Lecture ONE summary
[One should set aside a preliminary objection, namely that abstraction is no novelty of a hundred years ago, but has always existed. It is true that, since neolithic times, there has been a perennial abstraction, but Western art banished these patterns to the margins, relegating them to the so-called minor of decorative arts. Early twentieth-century abstraction is not “decorative.” It boldly assumes the place formerly occupied by figuration, landscape, and still life. For further documentation, see the essay on Perennial Abstraction, below at this site.]
One common explanation for the rise of abstraction ascribes it to kind of chain reaction set off by the tiny dots making up the surface of the impressionist paintings of CLAUDE MONET and his colleagues. Thus impressionism began postimpressionism. In turn postimpressionism begat fauvism, fauvism begat cubism, and finally cubism begat abstraction. This occurred, according to the influential theory of Clement Greenberg because of the essential flatness of painted surface. One this condition was tacitly acknowledged in impressionism, what followed was inevitable. This story is one of progress towards a goal, in short, of teleology.
Others have noticed that the development was not unique to the visual arts, for a similar evolution has been evident in music, where Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system is analogous to abstraction and literature (Stein’s Tender Buttons, ditto). The reason for these correspondences has been sought in technological determinism, viz. the extraordinary inventions in information storage and transmission (film, telephones, and radio) and transportation (automobiles, aviation). While it is easy to affirm this connection, it breaks down under close analysis. As seen in class, GIACOMO BALLA and LE CORBUSIER drew very different conclusions from their devotion to the automobile.
In fact the rise of abstraction is overdetermined. That is to say, a number of factors have converged. Over the years I have become convinced that the most important of these conditioning factors is the Symbolist Movement.
Officially, Symbolism (with a capital s) was launched by an 1886 manifesto of Jean Moréas in a Paris newspaper. (Excerpt in Dorra; full text in a separate entry below.) The writer rebranded the old term decadence, judged too negative. According to the manifesto, Symbolism had been existence for some time. Already present in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (died 1867), it may have been anticipated by the American Edgar Allen Poe (died 1849). Moréas ignored the visual arts, but others detected the connection (above all, Huysmans, who included it in his programmatic novel Against Nature of 1884).
Four examples provide an initial clarification of visual symbolism.
1) MOREAU’s Orpheus (1865) draws upon a classical myth of the death of Orpheus, but modifies it in a significant way, by making the woman a Thracian instead of an inhabitant of Lesbos (Ovid). This change creates an almost eerie sense of mystery, as to why this woman, possibly one of the poet-singer’s slayers, should assume a reverential pose. As a symbol of creativity, Orpheus was honored throughout the 19th century. Later, Apollinaire purloined the name for the “Orphic Cubism” of the Delaunay’s.
REDON’s “Cyclops” is a much freer adaptation of classical mythology. The circular eye and head of the creature reflect the artist’s obsession with spherical forms. The giant may also be connected with Redon’s interest in the bypaths of biology. The scintillating colors of this late work add to the appeal.
KHNOPF’s “I Close My Door Upon Myself” (1891) takes its title from a poem by Christina Rossetti. The woman is modeled on the artist’s sister Marguerite. While this connection is not incestuous, it does reinforce what might be termed the “calm claustrophobia” of the scene. The flowers (irises and a poppy) suggest transience, and perhaps even death. The marble head of Hypnos, Greek god of sleep, presides over the scene. This figure connects with the Symbolist fascination with dreams.
MUNCH’s “Night” stems from the artist’s brief Parisian period (1889-90), when he was introduced to Symbolism by his friend, the Danish poet Immanuel Goldstein. It is almost a monochrome, dominated by blue, a color much in vogue at the time (Whistler, Mallarmé, Darío). “Night” is best regarded not simply as a portrayal of the artist’s dismal quarters in Saint-Cloud, but as a rendering of his state of mind. In its muted way, it forecasts Munch’s later obsessive angst.
[For images, try googling these art works.]
We now turn to a first pass at a challenging task, and that is to characterize the Symbolist ethos or world-view. Initially we acknowledge that Symbolism posited two procedures: 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 another world.
Applying these principles, Symbolism came to stand for fluidity, slippage, indeterminacy, and uncertainty. In this context, peripheral perceptions could become central and vice versa. It is tempting to identify Symbolism with contemporary postmodernism. Yet that is probably an oversimplification.
Let us return to point two. Put baldly, as above, that is probably overstated. While the Symbolists show affinities with transcendental idealism, they refused to be pinned down. In philosophy transcendental idealism appears in one of two main guises. The first is Plato’s two-worlds theory, in which the things we encounter in our everyday lives are inadequate copies of the archetypes, the Forms or Ideas, which dwell in a kind of supernal realm. Kantian idealism is less definite. Kant proposed a dichotomy between the phenomenal and numinal realms. The first is what we see and experience in our daily lives; the latter interpenetrates it. We can be absolutely certain that the numinous realm (“the thing in itself”) exists, but must remain agnostic as to its contents.
Yet earlier versions of transcendental idealism tend to posit that something inspiring or uplifting lies beyond the veil. We seek to pierce it for relief from the disappointments and heartache of everyday existence. The Symbolists seem to believe that no such consolation is readily available. We can only gesture towards things that may lie in the Beyond. Moreover, their character may not be uniformly positive, for they may be laced with forbidden material, such as incest, sexual variation, and sadism. Enter at your peril.
Now we leave these gloomy precincts, at least for a while. Another interesting parallel is with the Christian religious mystics of the late Middle Ages, who flourished mainly in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. In our quest for union with God we must renounce the tools of the intellect. We must frankly recognize that we dwell in the Cloud of Unknowing, as an anonymous English mystic put it. Ignorance, if it can lead us on this path, must be frankly embraced. However, these mystical approaches differ markedly from the way of the Symbolists. The earlier traditions assume that we can indeed “break on through to the other side,” as Jim Morrison would put it. Instead we must honestly acknowledge the possibility that there may not be any “other side,” and even if there is, there is no guarantee that we can attain any definite knowledge of it. Were we to do so, we might find that circumstances there are less pleasant than we imagined. As the old saying has it, ignorance is bliss. But we are better off without the narcotic of such assurances.
Stimulating as these parallels are, it must be conceded that the Symbolist Movement is neither religious nor philosophical—though it has affinities with both. One philosopher did influence the Symbolists. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) attacked the logocentrism of philosophy, its overemphasis (in his judgment) on the sovereignty of the intellect. Instead, he stressed the role of a vast impersonal factor he termed the Will. The operations of this inescapable ground of being are in large measure inscrutable, but they are inescapable. Schopenhauer’s disciple Eduard von Hartmann popularized the idea of the Unconscious forty years before Freud. Symbolism shares with Surrealism a desire to explore hidden aspects of human experience.
The prospect of our engulfment in Schopenhauer’s vast empire of the Will may seem daunting, even terrifying. But there is one readily available antidote, and that is the arts. Their real purpose, Schopenhauer avowed, is to hold the Will at bay. Among the arts, music is supreme. The Symbolists agreed with him: “De la musique avant toute chose” (Verlaine).
[Btw, I was mistaken in saying that Schopenhauer was the first major Western philosopher to be influenced by Asian thought. The first was probably Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who used Chinese sources (including the I Ching) to help in formulating his concept of the differential calculus.]
As the 19th 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.
The Symbolist Movement sought to challenge a tradition in Western country that had been honored for centuries. That is the idea that we must strive for “clear and distinct ideas.” In the view of its supporters, this is an asymptotic process. We may never arrive at complete clarity, but the main thing is gradually to eliminate zones of imprecision. This endeavor links up with another project, loosely termed Enlightenment. The Enlightenment project seeks to challenge and defeat various forms of superstition. In the view of many, this means not just challenging false beliefs, but even revealed religion itself. Needless to say, all forms of mysticism-—including “new-fangled” ones imported from Asia-—are anathema to this view.
According to the Symbolists the highminded quest for ever-increasing clarity is vain and inadequate. The most important truths cannot be expressed in any definite form. Verbal and mathematical formulations give us only information about the least important aspects of reality. As Wittgenstein said, “[A]bout that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.” For the Symbolists, though, complete silence would mean giving up. We must not do this.
What is really important is intangible reality. This reality, the true reality, can only be hinted at. But that is an indispensable task. For this purpose the devices of suggestion and nuance must be relentlessly deployed. Hence Mallarmé’s 25%/75% split. Naming or description provides only 25% of the value of the poetic transaction. The other 75% obtains through suggestion.
At first sight it seems odd that the Symbolist should work, in the first instance, in the medium of words. Words had in fact been the primary vehicle of the striving for clarity noted above. However, Symbolists noted that words contained all sorts of hidden connections, devices we term metaphors, puns, sound affinities, and so forth. These devices can be turned to good use to subvert the Clarity project.
As noted above, in order to achieve its aims Symbolism seeks the attenuation of specificity. Art being specific creates a problem. However, Symbolist artists like Moreau, Redon, and Khnopf found ways around this obstacle, so that there is in fact Symbolist art.
Perhaps the ULTIMATE LESSON of the Symbolist challenge may be this epistemological truth: “Knowing is inseparable from the not-known. And the not-known may not even be knowable. ” Symbolism offers a lesson in intellectual humility.
A concluding footnote concerns the conventional view of symbolism. The "Adoration of the Lamb" from the Ghent altarpiece and Bartholdi's colossal Statue of Liberty illustrate the ordinary use of the term. These instances display a one-for-one correspondence between the symbolic token, on the one hand, and the person or idea for which it stands, on the other. The Bartholdi work is an example of the device of personification, an invention stemming from Greek and Roman art that is used to denote concepts, cities, and countries. Once one knows the appropriate code the answer to the puzzle is readily obtained. Such links are the subject matter of the discipline of iconography. There are many useful reference works in which such correspondences are listed in alphabetical order.
Two proto-Symbolist works, GIORGIONE’s “Tempest” and CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH’s “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” document an entirely different approach. Here no code is available. Such works convey their meaning by connotation instead of denotation.
It is true that symbols of the conventional type sometimes make their way into works of the true Symbolist type. A case in point is the lyre (an attribute) in MOREAU’s “Orpheus.” However, this device is not the main point. Instead it serves as hook to involve us in the classical subject matter-—which the artist then treats in a special subjective way.
In short, we must bear in mind the distinction between symbolism and Symbolism. The latter is the main theme of this course.