A NEW STRANGENESS

SYMBOLISM by RODOLPHE RAPETTI
[320pp, £50.00, Editions Flammarion, 87, quai Panhard et Levassor 75647, Paris cedex 13.]


Symbolism is an art-historical and cultural exposition of the nineteenth century Symbolist Movement.

In this book Symbolism is defined as an international, European aesthetic tendency characterised by heterogeneity and stylistic eclecticism. Its innovations and continuing legacy have long remained unrecognised and trivialised by the mainly formalist practices of twentieth-century criticism. In contrast with the formalist approach, the method used here assumes the key importance of contemporary art criticism 'since it provides us today with better insight into the intellectual background behind stylistic innovations whose meaning has generally been overlooked...'

Well placed for such an enterprise, author Rodolphe Rapetti is currently head curator and deputy director of the Musees de France to which posts he was appointed in July of this year. Formerly curator of the Paris Musee d'Orasay and the Musees de Strasbourg, his academic career includes time at the Ecole du Louvre and the University of Paris-X, Nanterre. Rapetti specialises in the arts of the nineteenth century with an interest in the Scandinavian and Northern European branches of Symbolism; in his professional capacity he has curated exhibitions devoted to Edvard Munch and
fin-de-siecle Finnish Art. Since 1989 at least, he has taken a particular interest in the works of Belgian Symbolist painter Henry de Groux, about whom he has written several articles. In 2000 Rapetti published Le Symbolisme en Europe. 

Symbolism - The Book
A lavish art book, Symbolism is divided into six sections, each subdivided into four subsections, the main text is framed by an 'Introduction' and 'Conclusion'. The support information comprises: Notes to the text, a Selected Bibliography with a systematic layout, an Index of Proper Names and the usual photographic credits giving sources for 190 illustrations, almost all of which are in full colour; the few monochrome illustrations reflecting the colour mode of the originals. The organisation of the bibliography covers general works on the late nineteenth century, a section covering 'Symbolism's Intellectual Foundations', a section of French art criticism of the period and two further sections dealing with 'Specific Cultural Regions', and 'Symbolist Artists' both in alphabetical order. The scope of the Bibliography, which includes exhibition catalogues, magazine special issues and dissertations, gives some idea of the research supporting the overall methodology - the insistence on the prime value of contemporary sources, and the pan-European extent of the movement.

In this regard the scope of the illustrations should also be noted. There are a small number of documentary photographs including a lost fresco by Emile Bernard, and the interior of Munch's studio at Ekely. There is also an enigmatic image of the Belgian Khnopff in front of his 'Altar to Hypnos' and a bizarre, erotic sepia photo 'Nude Girl on Harmonium' by the French writer Pierre Louys. Of particular relevance to Rapetti's thesis are two images of hysteria from the sets of
Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere  (1877 and 1891) illustrating 'the outer limit of the Symbolist enterprise'. Here, at 'the outer limit', the Symbolists created a 'new taste for psychic theatricality and exploration of the subconscious', a 'new point of departure' for the art of the next century.

The text of the book is punctuated throughout by numerous colour pictures illustrating a diverse range of art-forms and media; an eclectic mix of posters and lithographs, murals and paintings, pencil drawings and sculpture. There is sculpture from Rosso, Rodin, Wildt and Klinger and lesser-known practitioners like Bilek, Biegas and De Groux. There are drawings from Munch, Carriere and Beardsley. The high-standard, full-page colour plates include Moreau's 'Oedipus and the Sphinx' and 'Galatea', 'The Scream' by Munch and 'Judith I' and 'Judith II' by Klimt (1901 and 1909 respectively). The Klimts show how the movement lasted into the pre-war era, propagated outwards from its original Franco-Belgian core by resurgent after-waves and anti-academic Secessionist organisations in Italy, the Netherlands, Eastern Europe and other countries. There are three double-page spreads: the 'Entry of Christ Into Brussels' by James Ensor (illustrating the grotesque, satirical wing of Symbolism), the 'People's Theatre' by Eugene Carriere (illustrating a crepuscular, poetical realism) and Fernand Khnopff's emblematic 'I Lock My Door Upon Myself', illustrating an almost militant, unrepentant subjectivism.

Symbolism - An Overview
Rapetti has interesting things to say in at least four main areas: the history of ideas, the character of Symbolism as a movement, what might be called the 'Symbolist Attitude' and the legacies of Symbolism in the twentieth century. But before examining these themes it is necessary to give a brief overview of the main sections of the book. As mentioned, Symbolism is organised into six chapters, each is preceded by an introduction, each organised into four subsections. The first chapter entitled 'Guiding Spirits' discusses art-historical antecedents, namely G. F. Watts, the English Pre- Raphaelites, the French painters Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau, and the German painter Arnold Bocklin. All these figures share in the general critical disreputability that has attached itself to Symbolism proper since the avant-garde distanced itself from the movement in the first years of the twentieth century. The next chapter, 'A Subversive Idealism' explains how the Symbolist outlook was characterised by an element of transgressive, even subversive thinking - reflecting the 'Buadelairean aesthetic' and the theoretical writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Rapetti is clear that the influence of poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) - exponent of an unusual critical practice 'open to highly diverse stylistic trends' - was responsible for many of the most original aspects of Symbolism. Emphasis is given to the Satanic and satirical wings of the movement exemplified by Rops, Ensor and Alfred Jarry, together with Idealist, Neo-Platonic preoccupations of Peledan and the Rosicrucians.

The third chapter 'Symbolism in its Day' surveys the various aesthetic trends (trends that from a technical standpoint could be seen as avant garde), that coalesced into the practice of Symbolist painting; Synthetism, Cloisonnism, Neo-Impressionism, and Divisionsism. These 'ways of looking' converged with literary theories of Decadence (Huysmans) and Naturalism, as manifest in the proto-Expressionist Symbolism of Edvard Munch whose works of this period were simultaneously uncanny, curvilinear in style and Naturalistic in outlook. In the next section 'Symbolist Art' Rapetti develops the theme that the Symbolists practised a mode of 'creativity outside the technical norms established by tradition'. He says this approach produced radical innovations that led directly to Abstraction (or 'dematerialization') through a dislocation of the formal elements of the artistic image, both in figure painting, and landscape. Cultivation of the arabesque (towards Art Nouveau) and a quasi-scientific fascination with the sensory impact of art (as shown in the theories of Charles Henry and influence of Cezanne) also added impetus to this tendency. Discussions of Gauguin, Hodler, Klimt and others show that the idea of 'decorative art' was revised in the light of the views of Baudelaire and Wagner on the synthesis of all art forms. The Symbolist cult of music, exemplified by Kupka and Ciurlionis, being another factor in the development of 'pure', non-representational forms of expression in both poetry and painting. The works of Moreau, Rodin and Carriere illustrate how Symbolists experimented with temporal notions such as 'moment and duration'.

In 'Myth and History' Rapetti touches upon the politics of Nationalism and 'National Territory', the fascination for folklore and myth in many of the Slavic artists (for example Vrubel) and the revision of accepted ideas of Greco-Roman 'mythological spaces' in the work of Max Klinger. The landscape can seem like a territorial space (in academic tradition the backdrop for 'history' painting and heroic exploits), but for the Symbolists 'landscape' became a key genre 'that hastened the death of subject matter'. Landscape was envisaged as an 'unreal space' generated by its 'disjunction' from history in a new artistic practice. This proposition is supported by some striking illustrations such as Hodler's 'Rhythm of Forms in Landscape (Lake Geneva)', a 'Seascape' by Hay and works by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen ('Mountains in the Sun'), Romolo Romani, Felix Valloton and, interestingly, some rarely seen paintings by August Strindberg.

There is a chapter called 'A Magic Language' to remind the reader that major figures in Symbolism such as Gauguin who, like the Peledan's Rosicrucians, infused their aesthetic with ideas drawn from Theosophy and other branches of the occult underground then undergoing a revival. These occult ('spiritual') ideas were instrumental in formulating the theory of pure colour and abstract painting. Rather like the movement itself (in Rapetti's analysis) the final section of
Symbolism ventures into relatively uncharted territory by focusing upon themes of irrationality, the unconscious, chaos and chance. Symbolism encompassed 'phenomena on the margins of rationality' as embodied in the works of mentally ill 'outsiders' and estranged, unstable characters such as Henry de Groux.


Symbolism - Themes and Ideas
For many years the Symbolists was relegated to critical limbo by early twentieth century formalist critics. A predictable victim of intellectual snobbery, Symbolism, like disreputable popular sub-genres, such as the Fantastic, and stylistically diverse 'art movements' such as Surrealism, came to occupy - perhaps fittingly - a paraxial dimension of cultural 'alterity'. This situation started to change in the late sixties, when advocates of the fin-de-siecle like Philippe Jullian (Esthetes et Magiciens, 1969) found a more receptive audience among proponents of the 'underground' Art Nouveau Revival. The term “literary” in its pejorative sense has often been used to stigmatise such paraxial cultural tendencies: on this point Rapetti is unapologetic: '...as an art of the imagination Symbolism obviously fed off literature. Numerous examples nevertheless demonstrate that the opposite was equally true.' His further point that heterodox tendencies never exhibit a uniform style 'with clearly discernible features' and therefore resist definition on the basis of 'formal criteria', is a telling critique of simplistic approaches to art history that try to make a virtue of ignoring cultural context.

From the perspective of the history of ideas it is important to recognise the place of Symbolism in the cultural evolution of the nineteenth century. Rodolphe Rapetti understands the movement as a product of cultural crisis. He correctly portrays it as the symptom of an era when society has been 'overwhelmed' by technological progress and capitalist expansion. Symbolism was part of 'a wave of reaction against doctrinal positivism' because it emerged at a time, he says, when 'industrialisation, secularisation and the abandonment of rural life meant a shift in cultural landmarks that made it seem as if the old order was passing away.' One might add that it was also a time when the Vatican, fighting its own counter-reformation against the 'post-1789 world', engaged in a systematic campaign of anti-modernism - a campaign that saw the establishment of Neo-Thomism at the University of Louvain in 1880. That this theological anti-modernism exerted considerable influence over intellectual life in the France of the Second Empire and the Third Republic cannot be denied: many questioned the basis of Positivism and Rationalism in a manner that, in its defamation of scientific analysis, anticipates the most reactionary features of what is now known as Post Modernism.

Rapetti describes how, during the 1860s and 1870s the initiators of Symbolism were artists working in relative obscurity. It was not until the 1880s, the period of Manifestos, and after the last Impressionist exhibition of 1886 that the first Symbolist groups became established These groups were founded by artists influenced by the dreamy Naturalism of Carriere, the Synthetism of Gauguin and by the late Romanticism of Odilon Redon. They also looked to England for inspiration, in the Arts and Crafts Movement (William Morris) and the late Pre-Raphaelites. By the 1890s Symbolism had grown into 'the intellectual trend that most profoundly marked the arts and literature of the period running from the mid-1880s to the early twentieth century.' Inspired by pioneering works of Redon and Felicien Rops an art that, to begin with, relied upon graphic techniques quickly developed into a destabilising cultural phenomenon; a strange, subversive, new flower sprouting  'on terrain that the Baudelairean aesthetic had already fertilised.' Its legacies - largely unacknowledged - are still with us.

Symbolism - Some Characteristics
Among the chief characteristics of Symbolism, Rapetti notes, was the promotion of 'synthesis'. Synthesis in the grand sense of the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, the unity of all the arts, but also synthesis in the sense of media convergence allied with internationalism and literature. 'Symbolist art allied itself to a major corpus of theoretical and critical writing, as well as to a literary output initially oriented towards poetry...'.  This 'convergence' of art and literature became the standard modus operandi of most major art movements of the twentieth century - the cultivation of 'fringe' culture, an aloofness towards 'official' organisations and the mainstream press, a fascination with the marginal and the 'underground', this particular style of bohemianism has become stereotypical. But without the work of the Decadents and the Symbolists, perhaps there would be a no 'small press' as we now understand it. Another facet of this synthesis discloses a propensity towards fusing certain mutually contradictory elements distilled from the character of the times. An openness to the 'pyschological'; to the world of dreams and inner states.

Rapetti explains how 'Symbolism's characteristic fusion of religious or mythological themes' (for example the appropriation figures such as Salome and Orpheus) 'with elements of modern neurosis would lead, when it came to imagery, to the extinction of old meanings and the construction of a new network of meanings that would update myth and the interpretation of origins in terms of modern psychological data.' New webs of meaning were paralleled by the rapid growth of an international communications network: an 'authentically Europe-wide culture of which only a few traces survive today.' Here was an attempt to unify Europe through periodicals, through the arts and literature 'at a time marked by the rise of nationalism and militarism'. Rapetti cities one such magazine,
Cosmopolis, published in New York and London between 1896 and 1898 in three separate sections, English, French and German. In May 1897 Cosmopolis published Mallarme's poem 'Un Coup de Des' for the first time, serving to remind us that many major innovations in poetic practice considered 'cutting edge' in later times (the prose poem, the non-strophic 'abstract' poem, the interior monologue) were in fact products of the Symbolist milieu.

From the sociological perspective one of the most important features of the Symbolist movement was a militant anti-academicism. This anti-academic trend, coinciding with a liberalisation of the exhibition system, inevitably lent credence to the idea that the movement was radically 'modern' in certain key respects. The widespread proliferation of 'Secessionist' organisations during the 1890s, starting with Belgium but soon spreading to key cities in the German-speaking sphere (Munich, Dusseldorf, Weimar, Dresden, Berlin and Vienna) bypassed the traditional system of art education and exhibition. The Secessionist artists, as we have seen, cultivated a stylistic syncretism that challenged academic ideas of unity, and in terms of artistic technique avoided established methods of Renaissance illusionism (perspective, modelling, chiaroscuro) to create, to use Rapetti's phrase, 'a new strangeness'.

Despite a perceived anti-traditional stance, this new, destabilising 'strangeness' was also hospitable to a prevalent spirit of anti-modernism (rejection of Positivism, Naturalism and Rationalism) which, as  noted earlier, was promoted by the Catholic Church throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in The Oath Against Modernism of 1910. This accounts for the widespread fascination with Idealism and/or Satanism so characteristic of much Symbolist art and literature, for it was the doctrine of Idealism that gave resonance to the concept of the Symbol itself. Yet as the 'Secessionists' superseded traditional, academic ways of codification, it becomes apparent that, even as many, like Gauguin and the Nabis, turned to archaic, theological concepts or a type of primitivism, others (Kubin, for example, or Spilliaert) developed a new 'expressive register'. This new expressive register - echoing the work of their contemporary, Freud - probed 'the modern stirrings of the unconscious'. Following the examples of Redon and Rops, they began to explore the edge-worlds of Eros and Thanatos, beyond, beneath or below the threshold of propriety and respectability. An anti-modern Idealist 'spirituality' metamorphosed into the cultivation of 'strange' effects, surely eroding the notion that 'art should account for the objective world'. Consequently, an existential 'angst', the edge-world experience of the paraxial, permeates many works of the time: some are very well known (Munch's 'The Scream', or 'Evening on Karl-Johan Street'), others such as 'Foreboding' by Mieczyslaw Jakimowicz, are less familiar, but all express experience of The Uncanny. In many works by Khnopff, for instance his drawing 'Who Shall Deliver Me?' (1891), an ambiguous protagonist is suspended in a paraxial world - indicated by the closed-down buildings and sinister drain cover in background of the picture. 'Haunted' cities (Bruges) or bleak landscapes (The Engadine, Aasgaardstrand) all exude this same ethos of suspended 'strangeness'. At its roots Rapetti detects a tension 'between sexual and religious yearnings', a tension that created an oscillatory pattern of contradictory feelings. 'The Symbolist attitude would,' he says 'oscillate between pessimism and commitment to an initiatory quest for a visual or poetic expression that would incarnate the totality of the cosmos...' Not an anachronism, this was, despite appearances, a  'modern' attitude; an attitude underscored by 'Baudelairean modernity', not the self-conscious, one-dimensional Modernism of the post-Symbolists.

Symbolism - The End Game
Perhaps the distinctive character of Symbolism derives from the tensions of ambiguity. A subversive attitude towards the 'image and it's very structure' arising from a decline in 'realist' forms of expression, led to a position of ambivalence towards 'tradition'. On the one hand, insofar as some aspects of artistic practice were concerned, 'tradition' was, as we have seen, discarded; on the other hand, in order to short-circuit the perceived dominance of a certain kind of 'modernity' in the form of Scientific Positivism and banal Naturalistic realism, there was recourse to pre-Renaissance (ultra-traditional, archaic) aesthetic ideas. Yet this archaic concept of tradition would itself be subverted by 'polemical readings', individualism and pessimism and even darker forces: the final, major incarnation of Symbolist idealism, the end game of the 'initiatory quest', would disclose nothing less than a new point of departure.

For, with a kind of inevitability, the Symbolists found that, in a few cases - for example Strindberg, Klimt, Munch, Hammershoi, Khnoppf, Klinger, De Groux, Kubin - their work not only involved the 'extinction of old meanings' but drove them to confront new psychological, even psychopathic, realities. One might call these the realities of inner space, where 'beyond the margins of rationality', investigators like the poet and psychiatrist Marcel Reja (Paul Meunier 1873-1956) instigated a new quest - a quest for the sources of creativity itself. This quest was to consolidate work already carried out in the domain of 'outsider' art, the art of the marginal and the disregarded, of the 'primitive' the chaotic and the deranged. As Rapetti explains: 'an unreal space was generated by the disjunction of landscape from history' while, as for the human subject, 'its repertoire of expressive attitudes was being enhanced by radically new forms inspired by medical research'. This, as he observes, was the 'outer limit', not only of the Symbolist enterprise but also of all conventional aesthetic and literary categories. The pathology, or choreography, of hysteria, its convulsive beauty incarnate in Klimt's 'Judith II', appeared, at this stage, modern 'in its very derangement'. The Symbolists joined forces with Reja and his predecessors, Charcot, Lombroso (Genio et follia, 1864) and others, in a final effort to reclaim the imagination, only to confront a rather disquieting proposition: 'artistic concerns were originally alien to the production of art' (Reja). Or, to put it another way, the 'new point of departure' lay outside any intellectual sphere neatly defined as Art or Poetry. Here, Rapetti has the final word: 'A definition of art based on the notion of beauty, already nuanced by Baudelairean concepts that pushed it towards strangeness, finally lost all validity.'    

Symbolism - The Legacy
The paradoxical definition of 'modernity' embodied in Symbolism as it spread rapidly across Europe thanks to new mass communications techniques, via the press and photographic reproductions, left a fourfold legacy for the twentieth century. Its legacy is to be found in Abstraction, in the discovery of Outsider Art (or Art Brut), in Surrealism and, perhaps just as significant, in its challenge to the selective linearity of schools of criticism that tried, but failed, to fit all artistic activity into a lineage deriving Abstract Expressionism from Manet via Fauvism.

It is now well understood that Abstract Art, as it emerged in the work of Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and Kupka, was based on a 'spiritual' background steeped in Theosophical speculation, and other branches of the nineteenth century occult revival close to Symbolism. Rapetti gives a clear and enlightening description of the emergence of Abstraction, especially in his discussion of the 'dissociation' of landscape. He is similarly illuminating in his discussion of the 'radicalization' of subconscious creativity that occurred on the fringes, or unstable 'outer limits' of the Symbolist quest. He describes 'in the protean, shifting reality of its international context', a theoretical position descended from Redon's 'deliberate reliance on the unconscious', and points to the 'oneiric' ultra-naturalism of painters influenced by the Pre-Rraphaelites (for example, Leon Frederic). He then explains how these converged with the late Symbolist fascination for images of derangement and hysteria prefiguring Surrealism and the doctrine of Psychic Automatism. It is, above all, the matter of stylistic diversity that is the overriding theme of this book, a stylistic diversity imaged as multiple streams that 'far from converging on a single issue would irrigate various landscapes'.

In browsing through the many excellent colour reproductions in Rapetti's
Symbolism I was moved to consider the role of the imagination in the generation of uncanny, fantastic images and Strindberg's suggestion that the artist must renounce total mastery over his or her work. Further, I noticed how so many of the pictures and graphics illustrated and discussed here evoke an experience of instability and marginality. It is, I think, the instability of doubt - of doubt that questions the status of the Real.

Many years after the slow twilight of Symbolism had faded from view, obscured by the dislocations of the Great War, Jean-Paul Sartre, writing in the midst of the Second World War, asserted in his treatise on
The Imaginary (1940) that doubt is the first condition of the cogito. And, yes apprehension of doubt coincides with the intuition of freedom. Every real situation of consciousness, Sartre said, is redolent of the imaginary - and the imagination encompasses the whole of consciousness in the realisation of freedom.

           © A.C. Evans 2005