Symbolism emerged in Modern Art just before the turn of the century, as artists began to push much further into ways they could communicate their ideas. Emerging in novels and poetry as well as art, Symbolism grew mostly from French, Russian, and Belgian artists reacting against naturalism and realism; other art forms had already begun pushing those boundaries, but symbolists wanted to push further, and became an important foundation stone of the avant-garde and Modernist movement.
In the late 1880s a Symbolist Manifesto was published in print by poet Jean Moréas, identifying Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Verlaine as the leading talents of the movement, and described Symbolism as being against plain meanings, false sentimentality, or the matter-of-fact, and in favour of depicting and idea, or the effect a thing produces rather than the thing itself. A range of poets, philosophers, and writers began to explore the new possibilities of this form, and soon many of the ideas were finding their way into paintings, galleries, and art prints.
The visual arts version of Symbolism was different though, whilst the poet’s manifesto pointed towards what would come later in other Modern Art forms, painters of the time weren’t quite ready to move that far.
Mysticism and Romanticism within Symbolist visual arts
Symbolism is sometimes seen as something of a throwback to the mystical elements of Romanticism, often utilising figures from the Bible and Greek mythology to convey its ideas. There are original ideas here though; a fascination with psychology and powerful themes of love, fear, anguish, and sexual awakening. And whilst some of the symbols were familiar, many were not, they were symbols with personal relevance to the artist, or connected to far more obscure cultural ideas such as the occult and dream states.
This was a softer way of expressing personal feelings than later art forms; a nuanced suggestion that may even be missed by a casual observer, or simply raise a veil of privacy or mystique.
The movement was full of familiar names; Gauguin, Klimt, Munch, and Kahlo can all be grouped with the Symbolists, even though their symbols, subjects, and approaches are incredibly varied. Experimental colouring far beyond Impressionism, intense studies of eroticism, anguish, and autobiography, naiive folk art, and Asian influence can be found scattered through the work of just these four, as they sought to express their inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions, freed from the restrictions of classic tradition.
Sometimes it is noted that Symbolism may have been more of a philosophy or technique than a separate art movement; so different were it’s artists, so widespread was the geography, so experimental and original were the ideas.
A launchpad for the Modern Art that was to come
By contemporary comparison, some Symbolist art looks little different to traditional works, whilst even the extremes still feel quite rooted in recognisable figures and situations, but it was a break from tradition which caused significant shockwaves in the minds of artists. It paved the way to abandoning all forms of tradition; if ideas and emotions could be portrayed in paintings through personal symbolism alone, then why couldn’t that take the form of abstract geometric shapes, urinals or lobster phones?
Such big steps were still decades away, and in their own way could be seen as Symbolist themselves if you are to consider it a philosophy; perhaps one of the most important philosophies of Modern Art.
It was at the forefront of the movement though, a series of dream worlds where artists began to find tradition just couldn’t convey the complex thoughts and feelings emerging in modern life.