Representation of sexuality
The Symbolist movement was kickstarted by the works of Charles Baudelaire and other poets of the "accursed poets" group, who described modern life as gloomy and degenerate, dominated by greed, lust and the death of humanistic ideals. Symbolist artists in turn searched mythology and ancient iconography for visual metaphors they deemed appropriate to express their contempt for modern society. The supposedly dangerous nature of sexuality is a common theme in art of that age and is often dealt with by means of animal metaphors. Confident women in particular were often depicted as icons of lust, ready to prey upon men like snakes or sphinxes.
Baudelaire’s work can easily be interpreted as social critique because of its antagonistic nature and due to the fact it caused knee-jerk outrage when it was first published, leading to censorship and legal troubles for the artist. This is the classic interpretation suggested by the exhibit too: Baudelaire as a scathing critic of the ugly modern metropolis, longing for an ethically superior past and persecuted for that.
This interpretation never made a lot of sense to me though. Baudelaire was beyond any doubt an artistic genius, but his attitude towards society wasn't really that new. What he did was modernizing old tenets of conservative philosophy such as nostalgia for a supposedly more heroic past and the conflation of sensual love (as opposed to spiritual love) with death. But he clearly wallowed in the decadence he described as much as he castigated it.
The lasting success of gloomy Symbolist art after the initial outrage about its subject matter had settled down is a testament to the inconsistency of the critique it brought forward. Turns out people of the industrial age actually like decadence and self deprecation a lot: they want consuming lust and the other contemporary "evils" to be portrayed in detail on huge canvases.
Victor Prouvé, The voluptuous, 1889
Similar contradictions still runs strong today, with much of what passes for socio-critical art having no effect whatsoever on the real issues it addresses. Sometimes when I look at contemporary art of that kind it feels like passionate, consistent social critique as found in the works of Otto Dix or George Grosz never existed. If the Symbolists thought rampant degeneracy was threatening society maybe they shouldn't have contributed even more erotic artwork to art scene. (Of course they were wrong and they produced some great erotic artwork, but that's beside the consistency issue.)
Félicien Rops, Pornokratès, 1878
What does the constant philosophical bashing of sexuality, femalehood and instinct have to do with lamenting the death of humanism? If the nightmares and moral indignation of Baudelaire and the Symbolists were supposed to invoke a lost humanistic ideal then the death of humanism was probably a good riddance, because the world they longed for feels even more shallow than the “dirty” modern world.
If anything I would say they missed the absolute anthropocentrism of past ages (sometimes even theocentrism) rather than the more nuanced humanism which had led to the Age of Enlightenment.
Representation of nature
I’m also perplexed by how that longing for anthropocentrism is mistaken for a longing for “nature” or a “return to nature”. What kind of “nature” were the Symbolists longing for?
Félicien Rops, The Sphinx, 1882. Don’t you dare embrace your animal nature, the Devil will get you!
“Throughout your works I found again the solemnity of the grand sounds of Nature in her grandest aspects, as well as the solemnity of the grand passions of man” wrote Baudelaire in his famous letter to Wagner. Yet the core of Wagner’s art philosophy was the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art”, the aspiration to an all-encompassing artistic experience of reality tailored by humans for humans. This sounds at odds with any supposed aspiration to reconcile with nature.
I understand the awe of course. Great art can make us feel grand spaces and fleeting sensations we can only otherwise find in the wilderness. Many of the best works of art are, in the word of landscape painter Stapleton Kearns, “design installed upon nature”, and anthro art is possibly the most glaring example of redesigning aspects of nature to fit the artist’s whims. But anthro art, landscape art and wildlife art alike are almost always positive towards their sources, whereas the Symbolists were very negative in their portrayal of actual untamed nature.
Odilon Redon, Larvae So Bloodless and So Hideous, 1896
There is no better example of this attitude than the works of Odilon Redon. The exhibit hosted among other works his series of prints titled The origins (of the world). Taking inspiration from Darwin’s theories and from pioneering naturalistic artwork Redon was no backwards thinker and was well acquainted with contemporary science, yet a crippling sense of fear and disgust for the facts of nature seems to pervade his works. What did he imagine at the origins of the world? “Hideous” crawling larvae, “impotent” deformed animals, insane cyclops staring at the heavens as if disgusted by dirty old earth. It is a cosmogony of fear. Even his earlier and more lighthearted paintings never let go of the fear.
Arnold Böcklin was apparently more at ease with the forces of nature which he used to represent through classical mythical creatures such as satyrs and sirens. I quite like his portraits of those creatures. They look charming, funny, even goofy, sporting a touch of Rubens-esque liveliness.
But they are still disquieting creatures you would not want to deal with. Humans in his paintings are usually more blurry and undefined than the mythical creatures, as if they existed on a whole different level. In his work there are still subtle statements that humanity eventually triumphs over nature like a maiden turning the proud Unicorn into a blank-stared nag.
Arnold Böcklin, Unicorn, 1885
All the various versions of his Isle of the Dead image feature man-made structures, suggesting that either the afterlife is a concept fabricated by humans for humans or a place reserved just for humans.
The late XIX century was a time of fast paced scientific advances like the Western world had never seen before. It's understandable that being confronted for the first time with the fact that nature was infinitely more complex than previously thought turned unsettled many people. But I can't help thinking that artists of the time missed a great opportunity to reexamine the attitude towards nature in art in the light of new scientific knowledge.
Among all the Symbolist currents only Les Nabis, a group of painters brought together by Paul Sérusier and inspired by the most optimistic works of Paul Gauguin and the Impressionist, attempted to moved on to a more wholesome depiction of nature. In their works the human element is often small and fleeting like a shadow. It is an integral part of nature, never in open conflict with it.
Georges Lacombe, The Yellow Sea, 1893
Representation of humanity
"Free man, you will always cherish the sea!
The sea is your mirror; you contemplate your soul
In the infinite unrolling of its billows;
Your mind is an abyss that is no less bitter."
Charles Baudelaire, Man and the Sea, in Flowers of Evil
I cannot stand this kind of hyperbole about human nature.
Unfathomable, infinitely deep, absolutely free, cherishing the wonders of nature… humans aren’t really like that. Most of the time we are simple minded and confused and not too difficult to understand either. There is nothing soul crushing in admitting that. The world is big and complicated, there is plenty of interesting stuff to do to keep the human mind away from fear of meaninglessness even if we finally admit we aren’t the pinnacle of the universe.
It’s understandable that people would still cling to absolute anthropocentrism in the age of the Symbolists, but it’s baffling how much of an appeal it still has on people today. Such an outdated way of thinking about humanity can only lead to silliness such as art denouncing the evil powers of women and the supposed monstrosity of snakes. For an up to date mind in the world of 2016 snakes should mean beauty and complexity rather than danger.
Franz von Stuck, Sin, 1893
On a final note, the less known artist Galileo Martini stuck me as somebody who was able to see clearly beyond the smoke curtain of anthropocentric absolutism. It's hard for me to explain where such impression stems from. His works on display were mostly high contrast black and white prints depicing tales of violence and surreal figures. His Self portrait shows the artist himself as a surreal figure spawning ghosts through his hands and writings.
His subject matter is similar to that of other Symbolists, but in my opinion his handling of the subjects leaves no doubt as to what he considered the origin of human woes: our own hybris. We think of ourselves as omnipotent wizards but we are really just skilled illusionists. We cannot trascend our basic human flaws and we should not lie to ourselves about them.
Galileo Martini, Self portrait, 1911
The more I learn about Symbolists the more I feel torn between admiration for their creativity and aesthetics and annoyance for the backward worldview they convey. I feel similarly towards most of contemporary fantasy art, which is not surprising considering that it is in many ways a continuation of the Symbolist aesthetics and mindset.
A couple interesting readings:
- Full text of Baudelaire's letter to Wagner: http://www.thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2012/april2012/pleasures-of-music-baudelaire-wagner.html
- Commentary about Odilon Redon’s sources of inspiration: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring03/76-spring03/spring03article/220-evolution-and-degeneration-in-the-early-work-of-odilon-redon