When painting landscapes, the Symbolists went beyond a sense of place to explore inner space.
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Lifting the Veil”.
By Jonathan Lopez
In 1864, the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé wrote to a friend announcing a new objective for the arts: “Paint not the thing itself, but the effect that it produces.” Mallarmé’s dictum offers a tidy summation of what would eventually be called Symbolism, a multi-faceted movement that influenced literature, music, painting and other disciplines. “Dreams of Nature,” a major loan show on Symbolism in European landscape painting, is currently on view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and will travel later this year to Edinburgh and Helsinki. The exhibition traces the interplay between landscape and spiritual concerns from Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School through Redon, Böcklin, Munch, and Kandinsky. In conversation with Art & Antiques, the Van Gogh Museum’s chief curator of exhibitions, Edwin Becker, discusses this sweeping survey, whose treatment of Symbolist landscape touches on topics ranging from the music of Arnold Schoenberg to the esoteric beliefs of Rosicrucianism and Theosophy.
A&A: What is Symbolism?
BECKER: The term Symbolism comes from the literary world, and one of the first places it appears is in a manifesto written in 1886 by the poet Jean Moréas. In Moréas’s text probably the most important word is suggérer—to suggest—which is a key concept for Symbolism. There was this sense that an artist’s work should hint at a deeper reality hidden behind ordinary appearances. It’s a Neoplatonic concept—that the world we see is an imperfect reflection of the truth that lies beyond it.
A&A: How does this relate to landscape painting?
BECKER: The artists in the show didn’t suddenly say, “I want to work in a Symbolist style.” But after about 1886, they were all investigating techniques for portraying landscape not as a record of a particular spot in nature but as a pretext for expressing feelings, perceptions, dreams or visions.
A&A: What were some of the techniques?
BECKER: These artists often used a soft-focus effect, distancing the viewer from reality. The Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, for instance, was fond of climbing in the mountains, and in Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau Rising above a Sea of Mist (1908) you are standing with him on a mountain peak looking down into the valley below—an idea with precedents in the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich—and the scene almost dissolves into an abstract pattern. Hodler puts an emphasis on simplicity, soberness, going for the essence and avoiding any kind of anecdote.
A&A: There may not be an explicit anecdote, but in works by other Symbolists there does seem to be a suggestion of a hidden story, as in the various scenes of Bruges by Fernand Khnopff and Henri Eugène Le Sidaner.
BECKER: Bruges was a medieval town with a mysterious atmosphere and was not quite so polished and cleaned up as it is nowadays, so the idea that the city contained decaying vestiges of an ancient past appealed to the Symbolist mentality. Also the book Bruges-la-Morte (1892) by Georges Rodenbach was very influential. In the book Rodenbach seeks traces of his deceased wife through the city, and this macabre mood comes through in the way the Symbolists depict Bruges—the emptiness, the stillness, the strange corners or angles.
A&A: There is a measure of stillness and quiet to the technique as well, especially in the large conté crayon drawing by Khnopff, Lac d’Amour, Bruges (1904).
BECKER: Khnopff works very minutely in that picture, as if he does not want the technique to be felt; it becomes immaterial compared to the effect or sentiment, and in that way it’s a very conceptual kind of art.
A&A: The theme of water—reflections in water, mist on water, cities and structures viewed across a body of water—seems to come up frequently in the show, from Whistler’s Nocturne: Grey and Silver to Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead. One of the most striking works in the exhibition is Lake Keitele (1905) by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. It shows a cryptic, geometrical form on the surface of the lake, but I’m not really sure what it is—melting ice?
BECKER: I’ve asked Finnish people about this, and some say it could be melting ice; others say if you stand at the lake at a certain time of day, you’ll see bright reflections like this across the water. It’s almost a decorative pattern, an abstraction within the natural world, and it becomes a reflection of not only of nature but perhaps of your own feelings, or an allusion to the story of Narcissus.
A&A: Gallen-Kallela isn’t an artist I know much about.
BECKER: He’s an important artist, but most of his paintings are in Finland, and he was very rooted in the Finnish environment. Probably his most famous works are his illustrations of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. If you travel out into the countryside you can still see the scenes and motifs he painted.
A&A: The show also includes some very familiar artists whom I wouldn’t normally think of in the context of Symbolism. For instance, you include Monet.
BECKER: People might find that very strange. We know Monet as the great Impressionist, but in the 1890s he moved to these series of single motifs—Rouen Cathedral, haystacks, poplars. The idea of the series is more contemplative than capturing the immediate impression of nature. It incorporates developments considered over a long period of time, and the forms, for instance in the Haystacks, Snow Effect (1891), become strangely prominent—exaggerated, in a way—and suggestive of a deeper meaning.
A&A: What about the Pointillist seascape, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 221 (Adagio), by Signac—what’s Symbolist about that image? It seems very bright and cheerful, no mood of dark foreboding.
BECKER: The dark and macabre aspect of things is one side of Symbolism. Hodler exhibited at the Salon Rose + Croix in Paris; Mondrian was a member of the Theosophical Society, and other Symbolists dabbled in spiritualism and the occult. But Symbolism was also about finding new methods to provoke a feeling or mood in the onlooker. Signac often gave musical titles to his works—adagio, allegro—as if he were composing music with his dots and discovering the secret language of nature. Symbolism is often about the underlying rhythms of life—as is Van Gogh’s Sower (1888). Van Gogh painted it in the asylum, and it evokes a sense that one’s own troubles are insignificant compared to the eternal cycle of reaping and sowing. The sun forms a kind of halo around the figure, giving it a religious or mythical appearance.
A&A: There are other works in the show that touch on religious themes more explicitly, for instance Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (1888).
BECKER: Thanks to our partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland, we were able to borrow the Gauguin, which is really one of the great Symbolist masterpieces. The central action is Jacob wrestling the angel, the story that the congregation had heard in church earlier and that they now see as a supernatural vision before them. Where you would expect a green meadow, you have this unreal red, almost a circus or carnival red, giving the scene a feeling of a performance.
A&A: The idea of mythical or mystical landscape ultimately points toward abstraction, for instance in The Cossacks (1910–11) by Kandinsky.
BECKER: That work is on the edge of abstraction. You can still make out the Cossacks with their weapons, and the rainbows in the background are perhaps bridges to another world, such as Schoenberg reaches for in his music.
A&A: You have a set of headphones next to The Cossacks in the exhibition so that visitors can listen to Schoenberg. What’s the connection?
BECKER: Kandinsky first heard Schoenberg’s music in a concert in 1911, and afterwards he wrote to Schoenberg about the similarities in their work. They both wanted to lift the veil from reality by developing a new method of painting or composing—Schoenberg used the 12-tone musical scale and Kandinsky used color theory. After the concert, Kandinsky began using intense shades of yellow, saying they gave him the feeling of Schoenberg’s music. But there’s a deeper connection. Schoenberg’s music was called dissonant, but Schoenberg said that to him it was just a different kind of consonance—a new harmony that was there all along and just needed to be discovered. I think that’s what the painters were seeking, too.
“Dreams of Nature: Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky” remains at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam through June 17, then travels to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh (July 14 – October 14, 2012) and the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, in Helsinki (November 16, 2012 – February 17, 2013). The illustrated English-language catalogue (Fonds Mercator SA: € 29.95) features essays by Rodolphe Rapetti, Richard Thomson and others.