Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lecture SEVEN Summary

James Sidney ENSOR (1860–1949).

Ensor’s challenging portrayals of grotesque humanity made him an acknowledged precursor of 20th-century expressionism and surrealism. Ensor was born in Ostend on the Belgian coast, and — except for three years spent at the Brussels Academy, from 1877 to 1880 — he lived in Ostend all his life, with the family curio shop as his base. His father, an Englishman, was an alcoholic recluse. Ensor’s brilliant “Self-Portrait” (1886, a pencil drawing) shows him materializing ectoplasmically from a background of antique mouldings, evidently reflecting the décor of the shop.

Ensor’s early works depicted traditional subjects: landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and interiors painted in deep, rich colors and enriched by a subdued but vibrant light. In the mid-1880s, influenced by the bright color of the Impressionists and the grotesque imagery of earlier Dutch-Flemish artists as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ensor turned toward avant-garde themes and styles. He took much of his subject matter from Ostend's holiday crowds, which filled him with revulsion. But not all was negative, and arguably for him Ostend played the role that Bruges did for Khnopff.

Portraying individuals as clowns or skeletons or replacing their faces with carnival masks, he represented humanity as stupid, smirking, vain, and loathsome (cf. “Skeleton Looking at Chinoiserie,” 1885). In his later work, as he became engulfed with misanthropy, these traits became routine and tiresome.

From the mid-eighties Ensor began to concentrate on a series of images of Christ (e.g. “Dead Christ Watched Over By Angels”). It has been shown that his idea of Jesus was a social-consciousness one, de-emphasizing miracles, deriving from a then-popular biography of David Strauss. In this way he sought to unite religion (Belgium was a Catholic country) and efforts to social change.

“The Cathedral,” a lithograph of 1886, is a personal interpretation of a theme common in those years (cf Monet's views of Rouen Cathedral). Ensor depicts the building as indeed the great exemplar of society, but then in the foreground shows this society to be divided between the strictly regimented groups closest to the building and the more anarchic masses in the foreground.

One of his more ambitious works of this kind was an “Entry into Jerusalem.” This in turn led to his masterpiece, the panoramic canvas entitled Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889 (1888, now in the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California). For the workers and common people of earlier works Ensor substituted the bourgeoisie, whom he ruthlessly satirized by making them wear masks. Catchphrases appear at various places. The banner, “Vive la Sociale,” probably referring to the idea of a socialist republic (a notion coined in France in 1848), is sarcastic. Recognizing its subversive character, Ensor did not publicly display the work in Belgium until 30 years after its creation.

Ensor was one of the first European artists to emphasize the theme of masks. In a larger perspective, he draws on the vein of the carnivalesque, as later explored by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

JAN TOOROP (1858-1928) was the major Dutch contributor to Symbolism. A kind of Gauguin in reverse, he was born in Poerworedjo in Java in 1858, dying in The Hague in 1928. When he was 14 years old his family took him to Holland. He studied at the Amsterdam Academy under the direction of Auguste Allebé, from 1880 to 1882, and then in the Brussels Academy, guided by Jean François Portaels.

The stay in Brussels was decisive for Jan Toorop’s development. He made the acquaintance of the writers Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck, gravitating to the avant-garde milieu of Les Vingt. He became a member in 1885 under the sponsorship of Octave Maus.

With his friend James Ensor he traveled to Paris, where he was impressed by the pointillism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. He went to London with Verhaeren in 1884 and 1886. There he was struck by the work of James McNeill Whistler.

In 1890 he resettled in the Netherlands, where he developed his "linear idealism," combining features of Symbolism, the Art Nouveau, and a religious orientation. In 1894 Jan Toorop made a celebrated lithograph for the Delftsche Slaolie firm. In the Netherlands this work became a kind of talisman for the art nouveau. In Dutch the Art Nouveau was sometimes termed the Slaolie Style.

In 1902-03 Toorop was occupied with decorating the new Stock Exchange in Amsterdam, the masterwork of the architect H.P. Berlage. Challenging the capitalist ideology, these works emphasized freedom for women and for workers.

By this time Toorop had removed to the coastal town of Domburg in the dunes, where he founded a kind of art colony that attracted Marinus Zwart and Piet Mondrian among others. The artists were not required to adhere to any single style.

He had a kind of wooden pavilion built in the dunes, which was inaugurated with a group exhibition in 1912, showing 82 works by fifteen artists.

The “Three Brides” (1893) is his signature work. Beneficent influences stem from one side and bad ones from the other, carried by the omnipresent strands of hair. The curiously emaciated figures seem to reflect the Javanese shadow play. A similar work is “Fatalism,” also of 1893.

The Domburg experience comes out in the dune painting “The Shell Gatherers" (1891), which is almost abstract. Such works left an imprint on Toorop’s disciple, Piet Mondrian (e.g. “Dunes,” 1910).


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in John Millais' parents' house on Gower Street, London in 1848. At the initial meeting John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt were present. As an aspiring poet, Rossetti wished to develop the links between Romantic poetry and art. By autumn four more members had also joined to form a seven-strong Brotherhood. These were William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel's brother), Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens.

The endeavor of the PRB echoes, consciously or not, the Nazarene brotherhood, a group of German artists formed in Rome forty years before. The Nazarenes wished to revive the qualities of painting before the Cinquecento, which was taken as the beginning of decline. The Germans also anticipated the narrative emphasis and meticulous realism of the PRB (cf. Peter Cornelius, “Recognition of Joseph by His Brothers” with can be compared with Holman Hunt’s “Finding of the Savior in the Temple,” of 1859-60).

The considerable theorizing of the PRB can be reduced to the following. Attentive study of nature must be practiced in order to express genuine ideas. As an aside, one may note that in many cases the naturalism produced a numbing emphasis on detail

They were particularly fascinated by Medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity lost in later eras. This emphasis on medieval culture was to clash with the realism promoted by the stress on independent observation of nature. In its early stages the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood believed that the two interests were consistent with one another, but in later years the movement divided in two directions. Hunt and Millais led the realist side, while the medievalist side enjoyed the favor of Rossetti and his followers, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. This split was never absolute, since both factions believed that art was essentially spiritual in character, opposing their idealism to the materialist realism associated with Courbet and Impressionism.

The Brotherhood enjoyed the support of the critic John Ruskin, who praised their devotion to nature and rejection of conventional methods of composition.

With their emphasis on detailed rendering of nature, J. E. Millais and Holman Hunt fall outside our purview. They could also be dreadfully sentimental and didactic.

Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI (1828-1882) , a maverick, is more interesting. After 1856 Rossetti became an inspiration for the medievalizing strand of the movement. His work influenced his friend William Morris, in whose firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. he became a partner, and with whose wife Jane he may have had an affair. Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones also became partners in the firm.

The bourgeois realism of Rossetti’s “Annunciation” (1849-50) is shocking. It reflects a thorough rethinking of the traditional iconography, anticipating the white symphonies of Whistler.

Many of his later works are tinged with erotic overtones. This is true not only of “Venus Verticordia” (1964-68), but also of “Beata Beatrix (1864-70), ostensibly a Christian sacred work.

Sir Edward Coley BURNE-JONES (1833-1898).

Not a formal member of the PRB, arguably he represents its culmination.

At Oxford he befriended William Morris as a consequence of a mutual interest in poetry, and was influenced by John Ruskin. At this time he discovered Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which was to be so influential in his life. As an artist he studied under Rossetti, but developed his own style influenced by his travels in Italy with Ruskin and others. He had intended to become a minister in the Church of England, but under Morris's influence decided to become an artist and designer instead. After Oxford, from which he did not take a degree, he became closely involved in the rejuvenation of the tradition of stained glass art in England.

For much of the 1870s Burne-Jones did not exhibit, following a spate of bitterly hostile attacks in the press. In 1877 he was persuaded to show eight oil paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery (a new rival to the Royal Academy). These included The Beguiling of Merlin. The timing was right, and he was taken up as a herald and star of the new Aesthetic Movement. Exemplifying a kind of “blowback” effect, his often literary work inspired poetry by Swinburne. Swinburne's 1886 Poems & Ballads is dedicated to Burne-Jones

Aparr from painting, he also worked in a variety of crafts; including designing ceramic tiles, jewelery, tapestries, book illustration (the Kelmscott Press Chaucer in 1896), and stage costumes.

“King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” (1884) relies on an obscure story of the infatuation of an African king for a homeless girl, as told by Richard Johnson and Alfred Tennyson. “She is more beautiful than Day” (Tennyson). In a startling role reversal, the king has placed the girl on his own throne. There are a number of Italian sources, including Carlo Crivelli. The artist had obsessed on the theme for a decade, choosing the high and narrow format early on. Khnopff who saw the work in its triumphant appearance at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 spent hours before the painting, enraptured. In his account he summed up its message as “all hope is vain for the thing that are no more, for the things that can never be.”

With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that the situation reflects Victorian social realities, not just the immense problem of poverty, but the appalling “maiden tribute,” whereby young women were sold into prostitution. Presumably, the beggar maid has avoided this fate, but others were not so lucky.

“The Golden Stairs” (1872-80) may be compared with Blake’s similar conception of “Jacob’s Ladder.” However, Burne-Jones work has no narrative content. It is simply a human chain of 18 young women. In a sense they are all one person, as the folds of the drapery echo one another endlessly. Somewhat bizarrely, it has been suggested that a reproduction of this work may have influenced Marcel Duchamp in his “Nude Descending the Staircase.”

George Frederick WATTS (1817-1904) belonged to no school, but was immensely popular in Victorian England. He produced about 300 portraits of distinguished contemporaries, as well as moral allegories, such as “Love and Death” (1877, 1896), a poignantly beautiful allegory of human mortality. Another lovely work, “Hope” (1885-86) offers a presentation that almost belies its title. Another allegory is “Time, Death, and Judgment,” which Watts reworked over many years (1865-86).

The artist’s concluding masterpiece is “The Sower of the Systems” of 1902. Since this work has darkened over the years, it may seem completely abstract. Yet it is not, for the Creator advances “scattering stars, suns, and planets.” The painting reflects the honest struggle of a Victorian against the forces of doubt which became increasingly insistent.

Aubrey BEARDSLEY (1872-1898),

Beardsley enjoyed a great deal of succès de scandale, both during his short life and afterwards. He was aligned with the Yellow Book coterie of artists and writers. He was art editor for the first four editions and produced many illustrations for the magazine.

Most of his images are done in ink, and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones, and areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.
Together with Félicien Rops, Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and the grotesque erotica, which themes he explored in his later work. He began by illustrating the Arthurian legends, and eventually progressed to what might be termed soft-core pornography, including his illustrations for Lysistrata (Aristophanes) and Salomé (Wilde). Major elements of the Art Nouveau have been detected in his works

Beardsley also wrote Under the Hill, an unfinished erotic tale based loosely on the legend of Tannhäuser.

Anticipating today’s media stars, Beardsley was a public character as well as a private eccentric. He said, "I have one aim — the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing." (cf. the photograph of the artist as a gargoyle). Wilde said he had "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair."

His “The Artist in Bed” belies the incessant energy that characterized his short life.

Much of his earlier work, like “La Belle Isoud at Joyous Gard” illustrates Arthurian legends. Later, prompted by publishers and promoters, he turned to erotic work. The image of Salome kissing the head of Jaokanaan is one of the most shocking examples.

Beardsley died in Menton, France at the age of 25 on March 16, 1898. It is generally accepted that Beardsley died of tuberculosis, although suicide has also been rumored.


Mainly known nowadays as an architect, the Scot Mackintosh was a designer of posters, fabrics, and furniture in the William Morris manner. His poster for the “Scottish Musical Review” (1896) is in a squared-off version of the Art Nouveau he perfected. “Full Moon in September (1893) has a uniquely eerie quality.



Born a Swedish citizen on the Baltic, Friedrich studied at the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. In addition to being a German, he belongs to the Scandinavian world of Kierkegaard, Strindberg, and Bergman. After the development of sepia drawings and watercolors (mainly naturalistic and topographical), Friedrich took up oil painting after the age of thirty. His paintings are based on his sketches and studies of scenic spots, like the cliffs on Rügen, the surroundings of Dresden and the River Elbe and in the Saxon Alps.. His first major painting is the controversial "Tetschen Altar" (1807) in which the crucified Christ is seen in profile in the top of a mountain, alone, surrounded by nature. His works often feature lonely crosses in a landscape. Friedrich also sketched monuments (a memorial) and sculptures for mausoleums, reflecting his obsession with death and afterlife.

The painter was influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher’s romantic views about religion. The theologian held that it is a mistake to think of religion in terms of rules and formal rituals. Instead, religion is about feeling. When we experience a primal sense of awe in the presence of the infinite—then we are religious. Friedrich seems also to have been touched by the controversy that raged in his youth over pantheism, the idea that God is everywhere, but dwells in no specific place. In his landscapes we detect a muted, diffused quality that can almost be termed holy. That “almost” is very important.

Friedrich lived in the time of the upsurge of German romantic thinkers and poets, including the Schlegel brothers, G.W.F. Hegel, Novalis, Wackenroder, and Hölderlin. These figures evolved a number of key concepts, which may be summed up in one precept: striving for the infinite. Friedrich’s approach to nature recalls that of Coleridge and Wordsworth in England, poets whose works he did not know.

Caspar David Friedrich is sometimes simply labeled a Romantic painter; in fact the recent comprehensive exhibition in Essen calls him the “Inventor of Romanticism.” However, his works do not show the impassioned swirls of color of, say, a Delacroix. Nor was he interested in Orientalism. Friedrich was a stay-at-home: the farthest he ever strayed from East Germany was Copenhagen (for his schooling) and the Bohemian mountains. Partly for economic reasons—he grew up during the wars that stemmed from the French Revolution—he seems never to have visited France or Italy.

His “Wanderer Standing Over the Sea of Fog” (ca. 1818) has sometimes been seen as Hamletic—the man is trying to make up his mind. Perhaps, but this does not seem to be the main thing. The wisps of fog both conceal and disclose; they permit an intuition (Ahnung) of the scene. The wanderer is absorbing the scene, and because he has his back to us he is our surrogate. The painting illustrates Friedrich’s precept that the artist must combine the outer (an accurate rendering of the motif) with the inner (the mind’s processes).

His poignant "Mönch am Meer" (Monk by the Sea; 1810) has become a kind of icon of modern alienation. It remains the most “minimalist” of all Friedrich’s works.

Note the medievalism of the “Abbey in the Oak Forest” (1810), a pendant to the Monk. Although Friedrich was a Protestant he was sensitive to the loss of unity that the Reformation had signaled. The “Cromlech in the Snow” (1807) scenes evoke the mysterious world of prehistory.

Despite their marvelous fluency, Friedrich’s works generally rely on a carefully plotted underlying geometry. Unusually, “Woman at the Window” (1822) makes this structure explicit. The mullions of the upper window form a cross, and the shutters are a kind of triptych. Some have seen the room as a kind of prison. This could only be true in an extended sense, in that in life we are all prisoners of our situation.

As the moon-viewing works show, attempts to pin his iconography down to specific messages are generally vain or incomplete.

A late work, “The Stages of Human Life” (1835), seems to violate this principle. Here, however, we find that what is stated explicitly is balanced by what is only suggested.

In summary Friedrich seemed to have succeeded almost perfectly in anticipating the principles of Symbolism, which was recognized only 46 years after his death. How can this be? Perhaps the answer lies in a common reliance on the philosophy of German Idealism, which Friedrich knew first hand.

"The painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself. If he sees nothing within, then he should stop painting what is in front of him." Caspar David Friedrich

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lecture SIX Summary

[As we have seen the fascination with European “primitives” preceded the attention to their exotic counterparts. As late as 1904 France saw a major exhibition of “Les primitifs français” (essentially Gothic works, with a few specimens of Renaissance painting.) For an insight into the qualities of the Euro-primitives, consult the current show of Cimabue at the Frick Collection.]


From France Symbolism, as a literary and artistic movement, spread to other countries. (We have only deferred, not eliminated the matter of literary symbolism.) First it migrated to the Low Countries, primarily Belgium, where it was helped by the Francophone tendency then prevailing among the upper classes. Thence it traveled to Britain, Central Europe, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe--especially Russia, where the flowering of the Silver Age commenced with the Russian Symbolist poets. Generally speaking, southern Europe was not hospitable, though Picasso (Blue Period) and possibly Gaudí constitute exceptions.

Let us put our thinking caps on. Why did Symbolism start in France? After all, one of the abiding characteristics of the French mind is said to be Cartesian rationalism, which strives to attain clear and distinct expression of ideas. As Antoine de Rivarol (1753-1801) chauvinistically put it: “Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français: ce qui n’est pas clair est encore anglais, italien, grec, ou latin.” This remarkable piece of chauvinism stems from his essay “De l’universalité de la langue française.” The title says it all.

For this reason the rise of Symbolism in France seems counterintuitive. Was Symbolism really French? There was a sizeable input from German idealism, especially Schopenhauer, whose writings were widely read in translation. In England the Pre-Raphaelites have been claimed as a kind of prequel. When all is said and done, though, France—-ostensibly Cartesian France-—was the indubitable starting point.

We began our consideration of this issue with the assumption that Symbolism was in origin a literary movement. As such it would necessarily have been shaped by the immediate prior history of French literature. To put it bluntly (perhaps too bluntly) French literature is characterized by a sense of enclosure and self-sufficiency, what economists sometimes term autarky. The Greek and Roman classics were read at school as lineal ancestors of the French, creators of the third great literature after those two exemplars. Among the moderns Shakespeare and Goethe were exceptions, but were read in translation only. Baudelaire and the later Symbolists granted Poe a special passport.

The first half of the 19th century was dominated by the vast projects of such literary overachievers as Balzac and Hugo. The aestheticist minimalism of the Parnasse school arose as a reaction. Literary Symbolism was an attempt to retain the seriousness of the first (without the vastness), and the striving of the second for stylistic perfection (without the preciousness). Symbolism also defined itself over against the Naturalism of Emile Zola. The career of Huysmans is emblematic. First he allied himself with Zola, but then he jumped ship with Against Nature.

We turn now to a more general situation, which involves a certain paradox. Retaining some of its 18th century advantages as the language of diplomacy and culture, by the 1870s France had turned into a Hollow Center. The disaster of the Franco-Prussian war disclosed an extraordinary reversal, one in the works for some time. Germany and France exchanged roles. Weakened by political disunion, Germany was a victim of foreign domination, sometimes, as in the Thirty Years War (1618-48), quite destructive. Germany was preeminently the country of Denker und Dichter. Its universities were preeminent. With the 1870 war, France and Germany seemed to have exchanged places. The new Germany of the Gründerzeit was industrially and militarily powerful. France fell behind in those realms. Not without a good deal of denial and resentment, to all intents and purposes it ceased to be a great power. France’s universities could not catch up either. There were few Nobel prizes in the sciences. There were two compensations: the “French Empire,” commonly termed the colonies (one of which formed the ultimate destination of Paul Gauguin) and the arts. How did France become La Mère des Arts? It is a curious fact that culture sometimes flourishes in countries that are declining politically (e.g. Pericles’ Athens, Venice in the 18th century). It is as if energies shifted inwards--from national assertiveness towards cultivation of the polite arts.

There is an old book by the Swiss journalist Herbert Luethy with the revealing title France Against Itself. For decades the key division in the country centered on the French Revolution: for (liberals, socialists) or against (traditional Catholics, nationalists, and the right in general). This issue was not finally settled until the 1960s. Other divisions were between chauvinism and cosmopolitanism, elites vs. populists, academic artists and writers vs. the avant-garde. In addition to being a source of weakness, these divisions yielded an enormous harvest of fruitful dialogue.

The trope of revolution was very productive. Neo-classic artists like David sought to brand their art as the official art of the French Revolution, only to find themselves outflanked by the aesthetic revolution of romanticism (with Géricault and Delacroix). This in turn yielded to realism, and then to impressionism, for long thought to be subversive and a danger to morals. But of course impressionism itself seemed old-hat.

As everyone knows, France was the site of this sequence of advanced art movements, especially in the belle époque. This achievement needs to be set in context, for it unfolded in dynamic tension with the forces of tradition (represented by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the government supported Salons with their artistes pompiers, the Académie Française). Over against this stood the adversary culture of the avant-garde: the Salon des Indépendents, the little magazines, the minicultures of the private gatherings (such as Mallarmé’s Tuesdays) and the cabarets (Le Chat Noir was the first). In the visual arts we need only think of impressionism, symbolism, fauvism, cubism, and so forth. There was a connection with Bohemia (as documented by Murger in 1848). Today this adversarial current represents the mainstream, taught as such in countless art history classes, though at the time it was far from it. In those days educated opinion, and not only in France, assumed that the great artists were men like Bouguereau, Cabanel, Meissonier-—all now stigmatized as pompiers. Significantly, when the authorities of the Boston Public Library wanted a European artist to complement the American John Singer Sargent for their new building, they went for an established figure Puvis de Chavannes. Today most would say: who he?

Such brilliant achievements notwithstanding, outwardly there was a sense of defeat and decline and in the body politic. Catholics claimed that debacle was the inevitable result of France’s desertion of mother church. The expiatory church of Sacré Coeur atop Monmartre was the monumental expression of this belief.

The Third Republic: would it prove as ephemeral as its two predecessors? Actually it lasted for 79 years, despite suffering assault by royalist and Catholic enemies. The turning point was the Boulanger scare of 1889. A military coup was averted, but the suspicion persisted that France was a “banana republic.” In 1889 a corner was rounded, but Symbolism was launched in this first two-decade period
“Race exhaustion” was widely canvassed (la décadence latine). To many observers it seemed that the “old peoples” in Southern Europe were being outstripped by younger ones: Germanic and Slavic. During the period 1870-1914, the population of Italy increased by 30%, Austria-Hungary 38%, Britain 43%, Germany 58 %. France only 10%. In 1891-95 deaths exceeded births in France. The deficit was made up by immigration, mainly from Italy and Eastern Europe. (Today 1 in 4 in France has a grandparent born abroad.)

Alongside this working-class immigration was a rarified elite current. Van Gogh was of course the supreme example of an artist. Mary Cassatt was esteemed in impressionist circles. Jean Moréas, the creator of the Symbolist manifesto was Greek, Heredia Spanish, and Stuart Merrill American. After the turn of the century the current increased with writers like Apollinaire, Natalie Barney, Gertrude Stein (who, however, wrote only in English), and artists (Picasso, Gris, Chagall, Sonia Delaunay, Modigliani and many others).

After the Franco-Prussian war it was generally acknowledged that the educational system needed to be reformed. The Germans had won not only by big guns and military strategy, but because they were better educated. 1882 saw the Ferry law stipulating universal free primary education. Girls were major beneficiaries (though they wouldn't be able to vote as adults). Schooling was now obligatory, and this required a big corps of teachers, generally young women, who fanned out to the remotest, most miserable villages. From their training at the Ecole Normale (the archetype of our normal schools) , the teachers were imbued, many of them, with a secular missionary spirit, seeking to slay the three dragons of monarchy, the clergy, and alcoholism.

The teachers had to cope with a problem their training had not been prepared them for, as many of the pupils could not understand them—they spoke “argots.” Even for native speakers (less than half up to WWI), learning to write standard French is an arduous process. Cézanne’s parents did not speak standard French, his mother not at all, his father haltingly with many mistakes (he could read newspapers). He determined that his son would be different. At the lycée the young Cézanne made friends with another boy whose father did not originally speak French: Zola. (In everyday life today “correct French” is challenged by argot). Thus even people born in France had to “immigrate” into the French language. Over the centuries a kind of mandarin language had evolved. The Symbolists both exploited this artificial language, with its echoes of previous centuries, but also sought to subvert it. Moréas' recommendation that writers go back to the vigor of late medieval and Renaissance French. There was also Mallarmé’s attempt at pure poetry, recovering the true nature of words. He made his living as an English teacher; his wife was German. So he was unusually self-conscience about language.

The Dreyfus affair pitted the progressives, defenders of the Republic, against the reactionary nationalists, who tended to be anti-Semitic. The affair highlighted the role of public intellectuals. Zola is often thought to be the first, but in all likelihood it was Victor Hugo, who went into exile because of his opposition to Napoleon III. In the terminology of the 1950s, Hugo and Zola were engagés; or as we said a little later, “activists.” The Symbolists generally stood aside from such concerns, though they may have individually sympathized.

The Catholics were not all the same, for the Catholic revival also showed creative tensions—between Modernism (the original—theological--meaning of the word) and traditionalism. Modernism favored realignment of the church to accord with modern philosophy and social conditions. It urged acceptance (within bounds at least) of the findings of the critical approach to the Bible (largely centered in Germany, but cf. Alfred Loisy). It rejected the doctrinaire emphasis of Neo-Scholasticism in favor of a somewhat vague appeal to life (vitalism). Modernism did give rise to one original philosophy, that of Maurice Blondel (L’Action, 1893, popularized the word action [cf. activist], though Blondel thought that action was ultimately incomplete because it reflected the volition of God. The modernists were opposed by the ultramontanists. Their ideas, in turn, were anticipated by the influential Joseph de Maistre, who regarded the French revolution as a disaster which could only be repaired by a return to Mother Church. The ultramontanists were greatly encouraged when Pius IX declared the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870. In 1907 Pius X denounced modernism in an encyclical, and it faded.

In popular religion there was a wave of “apparitions,” miraculous appearances generally of the Virgin Mary. There were many pilgrimages, of which the Lourdes one was the most celebrated (Bernadette Soubiras). Young intellectuals preferred to trek to Chartres. The American Henry Adams picked up this interest in his once-widely read Mont St.-Michel and Chartres.

There was also a current of Jewish interest, as yet little understood. Here the key figure was perhaps Eliphas Lévi, a Catholic priest who became an occultist. In this context a long-standing interest in the Kabbalah took its place along with other trends such as Hermes Trismegistus and Rosacrucianism. The Sâr Josephin Péladan (who adopted a kind of pseudo-Semitic title) revived the latter. The name of the Nabis artists derives from a Hebrew word for prophet. Sarah Bernhardt ruled the world of acting. Among operas “La Juive” and “Samson and Delilah” were popular, the latter shading off into a vague Orientalism. Something of the same is true of the Jewish princess Salomé. This leads to a speculative issue. To what extent were artists and others aware of the affinities of Jewish art with the avant-garde modernists? As we saw with the illuminated page of a Haggadah in the British Museum, such beautiful works were available in libraries. Gradually, archaeologists were able to uncover a rich heritage of synagogues, mainly from the Roman period, with figural murals and mosaics. In their stylization and disregard of perspective works of this kind resemble modern art. Perhaps these resemblances are more an affinity than a causal element. In any event more research is needed.

Despite well-justified concerns about national decline, there were positive developments. These were celebrated in the two World’s Fairs of 1889 and 1900. The Eiffel Tower remains as a permanent monument to Gustave Eiffel, who had many other achievements. For the 1900 Fair Hector Guimard designed the first of the marvelous 1900 Métro entrances in the art nouveau style. These monuments took their place within the preexisting framework of Baron Georges Haussmann’s earlier renewal, which effectively created the Paris of the Boulevards.

Today Pierre PUVIS DE CHAVANNES (1824-1898) stands as an enigma. More perhaps than with any other 19th century artist there is a yawning chasm between the esteem he enjoyed in his later years and our present indifference. His coloring, limited mainly to browns, grays and dull greens, is reticent in the extreme. At first it seems a kind of painterly tofu, offered up without seasoning. This limited palette goes together with matte surfaces to suggest a kind of antipleasure principle. If there is little pleasure of the obvious sort, what is Puvis’ lesson? People were not sure, yet one critic opined that he would do for France what Rembrandt had done for Holland. In short there was a territory to be claimed and Puvis’ gray battalions marched in to occupy it. If indulgence in color, á la Delacroix and Redon, was “vulgarity” we need not fear that transgression here. Still, Puvis influenced Van Gogh, Picasso, Signac, and Matisse, all of whom offered the tribute of imitation.

The severe and frontal “Beheading of St. John the Baptist” (1869) offers a kind of base mark. Yet Puvis was soon to depart from such standard iconography.

“The Poor Fisherman” (1881) is very different. The central figure is perhaps Christlike, though we are left to form our own conclusions. Is the woman in the middle ground his wife, a sister, or a youth? There is a remarkable composition of triangles in the fisherman and the landscape. This surface geometry, combined with the brownish tonality, has been regarded as an anticipation of the analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque.

“Young Girls by the Seashore” (1879) presents three hermetic figures, one seen from the rear, another incomplete. One critic said that the colors speak so softly they seem almost to want to do away with themselves.

Representing Puvis’ major phase is “The Greek Colony of Massilia” (1868). This panoramic pastoral evokes the Hellenic forerunner of Marseilles, emphasizing the Mediterranean heritage of France. It also represents a major contribution to the perennial theme of Arcadia.

This work, or one very like it, was the source of Signac’s divisionist “In the Time of Harmony”(1893-95). The title suggests a utopian vision inspired by the visionary Charles Fourier, who advocated life in an ideal commune. This mode of living, “Harmony,” would be immeasurably superior to “civilization” which Fourier abhorred. Another hommage is an early work by Henri Matisse, “Luxe, Calme, et Volupté (1904-05). The title is purloined from Baudelaire.

The Nabis. Taking their name from a Hebrew term meaning the prophets, the Nabis were a group of avant-garde Parisian artists who flourished from 1888 to roughly 1900. History has judged that Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard were the truly outstanding artists, but at the time they were somewhat peripheral to the core group. With the possible exception of Maurice Denis, none of the others was a major artist, but their unity was their strength.

Les Nabis originated as a rebellious group of young student artists who banded together at Académie Julian in Paris. Paul Sérusier galvanized Les Nabis, disseminating the example of his mentor Paul Gauguin among them. In fact the term was coined by the poet Henri Cazalis, who drew a parallel between the way these painters aimed to revitalize painting and the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel.

Meeting at the Académie Julian, and then in the apartment of Paul Ranson, they preached that a work of art is the visual expression of an artist's synthesis of nature in personal aesthetic metaphors and symbols. The ideal of integrating art and daily life, was a goal they had in common with most progressive artists of the time. The influence of the English Arts and Crafts Movement set them to work in media that involved crafts beyond painting, including printmaking, book illustration and poster design, textiles, furniture, and theater design.

Generating a quasireligious atmosphere, the Nabis regarded themselves as initiates, using a private vocabulary. They called a studio ergasterium, and ended their letters with the initials E.T.P.M.V. et M.P., meaning "En ta paume, mon verbe et ma paume" ("In the palm of your hand, my word and my palm."). Such initials recall the PRB (for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood).

The writings of Maurice Denis put the aims of the group in the eye of a progressive audience. His definition of painting — "a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order" — anticipated abstraction. His Théories (1920; 1922) summed up the Nabis' aims long after they had been superseded by the fauve painters and by cubism.

The work of MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943) ranged from somewhat bland religious works to truly forward-looking ones. Yet some of the religious works, such as “The Holy Women at the Tomb” (1894), with the almost eerie coloring of the figures, can be quite striking.

“Green Trees” (1893) with its flatness and reticence is a minor masterpiece. In true Symbolist fashion we sense that a narrative is there, though none is specified. If we deem it necessary we must devise it for ourselves.

Another work, “Tree Study” (1893) anticipates Mondrian’s 1908 “Landscape at Oele.”
While “Song” (1910) is dully conventional, “Sunspots on a Terrace” (1890) is, exceptionally, almost abstract.

Paul SERUSIER (1865-1927) was a disciple of Paul Gauguin, as seen in his Breton “Melancholia” (1890). His “Talisman,” based on a suggestion proffered by Gauguin, is a uniquely resplendent masterpiece, which he never equaled before or after. By 1910 (“Origins” and “Tetrahedrons”) he had become absorbed by an occult geometric preoccupation.

Belgium achieved its independence from the Netherlands in 1830. It cherished the glories of its Flemish past, as seen in the slide of the Grand’ Place in Brussels. In our period, though, it became a major center of the art-nouveau trend as seen in the townhouses of Victor Horta (the interior of the Van Eetevelde house, 1897-1900, was shown). Communication with France was facilitated by the fact that the major cultural contributions of this time stemmed from the French-speaking upper crust (whose members were sometimes sarcastically known as the fransquillons). Rodenbach, Maeterlinck, and Verhaeren were the three chief Symbolist writers. With its silent canals Bruges became the archetypal Symbolist city.

Thirteen Belgians--Khopff and Ensor being the most prominent among them--started the Groupe des XX (The Twenty) in 1883. Gradually other members were admitted, many printmakers and designers, and only some of them Symbolists. Before long foreigners, including Toorop, Signac, and Rodin, were invited to join.


Fernand Edmond Jean Marie Khnopff (1858-1921) ranks as the pivotal Belgian Symbolist painter. Stemming from an old Austrian family, he was raised in Bruges and went to law school in Brussels. He quickly dropped out, enrolling in the Académie des Beaux-Arts. During a trip to Paris in 1877 he was impressed by Delacroix and the Pre-Raphaelites. He remained a fervent anglophile, sometimes giving English titles to his works.

At first many of his works seem slight, mere bagatelles. Yet the gain in significance if they are regarded as fragments of larger wholes. While we may at first be tempted to disregard these seemingly slight works, their technical perfection, together with the enigmas with which we are engaged, ensure our attention. Khnopff never provided written explanations, so that we must do that work ourselves. His purported obsession with his sister Marguerite has been exaggerated; she happened to agree with a certain Symbolist concept of the ideal woman, with a straight profile, chiseled chin, and prominent hairdo.

“Blood of the Medusa” (1898) is a highly personal interpretation of this fearful creature.

One of his most daring works is “The Caresses of the Sphinx” (1896). Khnopff cunningly altered the physiognomy of the sphinx so that it has the body of a leopard, not a lion. Both figures are characterized by androgyny, a preoccupation that Khnopff shared with his friend Péladan.

Several works are hommages to Péladan.

His depictions of Bruges are usually from photographs (even thought town was only some twenty miles off). Khnopff’s concern with memory parallels that of Proust. His “Portrait of Georges Rodenbach" (1895), author of the celebrated novel Bruges-la-morte, has that city as a background.

A late work, the “Orpheus” (1913) presents three archetypal female forms. The first, a kind of Venus figure, stands for sensuality. The middle figure, a feminized Orpheus, represents the arts. Finally, the Diana of the Ephesians (who wears a Buddha) headdress stands for religion, understood in a syncretistic fashion.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Lecture FIVE Summary

As we have seen, Odilon Redon gradually reinvented himself over the course of some twenty years. Eventually, he discarded the gloomy, sometimes alarming mode of the noirs, for a resplendent new manifestation, the vehicle of an almost orgasmic color. Even during the transition period when they chronologically overlapped, the two modes remained distinct, despite some ill-advised aftertouches aimed at “gingering up” charcoal works by adding color ex post facto.

Put another way, Redon began as a melancholic, ensconced “under Saturn,” as the traditional appellation goes. Then he turned into a Jovian. (In French the name Redon can be interpreted as re-don, a regiving. Or, as they say on Broadway, he was a “twofer.”)

In this transformation extra-personal factors played a role. Together with his nation, the artist experienced a deep pessimism in the ‘seventies, following the loss of Franco-Prussian war. Yet the following decade saw a general lightening of many artists’ palettes (as Van Gogh’s spectacular shift from the browns of the “Potato Eaters” phase to Arlesian saturated color attests).).

Looked at overall, then, Redon shows a creative bipolarism. It is as if two personalities dwelt in his body, one in the earliest phases the latter in the closing decades. For a time, cohabitation even occurred.

Avoiding the temptation to clinical labeling, which would be inappropriate, it is worth looking briefly at some comparative cases. Vassily Kandinsky’s first abstract style was gestural. After he joined the Bauhaus he remained abstract, but virtually reversed his style, which became hard-edge.

The case of the American artist Philip Guston is even more striking. His subtle abstractions yielded to an assertive cartoonish style. Guston’s daughter suggests that he was exorcising some inner demons. As with Kandinsky, though perhaps more so, we tend to prefer the earlier work, sometimes hazarding the view that “I wish he hadn’t done that.”

A final instance is the career of Paul Cézanne. His romantic phase, typified by “The Murder” of ca. 1867 evolved into what we think of as the “real Cézanne,” exemplified by the bathers of the 1890s. This instance is different from the other two. The romantic canvases can be regarded as tyro work. Here the underlying assumption is that an artist, like art, progresses. In this way the artist’s early indiscretions can be excused, because he is just finding his way.

Critics, dealers, and connoisseurs seem to concur in urging artists to stick to “their” style, and not to indulge in adventures. It is a little like those rock stars whose fans insist that they give concerts of favorite oldies rather than present new work, which might prove difficult.

Let us return to our subject. In Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories, please read the following pages: 1-11, 35-64, 125-52, and 185-226. These documents provide an important set of period controls for our own efforts. Note in particular G.- Albert Aurier’s 1891 presentation of Gauguin in his essay “Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin.” His five criteria are ideist, symbolist, synthetic, subjective, and decorative.

Before going further, it is necessary to examine two key ideas of wide applicability. They are also particularly relevant to Gauguin.

1) Primitivism. The big MoMA show a generation ago, with its mammoth catalogue, should have been the last work, but it wasn’t. One complaint was that “primitive” art is not primitive; and it is interesting for the ideas it incorporates as well as the form. Formal stimulus was the key to the appropriation performed by Picasso and the German expressionists. -- In art history and criticism the term primitive originally meant pre-Renaissance European art. Lionello Venturi, Ernst Gombrich and others have chronicled the “taste for the primitives.” Typical objects of admiration in this trend were noted in Duccio’s “Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin,” and the Lamentation of Master of the Rohan hours (Lamentation). In privileging design and emotion over realism the primitives were regarded as preferable to Renaissance art. This new approach inverted the earlier art hierarchy. The concept was echoed in the label “Pre-Raphaelite. The whole scheme is a challenge to the idea of progress, for art may devolve instead of evolving. We cannot confidently assume that things will get better and better. They may get worse. (Note the affinitiy with the pejorative idea of decadence. --- Historians of ideas, preeminently Arthur O. Lovejoy, have identified another type of primitivism, which is oriented to social and economic conditions. In this view a more restricted environment may be better than the excess and luxury that tend to come about as a result of economic advances. The simple life is the virtuous life. There are two variants. Hard primitivism occurs when life is hard and challenging, as among, say, the Eskimos and Tuareg of the Sahara. Soft primitivism is when life is easy because of natural abundance. Arcadia (originally a district in Greece) exemplified the European type of soft primitivism. During the 18th century, however, many began to locate it in the South Pacific.

2) Multiculturalism. Like most societies, Europeans tended to ignore or caricature the cultural achievements of other civilizations. A major exception was China. During the 17th and 18th centuries Europe was gripped by enthusiasm for things Chinese that amounted to virtual Sinomania. This admiration had serious consequences in the writings of such thinkers as Leibniz and Voltaire. In art Chinoiserie was a more superficial counterpart. Few European artists had traveled to Asia, and they produced a kind of rococo caricature of Chinese art, which passed for the real thing. Probably, though, all cultural borrowing entails some degree of distortion. We seize upon features that appeal to us, discarding the rest. However, as the realities of the Qing dynasty of the Manchus became better known, the gloss wore off. Then it was the turn of India, as seen in Brighton Pavilion. Then, in the second half of the 19th century Japan became all the rage, as seen in the work of Van Gogh and other artists. All three, China, India, and Japan were acknowledged as “high civilizations.” Generally speaking, societies viewed as less evolved were not eligible for the club. Yet there was one prominent exception, up to a point. That was the Polynesian islands of the South Pacific. Beginning with the reports of the voyages of Cook and Bougainville, some came to regard the South Seas as the earthy paradise (a version of the soft primitivism discussed above. In this happy tropical setting nature provided everything, so there was no need for covetousness and warfare. (These things existed, but Europeans affected not to notice them. There was a stereotype of the sexual availability of Pacific maidens. In this belief we may perhaps detect the origins of the highly dubious practice known today as sexual tourism. At all events the South Seas combined the ideas of abundance, exoticism, and eroticism.


Aurier notwithstanding, the conventional view is that he is not a Symbolist but a Postimpressionist. The Postimpressionist triumvirate are an oddly matched group, unified neither by style nor by meaning. It is true that Van Gogh and Gauguin were briefly an odd couple, but that does not make a movement.

At any rate Gauguin’s standing as a Symbolist was present at the creation, so to speak. Critics regarded him as such, and he did not reject the label. More significantly, the sense that his works combine what is said with what is suggested fits the Symbolist bill

Gauguin’s career shows the power of the avant-garde to attract. Wisely or not, he gave up the day job in stock brokering. Immensely conceited, he felt that his genius authorized him to utilize others-—his wife and mistresses, his supporters, even the hapless Vincent Van Gogh-—as instruments, mere appurtenances along his way to ultimate fame and fortune. He fell into the model of the amoral genius. Wagner is the archetypal example in his day.

Gauguin’s sexual pluralism (perhaps better described by the old term of womanizer) reflected his sense of entitlement, the special privileges that his genius afforded. Since the Renaissance there have been lecherous artists whose pursuit of women became obsessive. All the same, with such figures as Fra Filippo Lippi and Giorgione we would not detect their hypersexuality from their works. With Gauguin it was different. The eroticism, combined with exoticism, is integral to the work. In this affirmation, of course, he was assisted by the aura of the sexual availability of South Pacific women.

A series of self-portraits convey his messianic concept of the artist who “nobly” sacrifices his own material comfort for the good of humanity. Or, as Debra Silverman witheringly remarks, he saw himself as an exalted bandit.

His stays in Brittany were not originally motivated by a quest for the primitive, but were undertaken for the sake of economy and the company of fellow artists. It was a kind of exurban bohemia. Yet once he had had some experience of this least French of French provinces, Gauguin began to savor what he regarded as the archaic in the guise of customs that may have stemmed from the Middle Ages, or even earlier—from Druidic times. In his dress Gauguin affected wooden clogs, imagining that his heavy steps caused Breton primordiality to resound.

“The Vision after the Sermon” is a pivotal work. Not simply an aesthetic achievement, this canvas reflects his interest in redefining religious iconography. Despite a strong dose of cynicism, there is an authentic strand of religious quest in Gauguin. Technically he makes use of two medieval devices: broad areas of unmodulated color and cloisons, the imaginary stays at the edges of his figures.

During his residence with Van Gogh in Arles, Gauguin experienced the attractions of another French area, Provence. This was the era of the “lure of the Mediterranean.” Monet and Van Gogh reflect two aspects of this fascination, which of course many tourists have felt. For Gauguin, however, the Arles stay was but a prelude to his Real South—the nine years spent in French Polynesia.

Analysis of his Tahitian paintings shows that the style rarely features true Polynesian elements. Instead, Gauguin drew upon a stock of images he remembered or purloined from prints he had brought with him. These sources of inspiration were European, Egyptian, and Indonesian, among others. For example, “Ta Matete” with its figures aligned to the picture plane seems to derive from an Egyptian fresco of the 18th Dynasty. “Ia oriana Maria,” a path-breaking indigenization of a standard Christian theme, has two figures taken from a Buddhist relief carving at Borobudur in Java.

At first Gauguin knew little of Polynesian lore. Much of it had in fact been erased by the work of missionaries, who strove to eradicate remains of heathendom. Yet an old monograph of a writer named Jacques Antoine Moerenhout of 1837 provided him with much information about the Polynesia pantheon and beliefs. Gauguin was much taken with the moon and creation goddess Hina. On these matters see Jehanne Teillet-Fisk, Paradise Reviewed: An Interpretation of Gauguin's Polynesian Symbolism (Ann Arbor, 1983) and the postrumous work of Henri Dorra, forthcoming from the University of California early next year.

Oddly enough, Gauguin does not seem to have made explicit use of the two major Polynesian contributions to our thinking about religion: taboo and mana. The latter, virtually the opposite of taboo, refers to a kind of pervasive sense of the sacred.

The pivotal masterpiece of those years is the big work currently on display at the Vollard Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum: “Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?” The narrative of this canvas unfolds in frieze-like fashion--from the infant on the right to the old woman on the left.

For all of Gauguin’s devotion to the female body, he was occasionally receptive to the charms of the mahu, representatives of the “third sex.” At least two paintings show mahu persons. While the artist seemed to have toyed with the idea of androgyny, the notion of a “Gayguin” seems wide of the mark. On this matter see the somewhat speculative book of Steven Eisenman, Gauguin’s Skirt.

Perhaps the accomplishment of the nine culminating years in Polynesia can be understood in terms of métissage. This expression, current among some literary scholars, stems from the French word métis, mixture. The term may apply to persons whose parents are of two different ethnicities. However, there is a cultural application as well, referring to someone who strives to blend two different cultures.

In the light of this idea Gauguin did not truly succeed in “going native.” In fact he misunderstood some aspects of the Polynesian heritage. But he did succeed in grafting substantial portions of it onto his European base, which he enriched with other components. In doing so he very significantly enlarged the scope of Symbolism by bringing in major elements of non-European origin.