Tuesday, July 31, 2018

SEVEN: Geographical factors


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.


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