Scene Through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The British Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) was founded just over 100 years ago, in 1920, by leading artists including Lucien Pissarro and John Nash. Its aim was to promote wood engraving for modern artists.

This lovely exhibition, ‘Scene Through Wood’, was first shown at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2020 to commemorate the Society’s centenary. Now, a few years later, it has come to the small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north west London and you really should go and see it.

‘Scene Through Wood’ brings together about 70 wood engravings, from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Society of Wood Engravers’ collection as well as private collections, and by artist engravers around the world, including Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Japan. It is curated by noted engraver and artist Anne Desmet (RA).

The exhibition amounts not only to a visual feast of some of the finest wood engravings from the past 100 years, but introduces you to some 50 not-so-well-known artists who have specialised in this format. And, as you slowly patiently make your way round the exhibits, you begin to get a feel of the great variety of styles and approaches which are possible in this monochrome format.

‘The Cyder Feast’ by Edward Calvert (1828)

Sections

The exhibition is arranged into a number of sections and so is my review.

1. Beginnings

‘Beginnings’ starts with by far the earliest piece in the exhibition, ‘Christ in Limbo’ by Albrecht Dürer from 1510. Dürer was one of the first European artists to use printmaking and produced produced around 346 woodcuts during his career.

But woodcuts are different from wood engravings, and wood engraving, apparently, has the distinction of being one of the only art forms to have been invented in Britain. By the 1770s Thomas Bewick was engraving end-grain boxwood using bespoke tools. His ‘invention’ quickly spread around the industrialised world and was adapted for a variety of purposes, commercial and fine arts. The first display case contains a selection of steel engraving tools, and a roundel of end-grain boxwood the surface of which has been ground perfectly smooth and level and ready for engraving.

Put very simply, the artist etches a design into the hardwood which is then inked. The wood which has remained etched takes the ink and this part is printed on paper when the inked block is applied to it. The parts of the wood which have been gouged, striated, etched or scratched do not take the ink and thus show up white in the print.

Early experimenters included the prolific poet-artist, William Blake, Edward Calvert and the wonderful painter Samuel Palmer, all represented here. When I was a teenager I read the Complete William Blake, memorised the Songs of Innocence and Experience, devoted many hours to memorising Blake’s convoluted personal mythology. But later, in my 30s, I found myself warming very much to the delicate, mysterious magic of Samuel Palmer’s paintings. ‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ is the only wood engraving Palmer ever made and it’s tiny.

‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ by Samuel Palmer (1826)

Size matters

This brings me to a general point about the exhibition as a whole, which is size. It would be easy for your initial impression of the exhibition to be that all the works are a bit samey. Almost all the exhibits are black and white. And they also tend to be on the small size, A4 size or so. Half a dozen are strikingly bigger than this but plenty are smaller and some are minuscule.

Hence the gallery supplies a number of magnifying glasses because the thing about wood prints, as a general rule, is that you really have to lean and and study them. Oil paintings and watercolours can afford to be on a huge scale and make great sweeping gestures of colour which immediately leap out and grab you. Almost all these wood engravings, by contrast, require you to lean in and pay attention.

2. A sense of scale

In fact the second section in the exhibition is called ‘A sense of scale’ and explores the question of size, exploring the range of sizes possible with wood engravings, juxtaposing the tiny Samuel Palmer with the biggest thing in the show, ‘Mirage I’ (2014) by the Chinese artist Shi Lei. From a distance the Shi Lei piece looks like the face of a man wearing glasses regarding us with a withering look, except that the entire image appears to be bubbling and melting, maybe some post-nuclear holocaust atrocity.

‘Mirage I’ by Shi Lei (2014)

Only when you look closely do you realise that a) it’s a composite image which has been created out of nine separate blocks  and then stuck together, and b) that the overall image is, rather in the style of Salvador Dali, itself made up of figures of writhing naked bodies. Because of the uneasy, rather sickening effect, this was by far my least favourite image in the exhibition.

David Gentleman

In fact, talking of size and scale, arguably both the largest and the smallest engravings cited in the show were produced by the same artist, David Gentleman (born 1930), one of the most successful commercial artists of his day. Because among his huge range of work are:

1. Postage stamps commissioned by Royal Mail, in this case a 9p Christmas stamp from 1977 showing a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas stamp by David Gentleman (1977)

2. And the huge mural lining the platforms at Charing Cross underground station in London. I doubt if many other wood engravings have been reproduced at such scale.

Mural at Charing Cross underground station by David Gentleman (1979)

3. The theatre of life

This is followed by a wall of images all falling under the loose heading ‘The theatre of life’. This brings together images of types of people or human activities, such as:

  • Peter Blake’s engravings of four characters from a circus (1974 to 78)
  • dark and powerful images from the 1930s depicting the Great Depression in America Clare Leighton
  • images of ‘Bowlplayers in Sunlight’ by Gwendolen Raverat (1922), the first woman engraver to come to prominence

Comparing and contrasting these figures made you realise that engraving does best when it goes with the tendency to stylisation intrinsic in the form. Trying to achieve the sinuous curves and slow of organic objects is a big ask for an art form which works with chisels and incising tools, and so I thought a piece like Point-to-Point by Rachel Reckitt (1936) didn’t really work. Or I didn’t like the way it worked. By contrast in Le Sporting Bar (1929), it seemed to me that Ian Macnab had worked with the grain of the form to create a kind of semi-geometric stylisation which I enjoyed. But then I love Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and all varieties of geometric modernism.

The standout piece in this section was a much more recent work, ‘Fallen Angel’ (2006) by Hilary Paynter, not particularly geometric, certainly not a thing of hard edges and angles, a showcase of how soft and mysterious and rather wonderful a wood engraving can be.

Fallen Angel’ by Hilary Paynter (2006)

4. Construction and destruction

Following on from this is a section titled ‘Construction and destruction’. If we’ve just been looking at human recreation, sports and leisure time, here are people at war, or coping with fires and floods. It includes:

  • ‘Minesweeping Gear’ by James Taylor Dolby (1947)
  • ‘Northern Waters’ (1942) and ‘Sharp Attack’ (1944) by Geoffrey Wales
  • ‘Mill Fire’ (1997) and ‘Deluge’ (2000) by Ian Corfe-Stephens
  • ‘Shot’ (2010) by Chris Pig where ambulancemen and bystanders crowd round someone lying on a stretcher who has, apparently, just been shot

For me the standout piece, and one which typifies many of the strengths of wood engraving, is a marvellous piece by Hilary Paynter, titled ‘Tree with a Long Memory’ (2003).

Tree with a Long Memory’ by Hilary Paynter (2003)

This is a classic example of the need to lean in and look closer at a wood engraving. The more I looked, the more the piece delivered up its wonders. For a start it took me a few moments to realise that the shape of the image represents the trunk of a mature tress which has been sliced across, as when a tree is cut down with a chainsaw revealing the rings of growth for you to count.

Anyway, only when I really peered into the image did I realise that it contains a wonderful set of symbols of humanity’s achievements over the past 3,000 years or so, namely Stonehenge, the Parthenon and a Roman amphitheatre (at the bottom), what might be a Renaissance encampment such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold hanging upside down in the middle, on the left rows and rows of white crosses as in a First World War cemetery, in the top left a jet plane looping the loop, and on the top right the sinewy shape of a 6-lane motorway snaking into the distance. And on the lower right-hand side the timeless labour of working the land, ploughing and sowing which was once done by horse-drawn ploughs, now by diesel-driven machinery, but the eternal round of sowing and reaping which is the basis of all civilisation, the row upon row of furrows echoing the growth lines of the tree.

5. The built environment

Next up is a section titled ‘The built environment’. Given the form’s predisposition to angles and edges, buildings, rooftops, windows, streets of terraced houses and so on are tailor made subjects for engraving. Thus I loved the very first piece in this section, ‘Yorkshire’ (1920) by the noted Modernist artist Edward Wadsworth.

‘Yorkshire’ by Edward Wadsworth (1920)

This section is dominated by an impressive set of unusually large engravings of a view of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, each coloured differently, by the exhibition curator, Anne Desmet. Desmet is on record as saying the sequence was in part inspired by Monet’s set of paintings of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. They can be viewed on Desmet’s website.

This section also contains some interesting technical experiments by Desmet. ‘Babel Tower Revisited’ (2018) is round and uses slightly convex glass cover so give the impression the image is bulging out into the room. ‘Fires of London’ (2015) in which slender prints of engravings of the Great Fire have been cut out to form narrow tall images and glued onto 18 razor shells.

It also contains the striking (and tinted) ‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004).

‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004)

6. Storytelling (books)

Wood engraving is nowadays both an independent, creative art form and a versatile medium for commercial images. A display case demonstrates how the tendency to simplify and abstract subject matter can result in very striking images which can be used for book illustration. There are illustrations of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (by Garrick Palmer, 1994) and Goblin Market (Hilary Paynter, 2003).

More commercially, editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been printed with dramatic wood engraved front covers by Andrew Davidson (2013). And, best of all, the fabulous engravings produced by Chris Wormell for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ sequence of novels, which are outstanding.

‘La Belle Sauvage.’ Cover illustration for ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman (2017) based on a wood engraving by Chris Wormell

This section also contains:

  • ‘The Crucifixion’ (1927) by the famous poet-artist David Jones
  • ‘The Entombment’ (1930) by Claughton Pellew
  • ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1932) by John Farleigh, for George Bernard Shaw
  • Illustrations for ‘The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta’ (1933) by Eric Ravilious
  • a vivid scene from ‘Moby Dick’ (1974) by Garrick Palmer
  • Illustrations for ‘Erewhon’ (1932) by Blair Hughes-Stanton

And another series or set of images (cf Desant’s Brooklyn Bridge), this time a set of 9 highly detailed studies of a bust of the Roman emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius’, depicted with the opposite of abstraction, with astonishing photographic accuracy by Simon Brett (2002).

Another part of the display tells us that wood engravings have been used to create entirely text-free books of illustration, where the reader is free to verbalise a sequence of images, exemplified by the work of the Belgian artist, Franz Masereel, whose text-free books of narrative images – such as ‘The Idea’ and ‘Story Without Words’, both on display here – were very popular, especially in Germany, during the era of silent movies, and can be counted among the forerunners of modern graphic novels.

I’d never really given it much thought but those labels you get which you can write your name on and stick in the front page of good quality books, bookplates, often feature exquisite miniature wood engravings. Examples included here are by Joan Hassall, 1946, Vladimir Kortovitch, 1990, and Grigory Babitch, 2004.

7. Abstraction and detail

This section is dominated by a work by a very distinctive artist who produced woodcuts and engravings of wonderful, beguiling and mind-bending visual puzzles, the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

‘Fish and Scales’ by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1959)

8. The natural world

This is the biggest section, with the most examples, and so a fascinating opportunity to analyse and compare the very wide range of wood engraving styles available. There’s a ‘Stonehenge’ from 1962 by Gertrude Hermes which looks as if the sky is made out of angrily cross-hatched icebergs.

By complete contrast is ‘Dead Trees – Sheppey’ by Monica Poole (1976) where the trees look as if they’re touching a sky which is like an inverted pond, with dynamic ripples spreading out from the trees’ touch in a surreal manner which echoes Paul Nash in the 1930s.

There are also two different artist’s views of a car headlights at night illuminating a road scene through the windscreen, ‘Through the Windscreen’ (1929) by Gertrude Hermes and ‘The Night Drive’ (1937) by Joan Hassall.

Probably my favourite work was ‘Long-tailed Duck and Whiting’ by Colin See-Paynton (1988), possibly because the fish look identical to the fish in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks. Aren’t the ducks extraordinarily realistic? From that level of precise naturalistic detail to another large and pleasing, semi-abstract image, in the slightly mysterious Paul Nash style:

‘Under water’ by Monica Poole (1986)

Go see and enjoy this lovely, fascinating, eye-opening and deeply pleasurable exhibition.

The video (6’24”)

Anne Desmet RA is one of only three wood engravers to be elected as Academicians in the Royal Academy’s nearly 250-year history. In this video she takes us through each step in creating a wood engraving, from tracing the original drawing through to printing a first proof.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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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