Symbolism, in the late 19th century, came out of the romantic movement and explored the meanings of forms, lines, shapes and colour, drawing on such literary genres as mythology and subjects such as dreams and nightmares, religion, life and death. It was thought that is was a reaction against the advancement of science and technology; a reminder that there may be other forces in the world other than those explained by science.
Two paintings by artists with an Italian connection, epitomise how this genre could be used to discuss morality in its different guises.
‘Evil Mothers’ (1894) by the Italian artist, Giovanni Segantini, is an excellent example of the way form, colour and subject matter combined in a spiritual way.
Abandoned by his own mother, Segantini had a difficult relationship with women, due to his insistence that a woman’s role was as wife and mother. His belief that a woman who did not fulfil these roles was inadequate fed into much of his art work. Segantini favoured the cold, barren, alpine landscapes, revealing a coldness in his own outlook.
The title, ‘Evil Mothers’, allegedly taken from a poem by a 12th Century Monk which had been translated into Italian by Segantini’s friend, Luigi Illica, described women who refused to partake in marriage and motherhood. It is clear that Segantini was using this symbol to criticise those who behaved in an ‘unnatural’ way. The irony here is the Segantini never married the mother of his children. As a child, Segantini’s half sister, Irene, relinquished their Italian citizenship in order to take up Austrian citizenship. However, Irene never completed the paperwork and, as a consequence, they remained stateless. This meant that Segantini could not marry and legitimise his own children with Luigia Pierina Bugatti.
In this work, which is one of series on the same theme of ‘bad mothers’, the foreground is taken up with a twisted tree and entwined within that tree, a woman; breasts exposed, body contorted and hair caught up in the branches.
While this may appear to be a punishment, it could be said that a look of beatification is apparent as a child, that seems to come from the branches that hold her, suckles at her breast. Was Segantini trying to say that forcing a woman into a role would be its own reward in the end?
Symbolism’s literary connection can also be seen in the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with their love of mythology and legend. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1855 work, ‘Paolo and Francesca of Rimini’ tells the story of two lovers who, discovered in an embrace by Francesca’s husband who was also Paolo’s brother, were murdered by him and their tale is told in Dante’s Inferno, a book beloved of Rossetti:
“Love pardons no one loved from Love, and I
Was drawn to him with what force you can see:
It still holds me beside him as we fly.
Love gave two lives one death for destiny” Dante’s Inferno, Canto 5
Produced in three panels, Rossetti uses the lines from Dante to show the lovers reading a book about Lancelot and Guinevere: Paolo’s tunic matches Lancelot whose own love was doomed to failure. A red rose lies at their feet: is this symbolic of a love that is about to die?
Behind the couple is a circular stained-glass window, the light of which reveals the moment of the forbidden kiss. The right hand panel has the lovers entwined, Francesca’s glowing red hair is caught in the turbulence of their embrace surrounded by fire, symbols of their passion.
Symbolism brought the art world to the brink of modernity and its exploration of a “psychological truth” allowed artists to take these abstract ideas, and give them form.