We’ll be continuing our exploration in modern art movements with Symbolism. Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts.
In literature, the style had its beginnings with the publication Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and ’70s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated by a series of manifestos and attracted a generation of writers.
The name “symbolist” itself was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadents of literature and of art.
The symbolist style has frequently been confused with decadence. Several young writers were derisively referred to by the press as “decadent” during the mid 1880s. A few of these writers embraced the term while most avoided it.
Jean Moréas’ manifesto was largely a response to this polemic. By the late 1880s, the terms “symbolism” and “decadence” were understood to be almost synonymous.Though the aesthetics of the styles can be considered similar in some ways, the two remain distinct. The symbolists were those artists who emphasized dreams and ideals; the Decadents cultivated précieux, ornamented, or hermetic styles, and morbid subject matters.
The subject of the decadence of the Roman Empire was a frequent source of literary images and appears in the works of many poets of the period, regardless of which name they chose for their style, as in Verlaine’s “Langueur”.
Symbolism in literature is distinct from symbolism in art although the two were similar in many respects. In painting, symbolism was a continuation of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition, which included such artists as Caspar David Friedrich, Fernand Khnopff and John Henry Fuseli and it was even more similar to the self-consciously morbid and private decadent movement.
The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. More a philosophy than an actual style of art, symbolism in painting influenced the contemporary Art Nouveau style and Les Nabis.
The symbolist painters were an important influence on expressionism and surrealism in painting, two movements which descend directly from symbolism proper. The harlequins, paupers, and clowns of Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period” show the influence of symbolism, and especially of Puvis de Chavannes.
In Belgium, symbolism became so popular that it came to be thought ofas a national style: the static strangeness of painters like René Magritte can be considered as a direct continuation of symbolism. The work of some symbolist visual artists, such as Jan Toorop, directly affected the curvilinear forms of art nouveau.
Many early motion pictures also employ symbolist visual imagery and themes in their staging, set designs, and imagery. The films of German expressionism owe a great deal to symbolist imagery. The virginal “good girls” seen in the cinema of D. W. Griffith, and the silent movie “bad girls” portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of symbolism, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith’s Intolerance.
Symbolist imagery lived on longest in horror film: as late as 1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr showed the obvious influence of symbolist imagery; parts of the film resemble tableau vivant re-creations of the early paintings of Edvard Munch.
Hope you enjoyed our short journey through symbolism.
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