At the heart of symbolism

Introduction to the Symbolist movement

The reality beyond the appearances

Originally, painting was set out to distinguish forms. Laid uniformly, colours limited themselves to separate different zones. This typical technique of oriental art was still used in the western contemporary works of Gauguin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec or Mondrian.

Then, the pictorial art tried to promote forms made in the image of sculpture. It succeeded in rendering the relief by a combination of models, drapes, sheens and shadows, mainly with the help of the oil painting techniques. This art found its achievement in Ingres's work for instance. To perform such an accomplishment, the artist no longer turned his attention towards forms as such, but light. And light became the queen with the advent of Impressionism.

Nevertheless, an art based more on perception than on personal experience could only raise strong reactions. The revolt of the depths of the being yearned for a knowledge revealing the inner light proper to the individual rather than the outer light common to everybody. It already appeared in Monet's work, notably in the canvas “Creuse, sunset”, but was going to find its full bloom in the Symbolist movement. Born in France during the 1880s, it leant on the conviction that the function of art did not only consist in describing the outer world (neo-classicism) or expressing feelings (romanticism), but in suggesting a reality beyond the appearances as well.

The Symbolist movement did not concern painting only, but also philosophy, music, literature and especially poetry. The links between painters and poets were very close and reflected in their respective works. Symbolist painters and poets dreamt at attaining a transcending reality. For them, the sensitive world was only the reflection of a spiritual world. To suggest this impalpable reality, they gladly used a fluid and vibrating style where colours and sounds merged with each other. The cantors of the movement were unquestionably the painter Odilon Redon and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

Although mostly associated with France, the Symbolist movement quickly spread all over Europe and influenced artists as diverse as Fernand Khnopff and James Ensor in Belgium, Gustav Klimt in Austria, Edward Burne-Jones in England, Edvard Munch in Norway or Blok and Bely in Russia.