Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts.
In literature, Symbolism originates with the 1857 publication of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images.
The aesthetic was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated by a series of manifestos and attracted a generation of writers. The term “symbolist” was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the Symbolists from the related Decadents of literature and of art.
Distinct from, but related to, the style of literature, symbolism in art is related to the gothic component of Romanticism and Impressionism.
Precursors and origins
Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic styles which were attempts to represent reality in its gritty particularity and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal. Symbolism was a reaction in favor of spirituality, imagination, and dreams.
Some writers, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, began as naturalists before becoming symbolists; for Huysmans, this change represented his increasing interest in religion and spirituality. Certain of the characteristic subjects of the Decadents represent naturalist interest in sexuality and taboo topics, but in their case, this was mixed with Byronic romanticism and the world-weariness characteristic of the fin de siècle period.
The Symbolist poets have a more complex relationship with Parnassianism, a French literary style that immediately preceded it. While being influenced by hermeticism, allowing freer versification, and rejecting Parnassian clarity and objectivity, it retained Parnassianism’s love of wordplay and concern for the musical qualities of verse.
The Symbolists continued to admire Théophile Gautier’s motto of “art for art’s sake“, and retained – and modified – Parnassianism’s mood of ironic detachment.
Many Symbolist poets, including Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, published early works in Le Parnasse Contemporain, the poetry anthologies that gave Parnassianism its name. But Arthur Rimbaud publicly mocked prominent Parnassians and published scatological parodies of some of their main authors, including François Coppée – misattributed to Coppée himself – in L’Album zutique.
One of Symbolism’s most colorful promoters in Paris was art and literary critic (and occultist) Joséphin Péladan, who established the Salon de la Rose + Croix.
The Salon hosted a series of six presentations of avant-garde art, writing and music during the 1890s, to give a presentation space for artists embracing spiritualism, mysticism, and idealism in their work. A number of Symbolists were associated with the Salon.
The Symbolist Manifesto
Symbolists believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly. Thus, they wrote in a very metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.
Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886. The Symbolist Manifesto names Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine as the three leading poets of the movement.
Moréas announced that symbolism was hostile to “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality, and matter-of-fact description“, and that its goal instead was to “clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal.”
Ainsi, dans cet art, les tableaux de la nature, les actions des humains, tous les phénomènes concrets ne sauraient se manifester eux-mêmes ; ce sont là des apparences sensibles destinées à représenter leurs affinités ésotériques avec des Idées primordiales.
(In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real-world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.)
In a nutshell, as Mallarmé writes in a letter to his friend Henri Cazalis, ‘to depict not the thing but the effect it produces’.
Schopenhauer’s aesthetics represented shared concerns with the symbolist program; they both tended to consider Art as a contemplative refuge from the world of strife and will.
As a result of this desire for an artistic refuge, the symbolists used characteristic themes of mysticism and otherworldliness, a keen sense of mortality, and a sense of the malign power of sexuality, which Albert Samain termed a “fruit of death upon the tree of life.”
Symbolists and decadents
The symbolist style has frequently been confused with the Decadent movement, the name derived from French literary critics in the 1880s, suggesting the writers were self-indulgent and obsessed with taboo subjects.
A few writers embraced the term while most avoided it. Jean Moréas’ manifesto was largely a response to this polemic. By the late 1880s, the terms “symbolism” and “decadence” were understood to be almost synonymous.
Though the aesthetics of the styles can be considered similar in some ways, the two remain distinct. The symbolists were those artists who emphasized dreams and ideals; the Decadents cultivated précieux, ornamented, or hermetic styles, and morbid subject matters.
Symbolism in literature is distinct from symbolism in art although the two were similar in many aspects. In painting, symbolism can be seen as a revival of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition and was close to the self-consciously morbid and private decadent movement.
There were several rather dissimilar groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, which included Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Jacek Malczewski, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gaston Bussière, Edvard Munch, Félicien Rops, and Jan Toorop.
Symbolism in painting was even more widespread geographically than symbolism in poetry, affecting Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich, Victor Borisov-Musatov, Martiros Saryan, Mikhail Nesterov, Léon Bakst, Elena Gorokhova in Russia, as well as Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Elihu Vedder, Remedios Varo, Morris Graves and David Chetlahe Paladin in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a symbolist sculptor.
The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure, and ambiguous references.
More a philosophy than an actual style of art, symbolism in painting influenced the contemporary Art Nouveau style and Les Nabis.
Symbolism had some influence on music as well. Many symbolist writers and critics were early enthusiasts of the music of Richard Wagner, an avid reader of Schopenhauer.
The symbolist aesthetic affected the works of Claude Debussy. His choices of libretti, texts, and themes come almost exclusively from the symbolist canon.
Compositions such as his settings of Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire, various art songs on poems by Verlaine, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande with a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, and his unfinished sketches that illustrate two Poe stories, The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher, all indicate that Debussy was profoundly influenced by symbolist themes and tastes. His best known work, the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, was inspired by Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune.
The symbolist aesthetic also influenced Aleksandr Scriabin’s compositions. Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire takes its text from German translations of the symbolist poems by Albert Giraud, showing an association between German expressionism and symbolism.
Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera Salomé, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, uses a subject frequently depicted by symbolist artists.
Symbolism’s style of the static and hieratic adapted less well to narrative fiction than it did to poetry.
Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 novel À rebours (English title: Against Nature or Against the Grain) explored many themes that became associated with the symbolist aesthetic. This novel, in which very little happens, catalogs the psychology of Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive antihero.
Oscar Wilde was influenced by the novel as he wrote Salome, and Huysman’s book appears in The Picture of Dorian Gray: the titular character becomes corrupted after reading the book.
Paul Adam was the most prolific and representative author of symbolist novels. Les Demoiselles Goubert (1886), co-written with Jean Moréas, is an important transitional work between naturalism and symbolism.
Few symbolists used this form. One exception was Gustave Kahn, who published Le Roi fou in 1896. In 1892, Georges Rodenbach wrote the short novel Bruges-la-morte, set in the Flemish town of Bruges, which Rodenbach described as a dying, medieval city of mourning and quiet contemplation: in a typically symbolist juxtaposition, the dead city contrasts with the diabolical re-awakening of sexual desire.
The characteristic emphasis on an internal life of dreams and fantasies have made symbolist theatre difficult to reconcile with more recent trends. Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s drama Axël is a definitive symbolist play.
In it, two Rosicrucian aristocrats become enamored of each other while trying to kill each other, only to agree to commit suicide mutually because nothing in life could equal their fantasies. From this play, Edmund Wilson adopted the title Axel’s Castle for his influential study of the symbolist literary aftermath.
Maurice Maeterlinck, also a symbolist playwright, wrote The Blind (1890), The Intruder (1890), Interior (1891), Pelléas and Mélisande (1892), and The Blue Bird (1908). Eugénio de Castro is considered one of the introducers of Symbolism in the Iberian Peninsula. He wrote Belkiss, “dramatic prose-poem” as he called it, about the doomed passion of Belkiss, The Queen of Sheba, to Solomon, depicting in an avant-guard and violent style the psychological tension and recreating very accurately the tenth century BC Israel. He also wrote King Galaor and Polycrates’ Ring, being one the most prolific Symbolist theoreticians.
Lugné-Poe (1869–1940) was an actor, director, and theatre producer of the late nineteenth century. Lugné-Poe “sought to create a unified nonrealistic theatre of poetry and dreams through atmospheric staging and stylized acting“.
Upon learning about symbolist theatre, he never wanted to practice any other form. After beginning as an actor in the Théâtre Libre and Théâtre d’Art, Lugné-Poe grasped on to the symbolist movement and founded the Théâtre de l’Œuvre where he was manager from 1892 until 1929. Some of his greatest successes include opening his own symbolist theatre, producing the first staging of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896), and introducing French theatergoers to playwrights such as Ibsen and Strindberg.
The later works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov have been identified by essayist Paul Schmidt as being much influenced by symbolist pessimism. Both Konstantin Stanislavski and Vsevolod Meyerhold experimented with symbolist modes of staging in their theatrical endeavors.
Drama by symbolist authors formed an important part of the repertoire of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre and the Théâtre d’Art.
Among English-speaking artists, the closest counterpart to symbolism was aestheticism.
The Pre-Raphaelites were contemporaries of the earlier symbolists, and have much in common with them. Symbolism had a significant influence on modernism, (Remy de Gourmont considered the Imagists were its descendants) and its traces can also be detected in the work of many modernist poets, including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Hart Crane, and W. B. Yeats in the anglophone tradition and Rubén Darío in Hispanic literature.
The early poems of Guillaume Apollinaire have strong affinities with symbolism. Early Portuguese Modernism was heavily influenced by Symbolist poets, especially Camilo Pessanha; Fernando Pessoa had many affinities to Symbolism, such as mysticism, musical versification, subjectivism, and transcendentalism.
Edmund Wilson’s 1931 study Axel’s Castle focuses on the continuity with symbolism and several important writers of the early twentieth century, with a particular emphasis on Yeats, Eliot, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
Wilson concluded that the symbolists represented a dreaming retreat into things that are dying–the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer.
After the beginning of the 20th century, symbolism had a major effect on Russian poetry even as it became less popular in France.
Russian symbolism, steeped in the Eastern Orthodoxy and the religious doctrines of Vladimir Solovyov, had little in common with the French style of the same name. It began the careers of several major poets such as Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Bely’s novel Petersburg (1912) is considered the greatest example of Russian symbolist prose.
Primary influences on the style of Russian Symbolism were the irrationalistic and mystical poetry and philosophy of Fyodor Tyutchev and Solovyov, the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the operas of Richard Wagner, the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, French symbolist and decadent poets (such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire), and the dramas of Henrik Ibsen.
The style was largely inaugurated by Nikolai Minsky’s article The Ancient Debate (1884) and Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s book On the Causes of the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature (1892). Both writers promoted extreme individualism and the act of creation.
Merezhkovsky was known for his poetry as well as a series of novels on god-men, among whom he counted Christ, Joan of Arc, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, and Napoleon. His wife, Zinaida Gippius, also a major poet of early symbolism, opened a salon in St Petersburg, which came to be known as the “headquarters of Russian decadence“. Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (novel) a portrait of the social strata of the Russian capital, is frequently cited as a late example of Symbolism in 20th-century Russian literature.
In Romania, symbolists directly influenced by French poetry first gained influence during the 1880s, when Alexandru Macedonski reunited a group of young poets associated with his magazine Literatorul. Polemicizing with the established Junimea and overshadowed by the influence of Mihai Eminescu, Romanian symbolism was recovered as an inspiration during and after the 1910s, when it was exampled by the works of Tudor Arghezi, Ion Minulescu, George Bacovia, Mateiu Caragiale, Tristan Tzara and Tudor Vianu, and praised by the modernist magazine Sburătorul.
The symbolist painters were an important influence on expressionism and surrealism in painting, two movements which descend directly from symbolism proper. The harlequins, paupers, and clowns of Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period” show the influence of symbolism, and especially of Puvis de Chavannes.
In Belgium, symbolism became so popular that it came to be known as a national style, particularly in landscape painting: the static strangeness of painters like René Magritte can be considered as a direct continuation of symbolism. The work of some symbolist visual artists, such as Jan Toorop, directly affected the curvilinear forms of art nouveau.
Many early motion pictures also employ symbolist visual imagery and themes in their staging, set designs, and imagery. The films of German expressionism owe a great deal to symbolist imagery. The virginal “good girls” seen in the cinema of D. W. Griffith, and the silent film “bad girls” portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of symbolism, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith’s Intolerance.