the bounds of Symbolism even further, bringing to life the monsters and creatures of his dark and whimsical imagination. Gustave Moreau is considered to be the pinnacle of Symbolism by many, because his opulently textured works brought re-envisioned classical themes like Venus and the Muses within a vivid fantastical dramascape.
History hasn’t popularized Symbolism to the same level as art’s more unified movements, like Impressionism or Cubism, for a few reasons. Symbolist artists worked in many styles, united in pursuit of personal expression rather than aesthetic or technique. And as Symbolism evolved, it evolved into many other movements, influencing Gustav Klimt’sArt Nouveau, and Edvard Munch’s expressionist portraits of modern anxiety. Symbolism was a dark, emotional slice of art history, but it was pivotal in the germination of Modernism, and the establishment of the kinds of visionary artists we see today.
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Reed Enger, "Symbolism, A mystic search for meaning and psychological truth.," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 11, 2015; last modified November 06, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/timeline/modernism/symbolism/.
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I travelled through a land of men, A land of men and women too, And heard and saw such dreadful things, As cold earth wanderers never knew.
The essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself.