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Symbolism (from Greek symbolon – “sign”) – was a movement that originally emerged in French literature and then expanded to fine arts (all, except architecture), music and theatre in 1870s – 1880s. As it becomes obvious from its name, this movement put symbol as an artistic method in the foreground. . It reached its highest point in 1890s-1900s, first of all in France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Norway and other countries.

Historical background of symbolism

Talking about symbolism, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t merely the invention of the 19th cent. Symbol was an essential element of most of the religious arts. Therefore, some features of symbolism were present in culture for thousands of years, particularly in the art of Ancient East with its veneration of the dead. Christian symbols were applied in ecclesiastic architecture, sculpture, fresco and miniature painting. The art of Renaissance and baroque is also symbolical.

An important source of ideas and images for symbolists were painting of romanticism with its sometimes strange, obscure atmosphere. These two cultural phenomenons were on the common ground, when it came to such their specific traits like escapism from every-day banality, desire to bring back the purity of art of the past epochs A significant influence was caused by German romanticism with its mystical, fairy motifs. Especially legacy of the Nazarens and Caspar David Friedrich. Francisco Goya was also the one, who doubtlessly inspired symbolists.

But anyway in all this epochs, symbols didn’t serve as an end in itself. It was only in the end of the 19th cent., when symbolism appeared as opposition to bourgeois realism and impressionism. This movement reflected the fear of then-contemporary world with its industrialization and technical achievements that overshadowed spiritual ideals. Through art symbolists rejected bourgeois culture and expressed their grief for inner freedom. Some specialists consider they had a presentiment of the approaching social and historical upheavals.

The term “symbolism” itself was introduced by Greek poet Jean Moreas in the manifest of the same name “Le Symbolisme”, published on the 18th of September, 1866, in “Le Figaro” newspaper. The text proclaimed symbolism as a movement, extraneous to the plain meanings, declarations, insincere sentimentality and matter-of-facts descriptions.

Symbolism and Decadence

Symbolism is closely associated with such cultural occurrence as decadence (from latin decadentia – decline). It’s a general definition for the crisis condition in European mentality in the second half of the 19th – beginning of the 20th cent., marked by desperate frame of mind, aversion to the reality and individualism. It’s complexity and contradictoriness was conditioned by the dismay of the artists towards antagonism of their actuality. They rejected political and civic subjects as considered it an indispensable condition of artistic freedom. Attention to problems of non-existence and death, interest in eternal questions of existence – all that make symbolism and decadence related.

However, these two conceptions should be differed, as symbolism is a particular movement, which formatted on the base of decadent mentality. And some other artists styles and movements (like post-impressionism or art nouveau). Besides, symbolism wasn’t necessarily decadent by its mood.

Aesthetic of symbolism

As it was already said, ideas of symbolism were first formulated in French literature, namely by poet Charles Baudelaire. In his essays on art he expressed a thought that that visual means of painting (color, line etc.) were symbols that reflected a soul of an artists. Actually, it’s hard to find another period in history of arts, when poets, writers and artists were so closely connected. Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Maurice Maeterlinck, Oscar Wilde and other prominent for the history of the world literature names contributed into shaping up aesthetic of symbolism.

Reality in this movement is opposed to the world of dreams and reveries. Symbol was considered a unique instrument for deepening into mysteries of existence and individual consciousness. They believed its poetic nature allowed them to represent the beyond, hidden from our eyes and intellect, sense of things. Artist was considered a medium between true and pretersensual dimensions ‑ they mentioned “signs” of the universal harmony and approaching future everywhere. And the only way of unmasking the illusionistic world of commonness was the insight during the creative act.

It comes as no surprise, that symbolists denied realism and thought painting had to represent life of every soul, full of emotions, vague moods, delicate feelings, fleeting impressions. It didn’t have merely to fix objects or facts, but rather express thoughts and ideas. Nevertheless, it’s important to underline that symbolists didn’t favor abstract subjects – they always depicted their perception of real people, real event of occurrences in metaphorical way, which suggested some personal reflection.

Among themes scenes of Evangelistic history, half-mythological – half-historical stories of Medieval Ages, antique myths were most wide-spread. Roughly speaking, symbolists were interested in everything with theological or mythological implication. There was a not-manifested “codex of creation”: it combined mystical, philosophical and artistic attitude that stimulated artists to muse on everlasting antitheses of Good and Evil, Chaos and Cosmos (from Greek – order), Beauty and Ugliness. Multiple meanings, play of metaphors and associations were main instruments in the tool-set of Symbolism.

Development of symbolism. Artists and groups.

Symbolism was noticeably dissimilar and diverse. Having no particularly shaped stylistic, it was ideological, conceptual movement that attracted various masters with different manners. A multiplicity of social and cultural trends inside Symbolism led to quick origin and decay of groups and even polarization in artistic methods.

Unlike in impressionism, the first generation of symbolists in 1870s didn’t consist of young and revolutionary disposed artists, but mature ones. Among them, the most outstanding ones were Gustave Moreau, Eugene Carriere, Odilon Redon, Arnold Böcklin and Puvis de Chavannes. The latter specified preferences of symbolists for simplified modeling of forms, broad strokes and accent on coloring. In fifty years these ideas would transform into abstract painting and not accidently, as symbolism saw in shapes, color and forms a specific mean of communicating, endowing them with a special, metaphysical sense.

Cafes, cabarets and salons were the places, where new notions, concepts were born and exchanged. “Le Chat Noire” (Black cat) was a famous meeting spot, attended by such symbolistic groups as the Hydropathes and the Zutistes. Writer “Sâr” Joseph Péladan organized the Salon de la Rose + Croix, where such prominent painters Ferdinand Hodler, recognized for his epic canvases, and Fernand Khnopff, who gained popularity with his quite pessimistic visionary images.
Some artists, like Emile Bernard (one of the major theoreticians of the movement) and Paul Gaugin, who participated in the exhibitions of Symbolists, distanced from them within certain time and turned to Post-impressionism, concerned more with the issues of visual language. The group, that was transitional between symbolism and postimpressionism, was the Nabis (from Hebrew “prophet”). Works of its members were defined by primacy of coloring, delicate musical rhythmicity and flat stylization of folk art, Japanese engraving or Italian primitivisms. One of its central representatives was Pierre Bonnard.

In Russian Symbolism spread a little bit later, then in European countries and was promoted in 1900s by the group “Mir iskusstva” (“World of art” in russian). It followed general direction of the movement and published a magazine of the similar name. Artists, associated with the group were Leon Bakst, Victor Borisov-Musatov and Mikhail Vrubel.

In symbolistic sculpture two main personalities were Aristide Maillol and August Rodin.

Symbolism and Art Nouveau

Having a close look at the epoch of fin de siècle, analyzing history of the first decades of the 20th cent., it’s seems curious, how symbolism interflowed with Art Nouveau tendencies. It became even more evident, when in 1893 Brussels group “Les XX” that was prescribed to have no more than 20 members, rearranged into “La Libre Esthétique” (French for “The Free Aesthetics”). It consisted mainly of Symbolist painters, including James Ensor and Jean Toorop and often invited non-Belgian artists, like Cézanne and Paul Gauguin to participate in their exhibitions. Lawyer and critic Octave Maus encouraged its participants to work in the sphere of decorative art, producing ceramics, tapestries, furniture. By the end of 1890s Brussel turned into one of European centers of Art Nouveau.
The thing Art nouveau and Symbolism had definitely in common was love to floral motifs. In both cases they were rendered unnaturalistically, highly stylized. The adherent of French Symbolism, Theodore de Wyzewa once wrote in 1887 – “Universe is the creation of our souls”. So both symbolists and art nouveau masters aimed to create the artistic counterpart of reality without imitating it. High detalization in canvases of symbolists, accent on ornament in “New art” – all served for the affirmation of everything unrealistic and unusual.

However, it would be more correct to distinguish this two movements and say that they developed in parallel. Art nouveau painters demonstrated some (though rather literal) symbolism, and symbolists sometimes applied art nouveau decorativeness and exquisiteness, but on the large scale they had different targets, as the first orientated on the “eye-pleasing” effect, whether second strived for affecting viewer’s heart and mind.

Being absorbed by the artists of many countries, symbolism had a large influence on the world history of art and prepared a ground for the formation of Surrealism. Experimentations of symbolists, innovations and their cosmopolitism made them one of the sources of avant-garde and contemporary art.

Random Symbolist Artists

Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin


Aristide Maillol

Aristide Maillol


Èmile Henri Bernard

Émile Henri Bernard


Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon


Random Symbolist Paintings

Woman with Outstretched Arm
After the Execution
Carton de Tapisserie
The Moon
Head of a Martyr
Iron Bridges at Asnieres
Portrait d’Elisabeth fille d’Elie Faure

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