La mort du fossoyeur
("The death of the gravedigger") by Carlos Schwabe
is a visual compendium of Symbolist
, pristine snow
, and the dramatic poses of the characters all express Symbolist longings for transfiguration "anywhere, out of the world."
Symbolism was a late nineteenth century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts.
Precursors and origins
French Symbolism was in large part a reaction against Naturalism and Realism, movements which attempted to capture reality in its particularity. These movements invited a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams; the path to Symbolism begins with that reaction. A number of Symbolist writers, including Joris-Karl Huysmans, began as Naturalists before moving in the direction of Symbolism.
Symbolist movement poetry has been said by some to begin with the influential series of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire, although work by poets such as Gérard de Nerval and Arthur Rimbaud were also highly significant in this respect. Symbolism represents an outgrowth of the more gothic and darker sides of Romanticism; but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, Symbolism was static and hieratic. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images.
Symbolism as a movement
The Symbolist Manifesto
Symbolists believed that art should aim to capture more absolute truths which could only be accessed by indirect methods. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. The Symbolist manifesto was published in 1886 by Jean Moréas. Moréas announced that Symbolism was hostile to "plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description," and that its goal instead was to "clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form whose "goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal":
- In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.
Paul Verlaine and the poètes maudits
But perhaps of the several attempts at defining the essence of Symbolism, none was more influential than Paul Verlaine's 1884 publication of a series of essays on Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarmé, each of whom Verlaine numbered among the poètes maudits, "accursed poets."
Verlaine argued that in their individual and very different ways, each of these hitherto neglected poets found genius a curse; it isolated them from their contemporaries, and as a result these poets were not at all concerned to avoid hermeticism and idiosyncratic writing styles. In this conception of genius and the role of the poet, Verlaine referred obliquely to the aesthetics of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, who held that the purpose of art was to provide a temporary refuge from the world of blind strife of the will.
Symbolism and philosophy
Schopenhauer's aesthetics reflected shared concerns with the Symbolist programme; they both tended to look to Art as a contemplative refuge from the world of strife and Will. From this desire for an artistic refuge from the world, the Symbolists took characteristic themes of mysticism and otherworldliness, a keen sense of mortality, and a sense of the malign power of sexuality. Mallarmé's poem Les fenêtres () expresses all of these themes clearly. A dying man in a hospital bed, seeking escape from the pain and dreariness of his physical surroundings, turns toward his window; turns away in disgust from:
- . . . . l'homme a l'âme dure
Vautré dans le bonheur, où ses seuls appétits
Mangent, et qui s'entête à chercher cette ordure
Pour l'offrir à la femme allaitant ses petits,
- ("the hard-souled man, wallowing in happiness, where only his appetites feed, and who insists on seeking out this filth to offer to the wife suckling his children")
and in contrast, he "turns his back on life" (tourne l’épaule à la vie) and he exclaims:
- Je me mire et me vois ange! Et je meurs, et j'aime
— Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticité —
A renaître, portant mon rêve en diadème,
Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté!
- ("I marvel at myself, I seem an angel! and I die, and I love --- whether the glass might be art, or mysticism --- to be reborn, bearing my dream as a diadem, under that former sky where Beauty once flourished.")
The Symbolist movement has frequently been confused with Decadence. Several young writers were derisively referred to in the press as "decadent" in the mid 1880s. Jean Moréas' manifesto was largely a response to this polemic. A few of these writers embraced the term while most avoided it. Although the esthetics of Symbolism and Decadence can be seen as overlapping in some areas, the two remain distinct.
In other media
Symbolism in the visual arts
Symbolism in literature is distinct from Symbolism in art although the two overlapped on a number of points. There were several, rather dissimilar, groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, among whom Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Fantin-Latour, Edvard Munch, Félicien Rops, and Jan Toorop were numbered. Symbolism in painting had an even larger geographical reach than Symbolism in poetry, reaching several Russian artists, as well as figures such as Elihu Vedder in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a Symbolist in sculpture.
Symbolist influence in music
Symbolism had some influence in music as well. Many Symbolist writers and critics were early enthusiasts for the music of Richard Wagner, a fellow student of Schopenhauer. The Symbolist aesthetic had a deep impact on the works of Claude Debussy. His choices of libretti, texts, and themes come almost exclusively from the Symbolist canon: in particular, compositions such as his settings of Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, various art songs on poems by Verlaine, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande with a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, and his unfinished sketches that illustrate two Poe stories, The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher, all indicate that Debussy was profoundly influenced by Symbolist themes and tastes. His best known work, the Prélude à 'L'après-midi d'un faune, was inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, L'après-midi d'un faune. Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire takes its text from German translations of the Symbolist poems by Albert Giraud, showing a link between German expressionism and Symbolism.
Symbolist prose fiction
Symbolism's cult of the static and hieratic adapted less well to narrative fiction than it did to poetry. Joris-Karl Huysmans' 1884 novel À rebours (English title: Against the Grain) contained many themes which became associated with the Symbolist esthetic. This novel in which very little happens is a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive antihero. The novel was imitated by Oscar Wilde in several passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Paul Adam was the most prolific and most representative author of Symbolist novels. Les Demoiselles Goubert co-written with Jean Moréas in 1886 is an important transitional work between Naturalism and Symbolism. Few Symbolists used this form. One exception is Gustave Kahn who published Le Roi fou in 1896. Other fiction that is sometimes considered Symbolist is the cynical misanthropic (and especially, misogynistic) tales of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly. Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote his first novels in the Symbolist vein.
In the English speaking world, the closest counterpart to Symbolism was Aestheticism; the Pre-Raphaelites, also, were contemporaries of the earlier Symbolists, and have much in common with them. Symbolism had a significant influence on Modernism and its traces can be seen in a number of modernist artists, including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, and William Butler Yeats in the anglophone tradition and Rubén Darío in Hispanic letters. Edmund Wilson's 1931 study Axel's Castle focuses on the continuity with Symbolism and a number of important writers of the early twentieth century, with a particular focus on Yeats, Eliot, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. The early poems of Guillaume Apollinaire have strong affinities with Symbolism.
As the movement was losing its forward movement in France, after the turn of the twentieth century it became a major force in Russian poetry. The Russian Symbolist movement , steeped in the Eastern Orthodoxy and the religious docrines of Vladimir Solovyov, had little in common with the French movement of the same name. It was the starting point of the careers of several major poets such as Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Bely's novel Petersburg (1912) is considered the greatest monument of Russian symbolist prose.
The Symbolist painters were an important influence on expressionism and surrealism in painting, two movements which descend directly from Symbolism proper. The harlequins, paupers, and clowns of Pablo Picasso's "blue period" show the influence of Symbolism, and especially of Puvis de Chavannes. In Belgium, where Symbolism had penetrated deeply, so much so that it came to be thought of as a national style, the static strangeness of painters like René Magritte can be seen as a direct continuation of Symbolism. The work of some Symbolist visual artists directly impacted the curvilinear forms of art nouveau.
Many early motion pictures, also, contain a good deal of Symbolist visual imagery and themes in their staging, set designs, and imagery. The films of German Expressionism owe a great deal to Symbolist imagery. The virginal "good girls" seen in the films of D. W. Griffith, and the silent movie "bad girls" portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of Symbolist imagery, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith's Intolerance. Symbolist imagery lived on longest in the horror film; as late as 1932, a horror film such as Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr shows the obvious influence of Symbolist imagery; parts of the film resemble tableau vivant re-creations of the early paintings of Edvard Munch.
Some precursors to Symbolism
Symbolist influence in English literature
English language authors that influenced, or were influenced by Symbolism include:
See also: Symbolist painters
- Balakian, Anna, The Symbolist Movement: a critical appraisal. Random House, 1967
- Delvaille, Bernard, La poésie symboliste: anthologie. ISBN 2221501616
- Houston, John Porter and Houston, Mona Tobin, French Symbolist Poetry: an anthology. ISBN 0253202507
- Jullian, Philippe, The Symbolists. ISBN 0714817392
- Praz, Mario, The Romantic Agony. ISBN 0192810618
- Wilson, Edmond, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930. ISBN 0020128711