At the heart of symbolism

Symbolism in Art

By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent,
the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.
(“The painter of modern life”, Charles Baudelaire)

Rembrandt, woman sitting at her window

One of the oldest languages

When the earliest inhabitants on earth wanted to show something, they only needed to point it out. Facing fire for the first time, they must not have reacted differently before taking advantage from it.

Nevertheless, the earliest inhabitants could not conceive the power hidden behind that source of light and heat. They felt that another invisible reality was responsible for the visible flame. They tried to give a meaning to it through analogical connections between the natural known world and a super-natural unknown world. That is how myths and symbols came about. They constitute the oldest language in the world, the mutual fund of humanity.

The contemporary artist finds in science the explanations that were not available to our ancestors. He can share the experience of the outer and visible world with the help of the rational language. Is he satisfied with all that ? What about sharing the experience of the inner and invisible world ? He feels that a barrier still exists between the known and the knowable accessible through the mind and fruit of the mutual experience on the one hand and the unknowable only approachable through the personal experience on the other hand. As the most penetrating of all artists, Eugène Delacroix, said:

“Look inside you, not around you.”

Rich in his inner experience, the artist gives a new meaning to forms, colours, sounds, words, images of the surrounding world that transport us, if not teleport us, into another world.

The artist, indeed, invites us on a voyage from the outer towards the inner world, from the physical and sensory world towards the psychic and spiritual world as in the evocation of the seasons or the famous tapestry series entitled the Lady with the Unicorn. He leads us from the representation towards the revelation of the world. He does not only let us see, but also vibrate to the mysteries of a world bathed in silence (mystery etymology). He let us start resonating with this beyond, this far away world, which nevertheless lies deep inside each of us.

The Western art found its source in the being's depths much later than the Eastern art and iconography. The way was opened by the Spanish school of the 16th and 17th centuries and particularly by El Greco, a Greek who came to settle in the land of the greatest mystics as Saint John of the Cross and saint Theresa. Nevertheless, the Spanish fervour did not spread all over Europe. The Reformation wind swept the Catholic momentum. Does it mean that north, in contrast to south, was not touched by the divine grace ? Was the Dutch painting school only an art confined to appearances ? Do we not speak of Dutch realism ? And yet, to adopt such a point of view would result in keeping the greatest Dutch painters away. Is Vermeer not a poet before being a realist ? Does Ruysdael not represent the links between the being, nature and his creator before being a naturalist ? And what can be said about Rembrandt who, under the appearances of the outer world, plunges into the inner world ? So is the paradox proper to the appearance world. It is within the so-called Realistic school that we meet the greatest Westerner painter of the inner world.

This inner world also found its faithful in a movement by the end of the 19th century, which called itself Symbolist. Its followers considered that the veil of the world, with its multiple appearances, masked the one and invisible reality 1.

Through his gift and inner experience, the artist let us discover his feelings and sometimes his soul. Did Eugène Delacroix not say ?

“Painting is a bridge across souls.”

During seldom and privileged moments, the artist goes even further. He lets us feel, beyond our human nature, the supra-human Spirit, the very essence of things. Then, the work is no longer something merely to look at or to listen to, it is itself look and tune. Suddenly, it shows us who we are, what we have always been and what we are called to become again. In that magic moment, art becomes sacred.

1 back The contemporary science and the Symbolist movement rejoin in a mutual research of a veiled reality. See “Veiled Reality” from Bernard d'Espagnat. Westview Press, 2003.