Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


Related links

Related reviews

Cézanne Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery

Over a working life of some forty-five years, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) made almost 1,000 paintings, about 160 of which are portraits. This major international exhibition brings together over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from collections across the world, including quite a few which have never been seen in the UK, allowing us to review the development of his style and technique through the prism of this one genre.

It proceeds in a straightforward chronological manner, starting with family members, especially the series of his Uncle Dominique, dating from the 1860s – some 26 self-portraits – a whole room devoted to portraits of his wife, Hortense – and ends with his portraits of working class men and women near his home in Aix-en-Provence, particularly portraits of his gardener, Vallier.

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early on we learn that Cézanne was schoolboy friends with Émile Zola who went on to become one of France’s most famous/important novelists. Zola pioneered a fictional approach he called ‘Naturalism’, according to which the work of art is a scientific experiment to investigate the impersonal forces, both genetic and social, which shape people’s lives, an attitude in which ‘the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view’.

Throughout the exhibition the curators, as you’d expect, go to some lengths to explain who each sitter was, what their relationship to Cézanne was, with anecdotes about the number of sittings it took (115 sittings for the portrait of the art dealer Vollard), whether the sitter was happy etc, along with speculations about what the portrait tells us about Cézanne’s feelings for the sitter – respect, love and so on.

Quite quickly I began to think this was utterly the wrong approach. None of the sitters has any expression at all, certainly none of them are smiling or indicating any emotion. In fact most of the mature portraits almost deliberately reject emotional interpretation.

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

For me the exhibition was quite clearly the story of one man’s struggle with his art and technique. From these half dozen rooms and fifty or so portraits Cézanne comes across as a difficult, angry man, fighting with his medium, permanently dissatisfied, taking ridiculously long periods to struggle with works which he often abandoned and sometimes destroyed, like his portrait of Alfred Hauge, stitched back together and on display here.

He is off in his own world, day by day carrying on an endless battle to make the medium of oil painting fulfil his vision. Cézanne never painted portraits as commissions; he only painted who he wanted to. It struck me as being an immensely private world. If, from time to time, some of the works fit in with what the wider world thinks of as ‘beautiful’ or ‘artistic’ or ‘wonderful’, well, so be it; but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care for traditional ideas of ‘beauty’ or ‘painting’, he doesn’t care what his family thinks or his wife thinks, he is off in his own world, following his own, often very difficult, path.

Self-Portrait by Paul Cézanne (1880-1) © The National Gallery, London

Self-Portrait (1880-1) by Paul Cézanne © The National Gallery, London

Take the 10 portraits of his wife, Hortense. If you like lots of biography to explain your art, then it’s interesting to learn that he’d had a relationship with her for 17 years before he finally married her; and that he only married her after another love affair he’d been having ended traumatically. So she does seem to have been a sort of second best.

None of that helps when you confront the actual paintings. In portrait after portrait she has the face of an emotionless mannekin and the body of a doll. In my opinion this isn’t a depiction of someone he either loves or doesn’t love, who is in either a good or a bad mood (the kind of psychological and emotional tripe the commentary speculates about). It is a purely technical challenge, a struggle with oil paint and technique.

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The exhibition’s curator, John Elderfield, says: ‘Many of his painted likenesses of friends and family members offer little information in the way of his sitters’ individual personas, stature, or psychology.’ Exactly. My friend was scandalised by the apparently ‘heartless’ way Cézanne painted his wife: where is the love and affection and respect and blah blah? To me, completely the wrong way of thinking about Cézanne’s work.

My notion of ‘the struggle’ also explains why he did so many series – 10 of Uncle Dominique, 17 of Hortense, 26 self-portraits, repeated portraits of his gardener, and so on. And also explains why he destroyed his own canvases in frustration. It was an unending struggle. It was war.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s technique

So what was his technique, what was the battle all about?

From the start he made no attempt to paint in the smooth aesthetic style of the French Academy and Salon, in a style which concealed brushstrokes in order to create a flat surface designed to give the illusion of life. The exact opposite. He and his pal Zola were going to remodel French culture, to force people to see the crude realities of life, Zola in blunt realistic sentences, Cézanne in harsh, unflattering brushstrokes. The first room shows young Cézanne in the 1860s sculpting oil onto canvas with his palette knife like a brickie lays on mortar. Thick, shaped roughly and confidently, in highly visible strokes half an inch wide.

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 - 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 – 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

He himself described this as his manière couillarde (where couilles means ‘testicles’) which could be translated as his ‘ballsy manner’.

He remains true to this founding approach all his life but develops and explores it. Through the 1870s two things happen: the paint gets a lot thinner, and he explores a technique of building up patches of the same colour using repeated one- or two-inch long strokes. These strokes come in parallel blocks or sets of strokes, running across face or background like patches of the palette, built up systematically.

It is the use of these blocks of strokes in the same colour which give all Cézanne’s work such a distinctive feel. Arguably the technique works best with landscapes, witness the scores of versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire which he did over decades. Here in the portraits this technique of diagonal strokes gives the works a sense of monumentality – the eerie feeling that something bigger and more important is being conveyed.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Another way of trying to define this visual effect is in terms of geometry – luckily Cézanne himself gives us a handy quote, when he wrote to Émile Bernhard giving advice about painting and included the phrase ‘Deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’. The cyclinder, the sphere and the cone. Quite obviously, then, Cézanne was himself aware of the way his eye sought out the geometry buried in the flesh (or landscape or still life or whatever).

But even without knowledge of this quote it would be easy to see the way the technique of chunks or blocks of very visibly modelled colour can be seen as almost geometric shapes – to my eye they look like rectangular slabs, crafted and placed at angles to each other. It is a highly analytical way of seeing and painting, not at all concerned with sensuous surfaces as per the long tradition of Salon art. Its unfinishedness bespeaks its experimental nature.

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

From the 1870s onwards he uses much thinner applications of paint, allowing much more of the canvas to show through, all over, as the paint rasps and runs out, and the brushstroke doesn’t completely cover the space. This draws attention to the painting as a painting, as a construct of paint on a canvas, and away from a naturalistic depiction of ‘reality’.

In other pictures you can see something else quite radical going on, which is his subtle mixing up of perspective: a table or chair or arm or wall or other elements will be subtly at odds with the perspective of the central figure. It is another way of being more interested in the geometry than the strictly realistic appearance of the subject.

Director of the NPG, Nicholas Cullinan, talks about Cézanne’s mission to get at ‘the underlying structure of things by means of mass, line and shimmering colour’, which I think is correct, apart from the shimmering colour. Monet shimmers, I don’t think Cézanne shimmers.

Towards the art of the future

By now you can see how these are the elements which endeared Cézanne to the next generation of artists:

  • painting as painting rather than window on the world
  • deploying paint in blocks or cubes to build up a sense of space, to bring out the inner geometry of a figure
  • indifference as to whether the paint covers the canvas or not, in fact developing an aesthetic of leaving many bits of the canvas untouched
  • faces as a mask, like the blank masks of African art Picasso and Matisse were fascinated by, expressionless

And so you can see why both Picasso (b.1881) and Matisse (b.1869) are credited with the quote that Cézanne ‘was the father to us all’, paving the way for the completely new ways of seeing developed by the Cubists, the Fauvists and successive generations of avant-garde artists. Doesn’t this mask-like depiction of his son anticipate Picasso’s mask faces of a generation years later?

The Artist's Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Franck Raux

The Artist’s Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux

In 1895 Cézanne had a successful one-man show which finally gave him success and entry into artistic Paris. The exhibition shows some of the more formal portraits he attempted of Paris’s intellectual class, critics and writers set against thronged bookshelves. But he wasn’t happy and the preceding works in the show help you understand why: these were clever people who expected a measure of human character in their portraits, whereas Cézanne was much more at home with simple and above all psychologically blank subjects.

This – along with any lingering radical sentiment from the Zola years – goes to explain why he abandoned Paris altogether, retiring to his estate near his birthplace of Aix-en-Provence, and painting the unpretentious local workers, peasants, blokes in cafés smoking pipes or playing cards, old ladies. Here he was under no pressure to conform to artist as psychologist and instead could indulge his interest in form to the full.

With the paradoxical result that these images of relative strangers end up being somehow more successful, somehow more complete because he can relax into his technique, and so manage to convey more through their purely artistic coherence, than any of the portraits of his wife ever did.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Art in the flesh

This reproduction makes Man with a pipe look a lot more smooth and finished than it is in the flesh. The reason for going to art galleries rather than looking at paintings on a computer screen is to see up close the craft and artistry of the painter. In the flesh, the diagonal strokes of brown and grey (and green and white) which make up this painting are genuinely thrilling. But what you can’t see at all from the reproduction is the amazing way the wavy black line of the shirt is so confidently drawn, or the way the lighter brown patches around it are in fact the bare canvas untouched by paint, or the half-slapdash way he’s dabbed in the black of the buttons. It really is thrilling to see the confidence and exuberance with which it’s painted. I stood and stared at just this line for minutes, marvelling.

A lot of the portraits in this exhibition are plain ugly or plain bad, and the overall effect of the show is, I found, quite repelling. But in the handful or so of portraits which really come off, the combination of sombre subject and highly stylised brushwork, seen really close up and in the flesh, is electric.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

The Debacle by Emile Zola (1892)

Published in 1892, this is a long, harsh, gruelling novel, full of stomach-churning scenes of bloodshed and horror.

The Debacle is the 19th in Zola’s sequence of 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family, which set out to chronicle life in France’s Second Empire (the period between the coup which brought Louis-Napoleon to power in 1852 and his fall from power after the disastrous French defeat at the battle of Sedan in September 1870). Anyway, it’s the penultimate volume in the series, showing how the Second Empire – which the series has been chronicling – comes to a cataclysmic end.

It’s only roughly a sequence i.e. individual novels such as Germinal or Nana or L’Assommoir pick up on characters established in earlier novels (e.g. Nana appears in the novel of the same name and at the end of  L’Assommoir) so the books can still be read in order, out of order or singly.

The Debacle is long at 500 pages in the Penguin edition. It is in three parts.

Part One plunges you right into the lives of a squadron of soldiers in the 106th foot of the 7th Army Corps as they arrive near the German border. Chaos and confusion reign. Already tired, with food and equipment not properly supplied, they are abruptly shunted back towards Rheims, then are sent back towards the enemy again, before being sent north towards Sedan on the Belgian border. The novel grimly portrays the confusion, the chaos and mismanagement of the French army, lack of food, fuel, ammunition or training, lack of direction or leadership, all the elements which conspire to create a terrible atmosphere of defeatism.

These early pages also introduce the two male leads, Jean Macquart, a sturdy, sensible, uneducated peasant and Maurice Levasseur, slight, metropolitan, well-educated but guiltily given to manic alternations between frenzied enthusiasm and hysterical collapse.  Each have friends or relations living in the east of France who they come across or discuss in their marches, a lawyer and his wife, an old miser and his son’s fiancée, a factory owner and his family. In between soldier episodes we get to know all these other characters better and slowly a web of characters is created in north-east France whose lives will be terribly shattered by the war.

Part Two concentrates in great detail on the 24 hours of the battle of Sedan, detailing how the French army is surrounded and crushed on the hills and woods to the north of the town, leading to panic stricken retreat into the overcrowded streets. The descriptions of specific engagements in hills and valleys leave no holds barred and there are as many bodies eviscerated, cut in two, with eyes, mouths, arms, fingers, tongues blown off as in any Great War memoir.

Part Three describes the aftermath of the battle in and around Sedan, once the French army has been forced to surrender, and describes in gut-wrenching detail the indignities and humiliations the defeated soldiers are subject to before being marched off to Germany.  For a nightmare week over 100,000 men are trapped in a spit of land formed by a bend in the river Meuse with no food or water. Again Zola’s realism depicts everything unsparingly, the starving men eating grass or bark or rotten meat and drinking water from a river clogged with rotting corpses.

Only in the last 50 pages does the scene switch to Paris, for the bloody, fiery nemesis which is the Commune. Zola engineers the plot so that Jean and Maurice, who have come through so many scrapes together, find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades – solid sensible peasant Jean symbolising the values of France, fighting for the Versailles army – febrile Maurice caught up in the hysteria which seizes Paris, symbolising the futile infatuation characteristic of all France’s failed revolutions, fighting from barricade to barricade for the Commune.

Realism

Zola started life as a journalist and his research for this book was impeccable. He retraced the steps of the opposing armies, enabling him to describe every dip, slope and vista his characters pass over. He interviewed eyewitnesses, allowing him to fill the book with the kind of surreal or gruesome details and events which modern warfare so often throws up. All the different ways a human body can be damaged and violated by modern technology.

A cast of thousands

Although Jean and Maurice emerge as the leading characters of the novel, the narrative often abandons them to follow the stories of the other characters:

  • Maurice’s sister, Henriette, is married to the factory overseer Weiss
  • Weiss is swept up in the Prussian advance and dies defending his house in the street fighting which engulfs his village of Bazeilles
  • later Henriette cares for Jean in an outhouse at old Uncle Fouchard’s farm as he recovers from a bullet wound
  • Old Fouchard is a miserly traveling butcher who is brother to Henriette and Maurice’s mother
  • Silvine the maid-of-all-work at Fouchard’s undertakes a nightmareish odyssey across the battlefield to find the corpse of her dashing fiance, Honore, an artillery sergeant
  • the kindly Delaherche, owner of one of the biggest cloth factories in Sedan, turns his factory into a massive open air hospital for the thousands of wounded
  • while his skittish young wife Gilberte carries on an affair with a handsome doomed soldier
  • and his aged mother cares for a mortally wounded colonel in a curtained room
  • the surgeon, major Bouroche, bases himself at the factory and for a week operates up to his elbows in blood and guts, trying to heal the horrifically shattered bodies of the French soldiers. Eventually amputated body parts – arms, legs, hands, fingers, tongues, jaws – clog every inch of the grounds.

The overall effect of this network of characters is to diminish the power or importance of any one individual so that the events themselves feel like the protagonists. History, or whatever we call the concatenation of incidents which sweeps all of us along, is the lead character, and all the other personae become like corks bobbing, swept, rushed along by the relentless cascade of mistakes and misfortunes. If Zola’s aim is to show how ‘laws’ of history, how heredity and environment, act on different individuals in challenging circumstances, The Debacle does it in spades.

Translation

I think this is the worst translation I’ve ever read. I supervise my son’s French schoolwork and his teachers advise a simple two-step technique: first, make a literal translation of the original French; second, come back reread those words in the cold light of day, and put them into colloquial or appropriate English. Unfortunately Leonard Tancock, in this 1972 translation, doesn’t appear to have done the latter, with the result that the prose is full of gallicisms, French turns of phrase, French word orders and, most tell-tale, the awkward squeezing in of all those little French filler phrases which have no comfortable equivalent in English – en effet, quand meme, enfin, deja.

The book is full of not-quite-English sentences. After the first page you have the unnerving sense of reading a new, familiar but disconcertingly undermined language. For example, French uses ‘y’ to mean ‘there’, much more liberally than English, which tends to be more precise about locations. Upstairs, in the fields, in the other room, on the other side of the river or valley – all of these are easily said in English but tend to be covered by the blanket ‘y’ in French, a habit Tancock slavishly translates so that the text is sprinkled with the maddeningly vague word ‘there’. This quote exemplifies some of these issues:

Henriette hurried back home to the rue des Voyards. She was certain she would find her husband back, and she even thought that if he didn’t find her at home he would be very worried, and that made her quicken her step still more. As she approached the house she looked up, thinking she could see him up there leaning out of  the window, watching for her return. But the window was still wide open and empty. When she got up there and had glanced around the three rooms she was sick at heart at finding nothing but the icy fog and the continual rumbling of cannon. The firing out there never stopped. She went back to the window for a moment. Now that she knew what was happening, even though the wall of morning mist was still impenetrable, she could follow out the battle going on at Bazeilles, with the crackling of machine-guns and shattering volleys of the French batteries replying to the distant volleys of the German ones. One had the impression that the detonations were getting closer together and that the battle was getting fiercer every minute. (Page 221, Part Two, Chapter 3)

Swearing

The novel is about soldiers in war. They swear all the time. What makes Frederick Manning’s novel about the Great War, Her Privates We, so fabulous is its unashamed and accurate portrayal of the continual swearing of the soldiers. Manning served as a private and, unlike all the other English Great War writers – public schoolboys to a man – he was in a position to describe the real life and speech of the infantry, miles from the censored, prim speech of the jolly public school officers. And the privates, English working men, swore all the time. And similarly, the soldiers in Zola’s novel swear all the time.

Translating the swearing of one culture and language into the swearing of another culture and language may be the hardest challenge for any translator. It has to take into account not only the literal meaning, but the class context in which it occurs (especially in class-ridden English), the historical moment (as swearwords gained or lost potency) and dialect and regional variations. Sadly, Tancock fails this demanding test. On the one hand he is bold enough to use piss and fuck and, occasionally, cunt in what sound like the appropriate settings. But, public schoolboy that he is himself, he mixes them alongside the  much tamer phraseology from boys own adventure stories. You get the impression the original French is a no-holds-barred swearfest, designed to convey the sweaty, filthy, terrified atmosphere of war and rough men in extremis, but this effect is ruined by Tancock’s uneven tone:

Some whispering behind their backs just then made them look around. It was Choubert and Loubet, who had got away from Iges that morning at the same time as themselves, and whom they had so far avoided. Now these two gentry were treading on their heels. Chouteau must have overheard Maurice’s words, with his plan to escape through the wood, for he took it up himself and murmured in their ears:
”Look here, we’re in on this. It’s a grand idea to fuck off. Some of the blokes have got away already, and we’re certainly not going to let ourselves be dragged like a lot of dogs to the country of those bastards… So what about it for the four of us – O.K. to go for a stroll and take some air?’

Maurice was getting excited again, and Jean had to turn around and say to the tempter:
‘If you’re in a hurry, run along… What hopes do you think you’ve got?’

Chouteau was a bit put out by the straight look Jean gave him. He let out the real reason for his insistence. ‘Well, if there were four of us it would be easier… Then one or two would be sure to get away.’

One minute Reservoir Dogs, the next Five Go Mad In Dorset – ‘It’s a grand idea to fuck off’. Prissy turns of phrase – ‘whom they had so far avoided’; of all the words in English why on earth choose ‘gentry’ – presumably this is some sarcasm about the two soldiers in question who we’ve seen to be complete brutes; but ‘gentry’? Add in the continual uncertainty created by sentences with French word order, or a French cluttering of subordinate clauses, and you have a real mare’s nest of a style which becomes very hard going over a long, detailed 500 pages. I’m planning to read Germinal, L’Assommoir and Nana by Zola. I will go out of my way to avoid Tancock’s translations of any of them.

Horror

Horses are blown to pieces, men have their guts torn out, eyes, faces, fingers are blown off, this is an astonishingly graphic book. Many chapters describe nothing but the bodily mutilation of war – as when Jean and Maurice’s company are pinned down by enemy fire on an exposed hilltop and watch comrades being mown down by rifle fire and an entire artillery company wiped out, blown to pieces; or create an atmosphere of horrified awe as when Silvine and the peasant Prosper roam over the abandoned battlefield the day after the battle searching for her fiance Honore, an inferno-esque pilgrimage across the nightmare ground strewn with dismembered corpses and dying horses. Throw in scenes like the three coarsest squaddies in Jean’s unit chasing down and murdering one of their own comrades for the sake of the bread he’s hoarded; or the franc-tireur guerillas ambushing, tying up, and then deliberately bleeding to death the Prussian spy Goliath – this novel compares with Quentin Tarantino at his most sadistic, with the horrible proviso that so much of it is true, based on eyewitness accounts. Quelle horreur!

And of course, much of the educated class must have read it and registered its atmosphere of degradation, defeat, misery, mutilation and despair – and yet 20 years later thronged the streets and thrown their hats in the air as their brave boys marched off for another, earth-shatteringly catastrophic encounter with the same enemy. Zola, who died in 1902, was spared the sight.


Related links

Related reviews

French artists during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870)

I have written elsewhere about:

These combined calamities seared the minds of a generation of Frenchmen and marked a watershed in the lives and careers of many of France’s most famous writers, artists and composers. Considering who and how and why is like taking a snapshot of an artistic generation, an X-ray of a nation’s soul:

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) Best-selling author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Hugo had spent the Second Empire period (1852-70) in exile in Jersey. Now he returned to be elected a member of the National Assembly, make impassioned speeches, write windy pamphlets and publish bombastic poems. When the Commune was declared, he wisely went back into exile (in Brussels) where he wrote the moving poem, Sur une barricade, on June 11, 1871.

Honoré Daumier (1808-79) Satirical cartoonist under the Second Empire, Daumier stayed in Paris throughout the siege and continued to publish bitter and highly political images. He was drafted onto Courbet’s Federation of Artists in September 1870, then onto the Commune’s Committee of Artists in April 1871, though never a Communard.

Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) An established poet and critic, Gautier made his way back to Paris upon hearing of the Prussian advance on the capital. He remained with his family there throughout the invasion and the aftermath of the Commune.

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819-77) A notorious radical and freethinker, Courbet was the hugely influential ‘Father of Realism’ in Art in France. He established a Federation of Artists when the Empire fell, and went on to set up a Committee of Artists under the Commune. Although he managed to save Paris’ art museums from looting mobs, Courbet was a moving force behind demolishing the Vendôme Column in the square of the same name. Once the Commune was crushed, Courbet was sentenced in September 1871 to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs. When it was proposed to recreate the Vendôme Column Courbet was condemned to pay the exorbitant costs. He fled to Switzerland where he continued to paint, and died of liver disease just as the cost of the re-erection was settled as 323,091 francs. Surprisingly, he didn’t leave any paintings or sketches of the war or Commune.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) The most famous literary novelist of his day, during the Franco-Prussian War Flaubert’s home was occupied by Prussian soldiers and he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Maxime du Camp (1822–1894) Literary journalist and travel writer, du Camp was elected a member of the French Academy in 1880 mainly due to his history of the Commune, Les Convulsions de Paris (1878–1880).

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (1822–1890) Organist and composer, Franck and his family suffered during the siege and Commune. Afterwards he was a leader of the movement to create a truly French art, an Ars Gallica which explains the tone of much of his music. In part this was a patriotic reaction against the heaviness of the music of the invader.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) At the outbreak of war the painter Pissarro moved his family to Norwood, then a village on the southern edge of London. His early impressionist style did not do well but he met the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in London, who helped sell his art for the rest of his life. Durand-Ruel put him in touch with Monet, who was also in London during this period.

(In the spring of 2015 the National Gallery put on a blockbuster exhibition of Impressionist art as a tribute to Paul Durand-Ruel – the man who invented Impressionism.)

Monet and Pissarro both went to see the work of British landscape artists John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, which confirmed their belief that their style of open air painting gave the truest depiction of light and atmosphere, an effect that couldn’t be achieved in the studio alone.

During his stay Pissarro painted scenes at Sydenham and Norwood at a time when they were semi-rural and had only just been connected to London by railways. Twelve oil paintings date from his stay including The Avenue, Sydenham (now in the London National Gallery), Norwood Under the Snow, and Lordship Lane Station.

Pissarro is often credited with inventing Impressionism – the rough use of paint to capture plein air affects. He had produced some 1,500 paintings over the preceding 20 years, works which amounted to documentary evidence of the birth of Impressionism. But, tragically, when he returned to France after the Commune, Pissarro discovered that out of this huge oeuvre, only 40 had survived! The rest had been damaged or destroyed by the soldiers, who used them, among other things, as door mats or to wipe their boots with.

Back in Paris Pissarro got back in contact with the other artists of his generation – Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas – and helped establish a collective called the ‘Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs’. In 1874 Pissarro was the driving force behind the group’s first Exhibition, at which the critics ridiculed them for their ‘impressionism’ – and the name stuck.

Edouard Manet (1832-83) Godfather of the Impressionists, the thirty-eight-year-old Manet was in Paris during the Prussian siege and conscripted to be a member of the National Guard. As soon as the siege ended (in January 1871) he left town. In his absence his friends added his name to the ‘Fédération des artistes’ of the Paris Commune but he stayed away from Paris until after the semaine sanglante. He published some harrowing sketches of scenes from the war.

Edgar Dégas (1834–1917) At the outbreak of the War Dégas enlisted in the National Guard, where his duties left him little time for painting.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) The organist and composer Saint-Saëns was relieved from fighting duty as a favourite of a relative of the Emperor Napoleon III. He fled to London when the Commune took power, as his fame and Society connections made him a possible target. Later that year he co-founded with Romain Bussine the ‘Société Nationale de Musique’ to promote a new and specifically French music. After the fall of the Commune, the Society premiered works by Fauré, César Franck, Édouard Lalo and Saint-Saëns himself, who became a powerful figure in shaping the future of French music.

Émile Zola (1840-92) Father of literary Realism, Zola published his only historical novel, Le Debacle, about the war, in 1892.

François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840–1917) When the war started Rodin was called up for the National Guard but he was soon released due to his near-sightedness. At the time he was working as a decorative sculptor and, as work dwindled due to the war, he took up an offer of work in Belgium where he lived for the next six years. None of his work refers directly to either the war or Commune.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) On the outbreak of the war Monet and his friend Pissarro fled to England. While there he studied the work of Constable and Turner and met the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who was to become one of the great champions of the Impressionists.

After the Commune had been suppressed (May 1871) Monet went to Holland for a spell, and then returned to France at the end of the year, settling in Argenteuil, a village on the Seine near Paris. The next year he painted Impression, Sunrise (depicting Le Havre) which was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. When critics used the title to deride him for his ‘impressionism’, he and his colleagues adopted the term as the name for their movement.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) During the Commune some Communards found Renoir painting on the banks of the River Seine, thought he was a spy and were about to throw him into the river when one of the most bloodthirsty leaders of the Commune, Raoul Rigault, recognized Renoir as the man who had protected him on an earlier occasion. Rigault intervened and vouched for him. By this slender thread, Renoir was saved to go on to become one of the giants of Impressionism.

Paul Verlaine (1844-96) At the proclamation of the Third Republic the poet Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde Nationale, turning Communard on 18 March 1871. He became Head of the Press Bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune. He escaped the deadly street fighting and went into hiding in the Pas-de-Calais. Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871 and, in September, received the first letter from Arthur Rimbaud with whom he was to have his passionate and ill-fated affair.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845–1924) On the outbreak of war Fauré volunteered for military service and saw action at Le Bourget, Champigny and Créteil, for which he was awarded a Croix de Guerre. During the Commune Fauré escaped to Rambouillet where one of his brothers lived, and then travelled to Switzerland, where he took up a teaching post. Though some of his colleagues – including Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Franck – produced elegies and patriotic odes affected by the events, Fauré’s compositions from this period don’t overtly reflect the conflict. However, according to his biographer, his music does acquire ‘a new sombreness, a dark-hued sense of tragedy…evident mainly in his songs of this period including L’Absent, Seule! and La Chanson du pêcheur.’

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) On the outbreak of war, 19-year-old Maupassant abandoned his law studies to volunteer for the army. He served first as a private in the field, and was later transferred through his father’s intervention to the quartermaster corps. Many of the short stories he published throughout the 1880s describe brutal or haunting episodes in the war.

%d bloggers like this: