5 Facts That Will Help You Understand Symbolism

Zuzanna Stańska 28 March 2022 min Read

Symbolism as a term can be confusing. Usually grouped with the other Post-Impressionist movements, Symbolism emerged at just about the same time as Impressionism, but it is not entirely accurate to call it “post” Impressionist. So what exactly was Symbolism? Here are five facts about Symbolism that will help you understand it!

1. Symbolism was initially developed as a French literary movement.

Gustav Klimt, Music, 1895, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Pinakhoteken, Munich, Germany.

Symbolism was a late 19th-century art movement. In literature, the style originates with the 1857 publication of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. The name “symbolist” itself was coined by the critic Jean Moréas. He created the term to distinguish the symbolists from related decadents of literature and art. Moréas, who published the Symbolist Manifesto (Le Symbolisme) in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886, named Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine the three leading poets of the movement.

Symbolism was proclaimed to be 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.”

2. Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea, rather than represent the natural world in a realistic way.

symbolism facts Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis - Finale (Sonata of the Sun). 1907, Memorial Museum of M.Ciurlionis, Kaunas
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Finale (Sonata of the Sun), 1907, Memorial Museum of M.Ciurlionis, Kaunas, Lithuania.

Symbolists weren’t unified in a distinct and homogeneous group. Instead they resided across all of Europe and worked independently. They had varying aesthetic goals but all shared a similar mindset. Among the leading artists we should mention: Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Jacek Malczewski, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops. Also, Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a Symbolist sculptor. Each of them perceived Symbolism in a different way.

3. The Symbolists produced imaginary dream worlds populated with mysterious figures from biblical stories, Greek mythology, and fantastical creatures.

Odilon Redon, Eye-Balloon, 1878 symbolism facts
Odilon Redon, Eye-Balloon, 1878, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

The third Symbolism fact is that painters used mythological and dream imagery. It all started with Edgar Allan Poe, whose works were translated by Baudelaire. The symbols used in Symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure, and ambiguous references. 

4. Their favorite subjects were love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire…

symbolism facts
Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899, Nasjonalmuseet, Norway, Oslo.

The Scream by Edvard Munch seems to be the most well-known Symbolist work. It is the best exemplification of the fin-de-siècle feelings of isolation, disillusionment, and psychological anguish conveyed through distorted forms, expressive colors, and fluid brushwork. Munch’s style is based on the real anxieties of modern existence. His paintings explore themes of illness, loneliness, despair, and mental suffering associated with love. Munch deemed these conditions emblematic of “modern psychic life.”

5 … and femmes fatales of course.

symbolism facts
Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, 1876, Louvre, Paris, France.

Women became the favored symbol for the expression of these universal emotions, appearing alternately as wistful virgins and menacing femmes fatales. In this latter category, Gustave Moreau popularized the motifs of Salome brandishing the head of John the Baptist and the man-eating sphinx through paintings such as Oedipus and the Sphinx. Klimt’s works were perceived as scandalous, as they depicted women of Viennese upper-class as seductresses.

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