What is symbolism?

How can works of symbolism be recognized? We will introduce you to this current of modern art and its characteristics in more detail.

Symbolism: Origin and Development

Symbolism is a style of art of the late 19th century. Represented in literature as well as in the fine arts, especially in painting, Symbolism found its peak in Europe between 1880-1910. This art movement was directed against Realism and Impressionism, against Positivism and Materialism, against Historicism and the naturalistic painting tradition of the academies.

With his “Symbolist Manifesto” in 1886, the French writer Jean Moréas laid an important foundation for this anti-rationalist and anti-materialist style. In it, he declared that in Symbolist art, things should never be represented directly, but should be expressed through symbolic aesthetics in the form of symbols and metaphors. Reality is thereby conveyed by combining different pictorial contents.

The artists made such a synthesis possible for themselves by not transferring the individual motifs directly from nature to the picture carrier, but by feeding them from the impressions of their memory. The imagination was thus elevated to the most important source of creativity. It was precisely this artistic approach that often led to the depiction of dream-like sceneries in Symbolism, which means that this style can be considered a precursor of the Surrealist art movement.

What are common motifs of Symbolism?

The two artists found inspiration for their paintings in Symbolist poetry by French poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud. In addition to poetic, romantic and religious content also found formal expression in Symbolism, using dark and gloomy color worlds in strong, pure tones.

The French painters Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard are considered the first representatives of Symbolism in the visual arts.

Thus, the main themes include sin, passion, death and myths. A particularly popular theme of Symbolism was the connection between eroticism and death. Often this synthesis was symbolized by tender, pale skinned, sensitive to melancholic women.

Who are well-known representatives?

Besides Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, the main representatives of Symbolism in the visual arts were

  • Gustave Moreau,
  • Odilon Redon,
  • Paul Sérusier and Puvis de Chavannes in France,
  • Arnold Böcklin and Ferdinand Hodler in Switzerland,
  • Fernand Khnopff in Belgium,
  • Gustav Klimt in Austria, Edvard Munch in Norway and
  • Max Klinger in Germany.

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