The Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck was the leading Symbolist playwright. How can the theater, concerned as it is with dramatic specificity, have any affinity with Symbolism, with its emphasis on suggestion and indeterminacy? In fact the affinity was real. This apparent anomaly shows that a full understanding of Symbolism will require some serious cultural archaeology, recapturing lost figures and interests.
But first a preliminary approach to defining Symbolism itself.
In ordinary art-historical usage symbolism denotes the evocation of something, usually sacred or conceptual, by adducing a material object, e.g. a lamb for Christ or an anchor for the idea of Hope. Given their conventional status, such symbols lend themselves to fairly easy decoding, provided the viewer is acquainted with the semiotic system employed. Today there exist many dictionaries of symbols, aiding in this task.
The lamb and anchor examples just cited display a quid-pro-quo relationship, as one thing can be read for another. This “common-garden” variety of symbolism occurs frequently in medieval and Renaissance art, where it is addressed by the subdiscipline of iconography.
In the early nineteenth century, however, a new concept of symbolism emerged in which the associations are broader, being suggestive rather than precise. Things in the real world do indeed point to something else. Yet what that something else is one cannot be certain. It might be a host of things--or nothing definite. Symbolism therefore came to stand for fluidity, slippage, indeterminacy, and uncertainty. In this context, peripheral perceptions could become central and vice versa.
The symbolist world view posited two principles: 1) With the appropriate effort, the perceptive observer may intuitively access another realm that lies beyond the everyday world; and 2) In this endeavor there is a need to attenuate the distractions of specificity, for the world of objects occludes the window that the Symbolist is seeking to create as a way of contemplating the other world.
To a considerable degree these ideas stemmed from German idealist philosophy with its contrast between the phenomenal, visible world and the unseen numinous world. Novalis and Arthur Schopenhauer were particularly influential. Other sources have been traced as far back as the late-antique philosopher Plotinus.
Why was this quest undertaken? As the nineteenth century advanced, many educated persons concluded that the rising tempo of scientific discovery left no room for any belief other than materialism. At the opposite pole were those who, for a variety of reasons, retained their allegiance to organized religion. The Symbolists were inclined to pursue a third path. They held that there must be some way of attaining and deepening a sense of spiritual awareness.
At this crossroads knowledge itself came to the rescue, in the form of the New Science of Mythology. Prior to 1800 mythology had meant primarily the Greco-Roman gods and heroes. This view came to seem too narrow, for a reexamination of ancient vernacular documents provided new information on Celtic and Germanic myth and legend. Even more significant was the study and translation of Indian texts, especially the Vedas, which provided the oldest available mythological data, including ideas and deities that were clearly related to the European ones. Buddhist texts also became important.
These studies gave birth to the discipline of comparative religion, which sought underlying truths beneath the plethora of individual data. In addition to the comparative perspective, scholars like Friedrich Max Müller detected a more general principle, and that was the idea that mythology was simply a sophisticated cloak for perceptions about the natural world, especially those that invoked the solar principle. By depersonalizing mythology, stripping from it the adventitious details of the various gods and heroes, one could reveal the essential truths concealed within. It is significant that in 1880 Stéphane Mallarmé, who was to become the most influential of all Symbolist writers, published a translation (Les Dieux antiques) of a manual of mythology by the English scholar George W. Cox, who was essentially a popularizer of the work of Max Müller.
The era also saw an upsurge of hermetic or occult thought. Eliphas Lévi (Alphonse-Louis Constant) conveyed knowledge of alchemy and Rosicrucianism. In Les grands initiés (1889) the Alsatian writer Edouard Schuré sought to establish the equivalence of religious figures from various traditions--Rama, Krishna, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Jesus.
A generation before Freud, thinkers and writers who were broadly Symbolist began to explore the concept of the Unconscious. Indeed, the idea had been current in Central Europe since the publication by the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann of his Philosophie des Unbewussseins in 1868.
Let us now turn to a central event in the narrative. Jean Moréas, a French poet of Greek extraction, launched Symbolism as a literary movement in a manifesto published in Le Figaro littéraire in 1886. Closer inspection shows that the precepts advanced by this document were rather sketchy. Literary progress requires renovation from time to time, the writer maintained. The central concern of the new school must be to clothe the Idea in a sensible form. In their quest for purity of expression the poets must not fear obscurity. As a movement Symbolism represented a reaction against naturalism and positivism, which were viewed as simplistic and unsubtle.
In fact Symbolism was a new name for an existing group known as the Décadents. Moréas had the brilliant idea of rebranding them with the more dignified label of Symbolists. The initial band of practitioners was not very impressive. However, Symbolism gained credibility by annexing to their cause a quartet of luminaries, among the most brilliant poets of any time or country. These were Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Baudelaire had died in 1867, while Rimbaud gave up poetry in 1875, to become a gunrunner in East Africa.
Baudelaire, who ranks as one of the greatest French poets, was also active as a prose writer and art critic. In his Les Fleurs du Mal Symbolists particularly cherished the sonnet “Correspondences.” Here Baudelaire used several metaphors for the riddle of a world that calls out for interpreting in a deep sense, but does not always provide the clearest guidance for doing so. He wrote of Nature as a “temple where the living columns sometimes breathe confusing speech.” He also evoked the human passage through “forests of symbols.” Finally, he taught the doctrine of synasesthesia: “perfumes, colors, and sounds correspond.” Baudelaire’s concepts reflect the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist-mystic.
Initially Verlaine gravitated to the Parnassian movement in French poetry. He established an individual voice with his first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1867). In the eyes of the general public his copious poetic production became overshadowed by his scandalous private life. He abandoned his wife for his ephebic lover Arthur Rimbaud. Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period. Verlaine’s lyric gift allowed him to capture the allusive and musical qualities of symbolism to the full.
Arthur Rimbaud was a prodigy who, by the age of fifteen, had won many prizes and composed original verses and dialogues in Latin. He matured rapidly, becoming an anarchist, amusing himself by shocking the local bourgeois with his shabby dressing and long hair. In a letter that has proved influential he wrote of his method for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses." In 1871 he joined Verlaine in Paris, the beginning of their liaison. After separating from the older poet, Rimbaud wrote his phantasmagoric Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) in prose, widely regarded as one of the pioneering instances of modern Symbolist writing. His final major work Illuminations includes what are thought to be the first two French poems in free verse. After 1875 Rimbaud wrote no more poetry, preferring to work as a gunrunner in East Africa.
It was widely recognized that the central figure in the Symbolist movement was Stéphane Mallarmé, rightly famed for his salons, Tuesday gatherings of intellectuals at his house for discussions of poetry, art, and philosophy. His earlier work owes a great deal to the style established by Baudelaire. His mature poetry anticipates many of the interactions between poetry and the other arts that were to blossom in the Dada, Surrealist, and Futurist schools. Often perceived as a formalist, Mallarmé's work was more generally concerned with the dialogue style and content. This is particularly evident in the intricate, innovative Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard ("A roll of the dice will never abolish chance") of 1897, his last major poem.
Mallarmé’s poetic credo is hard to summarize, and for many that is the point: poetry is about nuances, not bald statements. With perhaps uncharacteristic clarity, Mallarmé put the matter in this way: “To name an object is to suppress three quarters of the pleasure of poetry, which is meant to reveal itself little by little. To suggest it, that is the dream.”
Mallarmé's poetry has been the inspiration for several musical pieces, notably Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (1894).
Inspired in part by Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamkunstwerk, a fusion of the arts, Symbolists paid much attention to parallels between the arts—to one parallel in particular. Paul Verlaine stipulated: "Music above all else." Symbolists took music as their touchstone, because as a medium it stands the farthest from direct representation of the world. The musical ideal also presided over subtle experiments in poetic rhythm. Central to Symbolist poetic practice was muting or veiling, what the composer Debussy referred to as things "à démi voix." (1889). It is this attenuation above all that was prophetic of, though it did not realize, abstraction
As the public became better acquainted with Symbolist poetry, its subject matter was reduced to an easy series of stereotypes. The poets conjured up a décor of forests and parks, pools and fountains, suffused with an atmosphere of legend. Such settings typically enshrined languorous princesses, escorted by unicorns and surrounded by doves, swans, and peacocks, while wearing fantastic jewels. At a deeper level the Symbolists proposed a new approach to myth, utilizing some traditional figures, such as Orpheus, Narcisssus, and Salome. The latter was part of a larger concern with the “fatal woman.” Gender issues were also explored in the theme of the Androgyne. There were also excursions into Northern mythology, especially as mediated by the music dramas of Richard Wagner.
There were also Symbolist novels. By common consent, the most remarkable of these is Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours (Against the Grain, or Against Nature; 1884). The hero is the reclusive Duke Jean Floressas des Esseintes, the last member of a powerful and once proud aristocratic family. He fills his country house with his eclectic art collection, which includes paintings by Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. In Latin literature he is attracted only to “decadent” works of late antiquity and the middle ages. Little pleases him among the moderns, apart from Baudelaire and Mallarmé (then little known). He tries his hand at inventing perfumes and he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. A major feature of the house is a mouth organ, in which tubes led to various casks of alcohol. In his view every liqueur corresponded to the sound of a particular musical instrument, so that dry curaçao was like the clarinet, while kümmel recalled the sound of the oboe. At one point Des Esseintes spontaneously decides to visit London, but when he reaches the train station he is disgusted by English voices. Feeling that he now knows what London would be like, he immediately returns home.
Other Symbolist writers of fiction were Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and the prolific Josephin Péladan. The latter is also known for organizing the Rose + Croix exhibitions of Symbolist paintings, many of them showing occultist leanings.
Having achieved its maximum strength in the period 1886-1895, Symbolism remained controversial. Its opponents tagged it with the sobriquets of decadence and the fin-de-siècle.
The first formal adherents of Symbolism were French and Belgians writing in French. Close relations, political as well as literary, with England facilitated the movement’ s migration into that country. Arthur Symonds published the first account in English, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, in 1899. A group of minor poets, including Ernest Dowson, John Gray, and Lionel Johnson, may be regarded as Symbolists. Oscar Wilde is sui generis.
Looking more widely Symbolist qualities have been detected in such figures as Stefan George, Rubén Darío, William Butler Yeats, and the early Ezra Pound. However, these major figures did not formally subscribe to the Symbolist program. Matters were different in Russia.
Russian Symbolism assumed a variety of forms, which can only be sketched here. The poet Valery Bryusov claimed to have created, almost single-handedly, Russian Symbolist poetry. In order to project an image of Symbolism as a major movement, Bryusov adopted numerous pen names, while publishing three volumes of his own verse entitled Russian Symbolists. Anthology (1894-95). Bryusov's campaign succeeded, for several young poets were drawn to Symbolism as the latest fashion in Russian letters. Notable among them were Konstantin Balmont, who believed in first inspiration and sometimes intentionally left his verse unrevised, and the pessimistic Fyodor Sologub, who styled himself the “bard of death.” Innokenty Annensky was known primarily for his masterful translations of French Symbolists and Euripides. Annensky managed to find Russian equivalents for the essential intonations of Baudelaire and Verlaine, while the subtle music, ominous allusions, arcane vocabulary, and the spell of minutely changing colors and odors were all his own. As Symbolism gradually spread across the Russian Empire, Moscow asserted itself as its principal center. Three of these Muscovite poets--Alexander Blok, Andrey Bely, and Sergey Solovyov--were all indebted to the latter's uncle, the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. In their recondite poems, redolent of religious hymns, they paid tribute to Solovyov's mystical concept of Eternal Womanhood.
At first glance, the theater, with its emphasis on dramatic situations and vivid characterization, would not be hospitable to Symbolism. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Symbolism found favor in the theatre antidote to the naturalism prevailing in the medium, which had, many felt reached a dead end. Symbolist directors employed lighting, gesture, pauses, and the intonation of the actors’ speech to create a mood independent of the referential character of the words. A notable exponent was Aurelien-Marie Lugné-Poe, who founded the Théatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1893. Lugné-Poe’s productions of Maeterlinck, Ibsen, and Strindberg “introduced a new minimalist aesthetic to the French stage—décor stripped down to its bare essentials, emphasis on cryptic lighting effects, actors transposed into mere shadows (or symbols) dispersed across dreamscapes” (Richard Sieburth). A little later Edward Gordon Craig was to pioneer an even more drastically simplified stage presentation. Craig aspired to reduce the actors to marionettes.
The play Pelléas et Mélisande (1892) is the masterpiece of the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. It is set at an indeterminate place during an indeterminate period. The origins of Mélisande, the heroine are never explained. Against these indeterminate features Maeterlinck tells his story of the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters.
The play has been the basis of several pieces of music. Nowadays even better known than the play is the opera by Claude Debussy (1902), which builds upon the Symbolist features of the play adding music that is perfectly suited to it, and thereby creating a composite work of art, one of the ultimate aspirations of the period. Earlier, in 1898, Gabriel Fauré had written incidental music for the play, from which he later extracted a suite. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music for it in 1905. The story is also the basis for the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s early symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande of 1902-03.
As early as 1889 critics and others began to speak of Symbolism in painting. The principal French painters associated with symbolism were Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon. Very different from one another, these three all had established reputations before the publication of the Manifesto. Rallying to the cause were Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and the Nabi group. There was a signification Belgian contribution, of which the names of Fernand Khnopf and James Ensor are outstanding.
Symbolism in art is a "greedy" concept, ever seeking to expand the bounds of its empire. Currently, it is rampant in the interpretation of later Victorian art, including such figures as Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Lord Leighton, and Aubrey Beardsley. Burne-Jones had previously been pigeonhole as a "continuation of Pre-Raphaelitism." And except for an attraction to classical subject matter, what do Leighton and Beardsley have in common?
Still, if one attends to a reasonable core group, symbolist painters addressed a variety of themes. Mythology was a significant area of interest. Classical subjects, such as Orpheus and Narcissus, appeared, seen through a kind of haze of ambiguity that was preferred to the clear light of earlier Neo-classicism. In addition, Northern myths and medieval legends figured prominently. Some turned to Satanism. All this subject matter was viewed in the light of a kind of twilight of culture (recalling the decadence motif, to be discussed presently).
The precariousness of the self was expressed in various ways, including dreams and death. Settings often involved transposition to troubling places. The cosmos appeared, but interpreted in the spirit of Weltschmerz, a weariness with the world.
An old theme was renewed in Central Europe in a new concept of the evocative landscape in which scenes became, as it were, mirrors of the soul. This approach began precociously with the northern landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. In his several versions of “The Isle of the Dead” the Swiss Arnold Boecklin shifted the focus of interest to the Mediterranean. While they are little known today, artists such as Ludwig Brach, Max Klinger, and Franz von Stuck exploited this vein in many evocative, subtly disturbing works.
A search for innocence was generally found to be problematic. Adolescent awakenings were ambivalent. Men found themselves confronted with the femme fatale, personified by Salome and Judith. Many paintings appeared of these two archetypal figures. It was left to Eduard Munch, however, to achieve a more general presentation of woman as a site of attraction and danger, at the same time.
Hope was found only in Arcadia and Paradise—and the latter was often understood as a Lost Paradise. Synaesthesia, the simultaneous experience of perfumes, colors, and sounds, offered consolation.
The melancholy and pessimism residing in the iconography of Symbolism coexisted with the recurrence of the decadence theme towards the end of the nineteenth century. Previously, decadence had been viewed with dread and loathing, as a symptom of societal breakdown. However, writers such as Huysmans and Verlaine "detoxified" the term, ascribing positive qualities to it. Efforts were made to detect specific qualities of decadent art works. These in turn led to the reevaluation of previously disparaged art styles, such as the baroque and especially late antique art (as seen in the research of the Viennese art historians Alois Riegl and Franz Wickhoff). The qualities of stylization, frontality, and replication noted in the late-antique works of the Roman Empire contributed to a general tendency towards abstraction. Similarly, the new admiration for Byzantine art, particularly mosaics, helped to nudge (as it were) progressive tastes towards less naturalistic styles.
František Kupka and Vassily Kandinsky, two artists who became pillars of abstraction showed significant Symbolist qualities in their early work. In the first few years of the twentieth century Kandinsky painted a series of atmospheric paintings evoking the chivalric culture of medieval Russia that are clearly Symbolist in their evocative, almost haunting vagueness. For a time Kandinsky allied himself with the composer Arnold Schoenberg. He also experimented with dramatic presentations--some simple treatments, others more fully worked out. There seem to be nine major texts, all from the Murnau period, 1908-14. Of these efforts only “The Yellow Sound” is well known today. Assisted by the composer Thomas von Hartmann and the dancer Alexander Sakharov, Kandinsky acknowledged Wagner as his inspiration of the idea of the union of the arts.
The Symbolists rank as the first avant-garde movement in Western culture. Disregarding appeal to familiar patterns and appeals, hey were unafraid of being difficult and hermetic. The demands they made on their audience were extraordinary, so much so that it sometimes seemed that their only public was each other. Of course there was always the possibility of recognition later. Wagner’s works were termed the music of the future. The German composer actually lived to see that future come true. Not so Vincent Van Gogh, who reputedly sold only one painting in the course of this lifetime.
Notwithstanding their shared hermeticism, Symbolism was not so much a style or a movement as a kind of climate of opinion that gripped Europe from 1885 to 1905 or so. Why did it do so? The simple answer is that it was a reaction, a kind of collective burrowing beneath the sand to escape acknowledging the triumphs of material civilization. Perhaps this stance also has to do with a major psychosociological reality: the alienation of the artist (in the broad sense) after the French Revolution. Artists were adrift but also free: free to be flaming leftists or apolitical aesthetes, also free to speak obscurely among themselves.
From the foregoing it should be evident that Symbolism, while pervasive in its time, cannot figure unproblematically as the source of twentieth-century abstraction. This so because of its retention of referential elements. In Symbolism there is the story that isn’t told—and the story that is told. One cannot have the former without the latter.
REFS. a) General: Frantisek Deak, Symbolist Theater: The Formation of an Avant-Garde, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993; David Michael Hertz, The Tuning of the Word: The Musico-Literary Poetics of the Symbolist Movement, Carbondale, Il; University of Southern Illinois, 1987; Jean-Nicolas Illouz, Le Symbolisme, Paris: Livre de Poche, 2004 (best recent synthesis); Henri Peyre, What is Symbolism? Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980; Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970; Dee Reynolds, Symbolist Aesthetics and Early Abstract Art: Sites of Imaginary Space, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995; René Wellek, "The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History," in his Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 55-89.
b) Art specific: Jean Clair et al., Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1995 (indispensable); Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Ingrid Ehrhardt and Simon Reynolds, eds., Kingdom of the Soul: Symbolist Art in Germany, 1870-1920, Munich: Prestel, 2000; Robert Goldwater, Symbolism, New York: Harper & Row, 1979; Sharon Hirsh, ed., "Symbolist Art and Literature," Art Journal, 45 (1985); Rodolphe Rapetti, Symbolism, Paris and New York: Flammarion, 2006; Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone, eds. The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910, Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997 (accompanied an exhibition at the Royal Academy; seeks to extend the concept to British artists not normally regarded as Symbolists).
c) Decadence: Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky, eds. Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 1880-1900, University of Chicago Press, 1981; John R. Reed, Decadent Style, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.