The Symbolist movement was first identified in literature; poets such as Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and others began writing mysterious and elegantly polished verse shortly after mid-century. The Symbolist Manifesto in literature was published in 1886 by Jean Moréas. Visual artists were less likely to publish such theoretical charters in the nineteenth century, and the emergence of Symbolist painting is therefore harder to chart. Nonetheless, the movement quickly became multi-disciplinary and international. Brussels became one of the leading centers of Symbolist art and literature. Although Les XX were not exclusively Symbolist, one of the founders of the society, Fernand Khnopff, was a leading Symbolist. He was the first artist to be written about as a symbolist, in an article written by Emile Verhaeren in 1886. Verhaeren stressed Khnopff's modernism in this article, defining Symbolist art as part of:
Only it is not our faith and our beliefs that we put forward; on the
contrary, it is our doubts, our fears, our boredoms, our vices, our despair
and probably our agony."(1)
If there is one central tenet held by Symbolist artists, it is that life is fundamentally mysterious, and the artist must respect and preserve this mystery.(2) Thus they insisted on suggestion rather than explicitness, symbols or equivalents rather than description, in both painting and poetry. Choosing music as their model, Symbolists found the creation of a mood to be as important as the transmission of information, and sought to engage the entire mind and personality of the viewer by appealing to the viewer’s emotions and unconscious mind as well as intellect.(3) The recognition that there was a major portion of mental activity that is closed to the conscious mind confirmed the Symbolists’ conviction that there was more to life than could be explained through positivist science.
Realists and Naturalists had found value in exact physical description because they believed that a close study of visual appearances provided a direct approach to reality.(4) Symbolist artists and writers lost confidence in reality as perceived through the senses, and sought other avenues of knowledge. The dream was perhaps the most frequently cited alternative to conscious perception for nineteenth century philosophers and poets. In "Les Paradis Artificiels" Charles Baudelaire asserted that: "Common sense tells us that terrestrial things have but a faint existence and that reality itself is only found in dreams."(5) Awareness of this higher reality was not to be found through the usual senses or ordinary consciousness; alcohol, drugs and dreams were the gates to this transcendent realm. Fiction and reality became deliberately blurred, as both were but symbols of a higher, unseen reality. Idealists such as Stéphane Mallarmé delighted in the ambiguous relationship of dream and reality. Thus the faun in Mallarmé’s "L’après midi d’un faun" asks himself, "Did I love a dream?" and is unable to answer decisively. The pervasive doubt concerning objective reality that characterized the Symbolist milieu encouraged a focus on inner experience, which could be seen in a variety of forms. Artists sought to express their inner states through primitivism, mysticism, and the psychology of the unconscious.
Many earlier Romantic artists and writers, such as Thomas Carlyle and Edgar Allan Poe, had shared the conviction of the unreality of life; as Poe put it: "All that we see or seem / is but a dream within a dream."(6) Such an attitude made the naturalist’s insistence on truth to nature in a literal sense seem irrelevant. The Symbolists sought a truth to reality as they now conceived it, and demanded an art that was faithful to psychological realities. As the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch noted: "Nature is not only what is visible to the eye — it also shows the inner images of the soul — the images on the back side of the eyes." Belgian Symbolist artists revived the tradition of visionary art that was deeply rooted in earlier Flemish painting. Their visions now came from their own imagination, or from literature of the period.
Dreams afforded the Symbolists a perfect vehicle for presenting their own idealistic visions. Some, including Henry van de Velde and even Fernand Khnopff, were influenced by William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement, and envisioned a vague Socialist utopia. Others, such as Jean Delville, imagined a world founded on mystical Christianity. As long as there was no connection between the real world and the dream, however, the emphasis on dreams left the artists mired in a realm of fantasy and inaction, removed from any social change.
Many Symbolist artists and writers of the late nineteenth century sought an antidote to the excesses of materialism and positivism in mysticism or occult philosophy. Magic was to be the tool to make their dreams become reality; visual images were seen as magical talismans, and poems were compared to incantations. Occultism filled many needs, providing a sense of participation in a universal community as well as an elite circle of initiates, and a contact with eternal truths in an era of rapid change. Late nineteenth century mysticism was shaped by the ongoing scientific and philosophical revolutions of the period. Occultists combined the psychological discovery of the unconscious with the mystical theory of other planes of existence to create a new synthesis. The image of the artist as seer or priest was basic to nineteenth century art theory. Convinced that the unconscious was the source of both creativity and occult vision, certain artists now assumed the guise of medium and hypnotist.
1. Emile Verhaeren, "Silhouettes d'Artistes: Fernand Khnopff," L'Art Moderne, no. 37, Sept. 12, 1886, p. 290. Translation mine, original text:"Un recul formidable de l'imagination moderne vers le passé, une enquête scientifique énorme et des passions inédites vers un surnaturel vague et encore indéfini nous ont poussé à incarner notre rêve et peut-être notre tremblement devant un nouvel inconnu dans un symbolisme étrange qui traduit l'âme contemporaine comme le symbolisme antique interprétait l'âme d'autrefois.2. In a sense Paul Gauguin’s relief carving Soyez Mysterieuses (1890) sums up this goal of the Symbolist movement. See H.R. Rookmaaker, Gauguin and 19th Century Art Theory, Amsterdam, 1972, pp. 220-224, and Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski, Gauguin in the Context of Symbolism, New York, 1976.
Seulement nous n'y mettons point notre foi et nos croyances, nous y metons, au contraire, nos doutes, nos affres, nos ennuis, nos vices, nos désespoirs et probablement nos agonies."
3. The music and writings of Richard Wagner were very important for Symbolist aesthetics. One evidence of the strength of Wagner’s influence is the length of Max Nordau’s attack on him in “The Richard Wagner Cult,” Degeneration (1892), translated by G.l. Mosse, New York, 1968, pp. 171-213.
4. For instance, Claude Monet, quoted by William Seitz, “Monet and Abstract Painting,” College Art Journal, vol. 16, 1956, p. 45: “I am simply expending my efforts upon a maximum of appearances in close correlation with unknown realities. When one is on the plane of concordant appearances one cannot be far from reality, or at least what we can know of it...”
5. Charles Baudelaire, “Les Paradis Artificiels,” in Baudelaire, Prose and Poetry, translated by Arthur Symons, New York, 1926, p. 235.
6. Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream” (1827), The Portable Poe, New York, 1972, p. 599.