10.2.17 — Symbolism as Pop-up

Joséphin Péladan was a writer, a mystic, and not incidentally an entrepreneur. That very year that Frederic Leighton in England was painting his Flaming June, Péladan was creating a bridge from estheticism, decadence, and the spiritual to a still unknown modern art. At least he did so in his own eyes—and in the eyes of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art. For the museum, he helped make Symbolism central to the arts, with an influence as far reaching as Wassily Kandinsky, František Kupka, and Piet Mondrian.

Fernand Khnopff's I Lock My Door upon Myself (Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 1891)It shows instead artists largely forgotten and even then late in the game. “Mystical Symbolism,” through October 4, tracks the annual Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris over its mere five years, beginning in 1892—six years after Jean Moréas, never once mentioned, published his Surrealist manifesto. It suggests an obsession not with another world, much less a more spiritual future, but with the past. With just twenty paintings along with prints and documents, it comes off as a curator’s thesis not yet ready for prime time. It would be criminal if it leaves visitors thinking that they have seen Symbolism. Yet it has one asking about the place of Symbolism in modern art.

Péladan may not have become a household name, but he sure had charisma. Jean Delville paints him in the white robe of a choir boy or a savior. Marcellin Desboutin lends him the richer costume and dashing pose of a visiting celebrity from the East, while Alexandre Séon accentuates his pointed beard, wild hair like a Russian’s fur hat, and gaze toward a higher power. One could mistake him for Rasputin at the court of the tsar, and indeed they label him a sâr, or leader in Assyrian. Unlike the official Salon that had cast out Edouard Manet and Impressionism, his was in today’s language a pop-up, turning up where it may. Of course its name stands for its dedication to a none too secret society, the Rosicrucian order.

That order had its heyday in centuries past, and the artists look back as well. The most prominent symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau, appears only through a pupil, Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, and his influence. It shows in the death of Orpheus for Delville, with a bejeweled and shining face drifting in a blue-gray sea. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch do not appear at all. Others, like Charles Filiger, turn instead to silhouettes and color out of Paul Gauguin or to Pre-Raphaelites like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (which is why I have appended this to an earlier report on Leighton as a longer review and my latest upload). Armand Point mimics their Madonnas, shallow spaces, and decorative naturalism, as with a peacock after Antonio del Pollaiuolo in the Renaissance.

Toss in a fin de siècle weariness, a touch of the ancient Greeks, and a heavy dose of fantasy, like the willowy figure with a lyre in an exhibition poster by Aman-Jean, and one has a style. And a high style it was. The curator, Vivien Greene with Ylinka Barotto, welcomes one into a near recreation of a Salon, right down to velvet red walls and background music—by such heroes of the movement as Richard Wagner and such contemporaries as Erik Satie. What, though, did the style mean? For one thing, the artists took style seriously, in a time of arts for art’s sake. For another, its looking back reflects a thoroughgoing revulsion at modern life.

The movement’s estheticism appears in the frequent return to Orpheus. Naturally, he wants something more, and naturally, too, he is doomed. Séon paints his lament, face down on a rocky beach with his lyre cast aside. And the revulsion is implicit in the choice of styles. Most are quite conservative—although the flat colors in narrative paintings look forward at times to Gustave Klimt and German Expressionism. A poor follower of John Singer Sargent might have painted the portraits of Péladan, give or take their pointed disdain for a secular aristocracy.

The disdain appears in subject matter as well. Charles Maurin poses nubile bodies against smoking factories as The Dawn of Labor. They play out beside the twisted flesh and lamentations of his Dawn of the Dream. Ferdinand Hodler paints The Disappointed Souls as less a circle of hell than a bad day on a park bench. Jan Toorop uses his own daughter as a model for The Next Generation, only to lose her amid bare branches, a willow as a sign of mourning, a snake, and delicate curves of paint. Could the trees alone promise a next generation, with humanity left behind?

To save themselves, the artists have only the dream—and an idealization of women that women today might not appreciate one bit. They paint anonymous saints and shepherdesses with a youthful vision. And that idealization comes at a price. When Delville looks at a woman, he sees only an Idol of Perversity, in graphite, her hair and chest all but exploding toward the viewer. A languid young woman for Fernand Khnopff has the eyes of a zombie, like a beleaguered temptress. She also has a terrible fate, as (in a quote from Rosetti’s sister Christina in poetry) I Lock My Door upon Myself.

Symbolism sought a departure from the allegory and iconography of older religious art in what words cannot express, and writers truly at its origins, like Stéphane Mallarmé, look beyond narrative and mysticism to words themselves on the printed page. Kandinsky, Kupka, and Mondrian take painting beyond narrative, too, to the birth of abstraction. One can be grateful for the occasional familiar name, like Félix Vallotton in woodcuts or a young Georges Rouault. One can be grateful, too, for the insight into a newly cosmopolitan Paris. Artists come from as far as the Dutch East Indies or Algiers—with a plurality from Switzerland and Belgium. Or one can settle for jewel-like patterns and worldly fears.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.