Symbolism opens the gate for expression; the philosophical corners of the mind understand the world and all it contains in form of metaphors. We constantly observe and interpret words, objects, and concepts using experiences as a device. We seek meaning beyond the outwardly apparent to form and define the Baudrillard-esque dimension, the codes and connected dots that become the road map to spirituality and our subconscious.
Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1895, oil on canvas.
The objective words and concepts, thus, are not bound to a single-dimensional interpretation. Their meaning goes beyond and above what we see at first sight. In symbolism, objects represent concepts; concepts that are bound to an object’s history and role in the real world. For instance, spring universally symbolizes new beginnings. The sprouting of the new shoots and the green grass blades rising over the frosty and lifeless reign of snow mark the history of each spring that humanity has witnessed, hence, the symbolic representation of new life.
The History of Symbolism
As a concept, symbolism is perhaps as old as humanity. The pictographs of cave dwellers depict stories with a combination of symbolic and realistic imagery. The greek classics are another testament to the use of symbolism in expression. Medusa, burdened with her toxic thoughts, was depicted as a snake-headed woman. Other classical literature, and religious texts, use this powerful device to embed cultural values and morals into stories that take place in reality.
As an art movement, symbolism goes back to the 1880s. In 1886, Jean Moréas published his manifesto in Le Figaro, which became the lodestone of the movement. The greek poet explained the use of symbolism as a device to express absolute truths. While naturalism and realism were both materialistic in nature, the symbolism movement was the metaphorical expression of spiritual values.
Symbolism, in essence, is a process in which the interpretation of truth combats the mere acceptance of reality, a social dilemma that has starved the society of moral values.
All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth. – Friedrich Nietzsche
The Rise of Symbolism
Revolutions, the fall of many kingdoms into people-oriented republics, social instability, and threads of civil and national wars had pushed the minds of people towards materialism. Machinery ruled and people - happy to have revoked the old evil of monarchy - were now at the mercy of the banks and new financial systems. It was only a natural response that intellectuals recalled the once-prosperous order when life was in alignment with nature and the living cause of humankind was beyond material richness.
All these nostalgic sentiments gave birth to Symbolism; in opposition to the naturalism art movement and materialism. In the fervent entanglement of contemporary men and women with ambiguous machinery and soul-less lifestyles, Symbolism recalled the subjective truth of the earlier times; depicting powerful truths that in the eyes of modern realists, and later the neo-realists, was nothing but “invisible reality”.
Symbolism in Literature
Symbolism became a widespread literary device in France, Russia, and Belgium. The absolute truths were attired in metaphorical references and symbolic language. The idea was in the air; intellectuals such as Henri Rousseau and Friedrich Schiller suffered from the separation of humans from nature; much like an unwise child who ventures from its source of nutrition and protection in folly and without understanding the consequences.
We dream of travels throughout the universe: is not the universe within us? We do not know the depths of our spirit. The mysterious path leads within. In us, or nowhere, lies eternity with its worlds, the past and the future… - Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772 – 1801)
Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, the precursor of symbolism literary style, (1821-67) by Emile Deroy, oil on canvas.
Two of the most notable works that enticed the movement even before Moréas’s manifesto were: Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Other literary examples which are also suggested as must-read works are: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven by W. B. Yeats.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
- He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven by W. B. Yeats.
Symbolism in Art
By definition, symbolism holds a special regard for art, artists, and intellectuals. Imagination is the founding stone of the concepts with wise and rather spiritual connotations that interpret reality. The title of 'the first symbolism painter' is given to Gustave Moreau. Symbolic creatures, biblical and mythological inspirations, and medieval references are the recurrent themes in his paintings.
The Voices, ca. 1880, watercolor and gouache on paper by Gustav Moreau.
Other notable artists of this movement include: John William Waterhouse, Paul Gauguin, Gustav, Jacek Malczewski, Félicien Rops, Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich, Victor Borisov-Musatov, and many more.
Symbolism Vs. Romanticism
A thin line, nonetheless a separating line, stands between symbolism and romanticism. Both movements embrace nature and its elements to express and use imagination to convey meaning. Also, they are both nostalgic in essence and hold similar sentiments for the past eras.
However, symbolism is ever obscure in its boundaries; it adapts new symbols constantly in reaction to cultural changes. It examines the present and recreates the new by drawing on past inspiration. Symbolism aims to reclaim identity and keep the traditional values alive while adapting to new ways of life.
On the other hand, while romanticism was fed from the springs of subjective interpretation, it holds a focus on solace in reality through “romanticization”. Instead, symbolism does not surpass the limits of the spiritual self and the real world - no matter how kind or cruel the event in question is. For a romantic, the internal realm was an all-encompassing concept and deemed natural, while symbolism scrutinized each concept - both the inward and outward - with eminent curiosity and non-bias.
The Wounded Angel by Hugo Simberg oil on canvas, 1903
Following the early 19th century romanticism, and the mid-19th century aestheticism, along with the industrial revolution and political changes, some believe symbolism was a response to the spiritual instability of life at the time. Villages had become empty, as people flooded to urban spaces in search of modernism and new jobs, the traditional was in jeopardy of extinction; and the poetic soul of the artist was devastatingly in need of revisiting classical metaphors. Could our generation also relate to any of these trends?
Clément Dessy, The Symbolist Movement: Its Origins and Its Consequences, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.
Dina Ripsman Eylon, Symbolism: The Literary Movement, University of Toronto, 2007
Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, Cornell University, 1899
Courtesy of Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, The Voices, ca. 1880, watercolor and gouache on paper by Gustav Moreau.
Courtesy of Ateneum Art Museum, The Wounded Angel by Hugo Simberg oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Gustave Moreau Museum, Paris. Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1895, oil on canvas.
Copia-di-arte.com, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) by Emile Deroy, oil on canvas.