Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain

One aspect of being a successful artist is establishing a look, a style, a brand. This exhibition, the first devoted to Burne-Jones at Tate Britain since 1933, brings together over 150 objects including some of his greatest paintings, a roomful of drawings, wall-sized tapestries, even a grand piano he decorated – which all go to prove that he established the ‘Burne-Jones look’ early on, and then stuck to it.

The Briar Wood (1874-8) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

The Briar Wood (1874-8) Picture one in the Briar Rose series, by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

People sleeping and dreaming are his subjects. Even when supposedly awake, all his figures look as if they’re sleep-walking through the situations he places them in.

The figures are tall, statuesque, rather elongated. If nude, they have beautifully defined musculature, if clothed the men, in particular, are often wearing fascinatingly detailed armour, while the women wear long gowns whose convoluted folds he captures with shimmering sensuality.

This painting, from a series depicting the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, shows all these features – human figures elongated, the (admittedly delicate but well-defined) musculature of the nude woman, and the fascinating style of armour Perseus is wearing, like no armour any real medieval warrior ever wore, almost cyber-punk in its fetishistic detail.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Many exhibitions I’ve been to at Tate Britain set out to prove a thesis, but this show is a return to an older, more traditional type of curating, which sets out simply to explain and delight.

Serena Thirkell

I recommend buying the audioguide. It has four voices on it – 1. the exhibition curator Alison Smith2. an art scholar who’s a long-standing fan of Burne-Jones but whose name I didn’t get. 3. the novelist Tracey Chevalier. But the most interesting one is the voice of 4. Burne-Jones’s great, great, grand-daughter, Serena Thirkell. Serena’s memories are fascinating of growing up in a house where some of these famous paintings hung in the hall or dining room, and how she and the other small children were attracted, frightened and fascinated by them.

I particularly liked her take on the amazingly sumptuous painting, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. To the adult eye there are all kinds of things going on in it, from the (typically strange) armour of the king to the (typically blank) expression on the beggar maid’s face, to the heads-together pose of the two figures at the balustrade – obviously inspired by pre-Raphael Renaissance paintings – and ditto the carefully delineated leaves of the olive branches poking in from the left.

But what Serena remembered was the avenues of escape from the picture, the way she and her little friends could imagine scampering up the stairs to the gallery, and then through the window into the lovely Italian landscape you can glimpse outside. And how this sense of escape was balanced by the sense of threat created at the other end of the painting – caused by the narrowing, claustrophobic steps going down, past the king’s knees and feet, down, down towards… what scary darkness?

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Her memories remind the listener that you don’t always have to respond to art with sophisticated theories or abrasive gender politics. Sometimes you can let yourself be swept off your feet to fairyland. Few artists devoted as much energy to creating that effect as Burne-Jones.

Seven rooms

The exhibition is arranged into seven rooms:

  1. 1856-1870 Apprentice to Master
  2. Burne-Jones as a draughtsman
  3. 1877-98 Exhibition paintings
  4. Portraits
  5. The series paintings – The Perseus series
  6. The series paintings – The Briar Rose
  7. Burne-Jones as a designer

Unusually, Burne-Jones didn’t attend art school at all. He began studying theology at university, before packing it in and essentially teaching himself art.

His theological knowledge and the iconography of Christianity i.e. the figurative depiction of key moments – the Annunciation, various saints though not, tellingly, the Crucifixion itself – stayed with him for the rest of his career.

Later in life Burne-Jones collaborated on designing stained glass windows for churches, which were produced in the factory of his close friend, William Morris. It’s estimated that he produced the designs for over 650 stained glass windows, which is why many of the patterns and designs in the final room, ‘Burne-Jones as designer’, seem so familiar. Anyone who visits English parish churches will have been exposed to his pervasive influence.

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two shows how much effort Burne-Jones put into practicing drawing and sketching, especially on the four big trips he made to Italy during the 1870s, where he copied and studied extensively from the Renaissance Old Masters. Some of the sketches are breath-taking – of hands in different poses, or feet, the elaborate depictions of the folds of dresses, not to mention a standout sketch of a flowering plant and a page of sketches of birds. What an eye, what a hand!

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

This room also contains some surprisingly comic insights into his private life. Burne-Jones enjoyed a long friendship with the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and the exhibition shows some of the comic cartoons he included in his letters to her. He depicts himself in these as a skinny, long-bearded, mournful man, which creates an irresistibly comic effect when placed next to the caricatures of his bosom buddy, the big, super-energetic, wild-haired William Morris. I laughed out loud at the cartoon he drew of himself falling asleep in a chair while Morris passionately declaims one of his interminable epic poems.

Room three is amazing – full of massive ‘exhibition’ paintings, made to stun his contemporaries and sell to rich patrons. Love Amid the Ruins, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stairs, Laus Veneris, The Wheel of Fortune and half a dozen other enormous, strange, haunting, remote, dreamy images, pregnant with meaning, in which movement isn’t really movement at all.

Reminiscent, it occurred to me, of Botticelli whose Spring or Birth of Venus both show supposedly dynamic images in which, in fact, nothing is really moving.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

Perseus

But the real Burne-Jones’ fan will be transported to heaven by rooms five and six. These recreate in their entirety the two most important series of paintings which Burne-Jones created. Room five contains the ten paintings he created to depict the Greek myth of Perseus between 1875 and 1885. The original idea was to hang ten oil paintings, interspersed with four relief panels on oak wood, all carefully arranged and lit so as to transport you into a mythic world of the imagination.

Only four of the planned ten were worked up into finished oil paintings (including The Doom Fulfilled, shown above) and the curators have hung these four, along with cartoons (actual size preparatory works) of the other six, plus one completed oak relief, placing them all in order so you can follow Burne-Jones’s huge and powerful depiction of the story through in order.

It’s a great bit of curating, which really works. Above all it shows you how muted, dulled and misty his palette was. And makes you realise this was always his style.

The Laus Veneris, which is used as a poster for the show, is in fact quite unrepresentative of most of the other paintings here, in its use of bright orange for Venus’s dress. Even in the first room of early works, his faces are softened and blurred, the colours are dark and misty. As the years passed he perfected the technique of using colour, but making all the colours submit to the same muted tonality.

The briar rose

A kind of silvery blue-black dominates the Perseus series and helps them to cohere, tonally. Whereas, when you step into room six, you are enveloped in the Briar Rose series, four massive paintings depicting the early parts of the Sleeping Beauty fairy story, where a kind of muddy brown dominates and unites the compositions.

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

There are scores of incidental pleasures to be had along the way, noticing how the sketched birds are incorporated into later paintings, spotting the influence of Michelangelo in the more muscular figures, or of Mantegna in some of the amazingly detailed swirling gowns.

The room of portraits caters to people who like gossip about artists, featuring as it does portraits of his daughter Margaret, his long-suffering wife Georgiana, several of the lady friends with whom he enjoyed passionate friendships (Amy Gaskell and Lady Windsor) his longstanding patron, William Graham, and so on, with a bit of juicy gossip behind each one.

Burne-Jones and European symbolism

But what interested me more was the link the exhibition helps you to make between later Burne-Jones and the European Symbolist painters of the 1880s and 1890s. The subject matter of both is generally the figurative depictions of human beings – realistic, easy to decode and relate to.

And yet stylised in powerful ways which seem charged with mysterious meanings. Especially all those women with the same faces, the same large eyes, the same vacant stare, the same elongated bodies draped, folded, bent in positions of sleep and languor – compositions pregnant with a meaning just beyond the mind’s grasp.

Some of the unfinished Perseus series, especially the one about Perseus’ encounter with Atlas, could be by a European Symbolist, transmuting what ought to be the straightforward telling of a well-known myth into something altogether new and haunting. The figures inside the globe Atlas is holding are depictions of the signs of the Zodiac, and yet they are the Zodiac symbols come to life and seeming to interact in strange and unknowable ways…

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872) Southampton City Art Gallery

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872), a peculiarly Symbolist work. Southampton City Art Gallery

Some people don’t like Burne-Jones’s big-eyed damsels, or jewelled dreamscapes. They see his entire visions as a creative dead end which helped maintain a kind of anti-modern, British philistinism right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond, while, throughout this period, the French were busy inventing modern art just 50 miles across the Channel.

But it is now 2018. We are well into post-post-modern art, into the era when the internet makes everything available to everyone, when there are no longer movements with fierce adherents and bitter opponents. The stakes are no longer so high or so intense. We can like whatever we want to. I thought this was an absolutely wonderful exhibition – the room of the Sleeping Beauty panels is worth the admission price alone.

The promotional video

This shaky handheld video gives you a good sense of what the show is like.


Related links

Newspaper reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Art Nouveau by Alastair Duncan (1994)

This is one of the extensive ‘World of Art’ series published by Thames and Hudson. On the plus side the texts in this series are always readable and authoritative. On the down side, most of the illustrations are in black and white, and very small. It’s a series in which to read about art and art movements, but not necessarily to enjoy the actual art.

A revolt against Victorian mass production

Duncan emphasises that Art Nouveau wasn’t a style, it was a movement. What he means is that around 1890 a whole generation of designers, illustrators, craftsmen, architects and artisans right across Europe revolted against the heavy hand of mass-produced industrial products, dull designs and routine architecture, and against the Victorian home filled with a horrible mish-mash of clutter and bric-a-brac from all styles and periods – and determined to produce something fresh and new, and integrated in style and look.

He attributes the revolt against mass-produced, machine-made, shoddy tat, and the call to return to the values of hand-crafted, beautiful objects, created in a unified style – to William Morris, who emerges as one of the most influential men in the history of Western Art. Right across Europe, designers, artisans, ceramicists, decorators, fabric-makers and so on took up his Art and Crafts ideas with a passion.

The ubiquity of the impulse and its Europe-wide provenance is reflected in the bewildering variety of names given to it.

In Austria it is known as Secessionsstil after Wiener Secession; in Spanish Modernismo; in Catalan Modernisme; in Czech Secese; in Danish Skønvirke or Jugendstil; in German Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or Reformstil; in Hungarian Szecesszió; in Italian Art Nouveau, Stile Liberty or Stile floreale; in Norwegian Jugendstil; in Polish Secesja; in Slovak Secesia; in Russian Модерн (Modern); and in Swedish Jugend.

The name Art Nouveau simply comes from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau (House of the New Art), a gallery opened in 1895 by the Franco-German art dealer Siegfried Bing to publicise and sell objects made in the ‘new style’, such as the ground-breaking new jewelry by René Lalique. The interior was designed by Henry van de Velde and the American, Louis Comfort Tiffany, supplied the stained glass. The gallery became the place for rich and fashionable Parisians to buy objects in the ‘new look’.

A few years later the art critic turned entrepreneur, Julius Meier-Graefe, who had founded the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) magazine Dekorative Kunst in 1897, opened La Maison Moderne, a gallery that showcased Art Nouveau works in Paris in 1898. These two boutiques led the fashion.

Elements of Art Nouveau

Although Duncan goes into immense detail about the regional variations in the style, I looked in vain for a really definitive verbal description of the characteristic Art Nouveau ‘look’, so recognisable when seen, so hard to put into words.

So I drew up a list of common features. Art Nouveau consists of linear simplicity, but the lines are always curvilinear, with tall sinuous curves explicitly or implicitly based on the stems of flowers – the word ‘tendrils’ recurs, and ‘stems’. The ‘eyes’ in the tails of peacocks became an obsessive motif. 

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

Chair by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1883)

The slender, parallel black lines in Mackmurdo’s pioneering chair design (above) anticipate Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations from the 1890s (below). The Beardsley drawing below actually features a peacock as the source of the peacock-feather head-dress worn by Salome and the luxurious long arabesque lines ending in stylised versions of peacock ‘eyes’.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

As an example in a different medium, take this Peacock vase produced by the undisputed master of Art Nouveau design in glass and glassware, the American Louis Comfort Tiffany. He had signed an exclusive contract with Bing and via Bing’s boutique became the latest thing in glassware.

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Peacock vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1896)

Japonisme was important. The fashion for Japanese style derives from the treaty signed between the Japanese and American governments in 1854 which opened up the country for trade after centuries of self-imposed isolation. World fairs held in the 1860s and 70s included more and more Japanese products, but it was the delicacy, the deliberate flatness and decorative design of Japanese woodcuts by the likes of Hiroshige and Hokusai which influenced European artists and designers.

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Blossoming Plum Tree with Full Moon by Ando Hiroshige

Slender, tall, undulating, curving lines with a flower motif underpin the most famous aspects of the style. New at the time, just looking at something like this makes you feel how heavy it would be and how…. dated. The kind of thing you see in junk shops, tarnished and striking but totally out of place in a modern home.

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

French Art Nouveau glass and bronze table lamp by Emile Gallé

The Glasgow School which flourished from the 1890s was dominated by The Four, comprising the painter and glass artist Margaret MacDonald, architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, MacDonald’s sister Frances and Herbert MacNair. The Four defined the Glasgow Style’s fusion of influences including the Celtic Revival, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Japonisme. Among their works were the wall decorations for the Glasgow Tea Rooms, which highlight the movement’s interest in tall, elongated figures, in slender, elegant curved lines, in highly stylised flower imagery, and in simplified human features (‘ghost-like visions of attenuated young women’, p.50, ‘attenuated virgin maidens’, p.71). Note the heavy heads of hair of the maidens in this painting, similar to the hair in Beardsley, ornate and heavy like flower-heads.

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The Wassail (1900) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh

In Paris the most famous Art Nouveau artifacts to be seen today are Hector Guimard’s entrances to a number of Métro stations. Note the curves, the flower and plant motifs in the ironwork – and also the wonderful lettering.

Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau entrance to the Abbesses station of the Paris Métro

There was never an Art Nouveau school of painting. Art Nouveau was a way of thinking about design, not fine art. That said, many painters shared Art Nouveau themes such as: the simplification of form, the flattening of space, the evocative powers of an undulating line and an affinity for the decorative elements of symbolism.

Duncan singles out Gauguin’s technique of flattening the subject into areas of raw colour divided by strong black lines, before going on to describe the work of his devotees, the self-styled Nabis painters of Paris, and then goes on to namecheck Odilon Redon, Jan Toorop, Burne-Jones, Gustave Moreau and Ferdinand Khnopff – pretty much the same roll call of artists I’ve just worked through in two books about Symbolism.

He ends with Gustav Klimt, the nearest thing to a real Art Nouveau painter, for his use of surface decoration, flowing curves and rich ornamentation, ephemeral beauty, and symbolic female imagery tinged with decadence.

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Art Nouveau was more at home in commercial posters than in painting. The big names are the pioneer Jules Chéret, who produced some 1,000 posters in the 1880s, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who produced 32 highly distinctive posters in the 1890s, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlein (who I know from Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre was one of Picasso’s favourite artists) and the great Alphonse Mucha.

Michael Gibson’s big book of Symbolism has an interesting section on Mucha which contains several black-and-white photos Mucha took of his female models, placed next to the resulting finished posters. What is immediately obvious is how Mucha made the poster girls not only prettier than the models they were based on – more simple, sweet and innocent – but also more curvilinear – shoulders or arms which are more or less straight in the photos life were given curves and contours to soften them.

In this poster note the elaborate framing of the central image, which echoes the curvilinear and plant-like design of the ironwork in the Guimard Metro entrance, above.

Poster Advertising 'Lefevre-Utile' Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

Poster Advertising ‘Lefevre-Utile’ Biscuits by Alphonse Mucha (1896)

If flowery maidens were much in evidence in Mucha’s posters, naked young ladies swarmed across Art Nouveau sculpture. New techniques of manufacture and an interest in new materials, especially combinations of metals with glass or wood or marble or ivory or shell, led to an explosion in objets d’art which featured lithe, elongated nymphs with perfect bodies and rose-tipped breasts.

The book includes examples of nymph-adorned table lamps, electric lamps, inkwells, candle holders, dishes, candelabra, vases, wall brackets, tobacco jars and clocks.

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Obsession and Dream, gilt bronze candelabra by Maurice Bouval (1898)

Architects built buildings in the new style all across Europe. Something I noticed many of them had in common was a kind of semi-circular arch above the windows, often ballooning out wider than the window itself. Plus the inevitable fantastical, slender curved lines of the cast iron balcony.

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

Villino Broggi-Caraceni, Florence by Giovanni Michelazzi (1911)

It’s a zoomorphic look which finds its climax in the genuinely weird Casa Batlló in Barcelona designed by the great but eccentric Antoni Gaudí in 1904, a building which is evolving into a living organism, made up of biomorphic surfaces and undulating forms.

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

Casa Batllo, Barcelona by Gaudi (1904)

The decline of Art Nouveau

A key aspect of Art Nouveau is how brief it was. Its high point was the Paris World Fair in 1900, where Siegfried Bing displayed a series of ensemble rooms created by his three top designers, Colonna, de Feure and Gaillard, showing how every element in a modern room could be tailored to the new look. The Fair featured the glassware of Tiffany and the jewellery of Lalique, which were at their peak of popularity.

By 1905 it was all over. Meier-Graefe closed his shop in 1903, as sales fell off. Bing closed his gallery in 1904 and died the next year. The Belgian Art Nouveau, La Libre Esthétique, had dissolved by 1904. Morris died in 1896, Beardsley in 1898, Whistler the great devotee of Japonisme in 1903, Émile Gallé the leading Art Nouveau glass-maker in 1904. Mucha, the great Belle Époque posterist, returned to his native Czechoslovakia in 1910.

It had all seemed so new and exciting in 1895 – but seemed old and boring by 1905. One Mucha poster looks sensational – twenty begin to look predictable. In furniture, lamps, wallpapers, art and architecture, ‘the look’ began to seem tired, not least because (ironically) these lines and motifs had themselves been absorbed into the consumer capitalist machine, copied and mass produced in huge numbers of inferior versions, and in such quantities that the market was flooded. The rich, who set the pace, were looking for new thrills.

Looking back on it from a century later, Art Nouveau – which saw itself as reacting against Victorian clutter and tastelessness – itself seems merely a variation on the same over-stuffed world. Photos of Art Nouveau interiors – a revolution to their contemporaries – now look just as wooden, dark and cluttered as their immediate predecessors.

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena

Art Nouveau dining room at the Casa Requena (1905)

It’s only with De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and the emergence of the Bauhaus after the Great War, that we feel we are in an entirely new century of open, uncluttered space and modern streamlined furniture.

Key phrases

In trying to nail down what Art Nouveau really means, I noted down tell-tale phrases Duncan uses about architecture, interiors, furnishing, lamps and lights and so on:

  • serpentine configurations… abstracted plant gyrations… curves and fancies… curvilinearity… elaborate and complex ornament… sculpted decoration… integrated design… lavish mouldings and sculpted decoration… the use of nature, specifically the flower and its components… flair for the bizarre… floriform…

And two new terms struck me:

  • Femme-fleur – The dream-maiden with long strands of hair resembling vegetation tendrils, often intertwined with marine-like plant-forms, found in Art Nouveau designs.
  • Femme-libellule – dragonfly lady or damsel.
Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)

Femme Libellule by René Lalique (1898)


Related links

Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


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