The decadence and darkness of Symbolism

Caresses, by Fernand Khnopff

Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism

Ralph Geis (ed.), Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 336pp, fully illus., €45/£42/$50

ALEXANDER ADAMS immerses himself in disquiet and dreamscapes

Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue .

Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism.

Symbolism had two leading mediums: art and literature. The best Symbolism includes Maeterlinck, Mallarmé, Rodenbach and Verlaine, all of which followed the example of the pre-eminent spirit of Symbolist literature: Baudelaire. For artists, there was a resistance to the domination of portraiture and the preoccupations of the picture-buying middle class, as evidenced in the Salon.

What are the themes of Symbolism? Eros and Thanatos: sex/love and death. These are frequently mingled in art which plays on the fear of venereal disease (the prostitute as Death) and death and the maiden. One also finds an attraction-repulsion complex regarding death, wherein artists fear death but seek the endless slumber of oblivion. Others? Vanitas and memento mori, the supernatural, primal fear of night, dreams, the grotesque, the outcast, criminal, flanêur. Deviant social, political and sexual behaviour – often in a context heroizing or celebrating it – becomes a key feature of the Decadent Movement, a sub-group of Symbolism. States of narcolepsy, hypnosis, hysteria and ecstasy, all beyond conscious control and revealing the darker urges and hitherto hidden truths. Unorthodox approaches to religion meant that Symbolists were involved (on levels superficial and profound) with occultism, Theosophy, Satanism and Paganism and fringe sects of Catholicism. Non-Western and non-Abrahamic religions are subjects of interest.

In other words, it was a hugely diffuse movement. One can spot it easily enough, even if one has trouble pinning down all its qualities, and finds it impossible to identify a unifying principle. 

Featured artists include Félicien Rops, Jean Delville, James Ensor, George Minne, Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery, Léon Spilliaert and Léon Frédéric. Prints were important (especially those of Ensor and Khnopff). Sculpture – especially polychrome stone carving and stone-metal busts – by Minne, Khnopff and Charles van der Stappen confirmed the breadth of Symbolism’s versatility. Symbolism found channels to intellectuals and public through exhibiting associations Les XX (1884-93) and La Libre Esthétique (1894-1914). Symbolist art frequently appeared in art journals and had wide currency through book illustrations, not least for Baudelaire’s books. Many public commissions required symbolism, even though the art that derived from such public schemes is a touch generic and has little to distinguish itself from standard academic and civic art.

Nocturnal interior by Xavier Mellery

William Degouve de Nuncques’s moonlit views of Venice and Bruges are atmospheric and less familiar than Spilliaert’s nocturnal street views of Ostend. Mellery’s dim nocturnal interiors of churches and house stairwells are masterful scenes of crepuscular tension. They have a dreamlike quality and beautiful finish – detailed enough to be immersive, but not so polished as to lose their liveliness of facture. The low-key disquiet of these scenes is very effective. Mellery’s public commissions include images featuring rather lumpen angels against gilded grounds, which are illustrated but excluded from the exhibition, happily.

Ensor is represented by works from his youthful and mature periods. His painterly approach marks him out from his compatriots. Ensor’s skeleton and mask pictures are very appropriate for this exhibition, even though Ensor as an artist is very mixed and individualistic. 

Khnopff is the dominant presence in this selection. His paintings and drawings are well known. Caresses (1896) is the classic oddity of Belgian Symbolism. A cheetah with a woman’s head nuzzles a male warrior, who has a female face. It is absolutely ridiculous, yet iconic. Two scenes of satanic manifestations by Rops, featuring female nudes, are complemented by prints from the suite Les Sataniques (1882). Rops’s imagination attains the perversity of a true libertine in the latter. Von Stuck’s women are generally types – with the exception of a portrait of actress Tilla Durieux in character – and perform the role of dangerous seducers. In Berlin, his work is usefully paired with that of Böcklin. Here we see him near Khnopff’s eternal woman, based on his sister. Art by peripheral artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites shows how Belgium (a geographical and intellectual hub) was connected to other countries’ art scenes. Spilliaert’s nocturnes, marines and figure pictures (as seen recently in London) are excellent and ambitious, as a whole.

Supplemented by classic Symbolist paintings by non-Belgian artists, including Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead (1883), Edvard Munch’s Jealousy (1913), Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus the Traveller (c. 1888), von Stuck’s Tilla Durieux as Circe (c. 1900), as well as paintings by Klimt and others. There are mistakes. Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Interior Strandgade 30 (1901) is a nice painting but it does not carry the charge of Mellery’s interiors, which was clearly the comparison the curators were making. A mysterious atmosphere is not enough to make a piece of art Symbolist. Belgian Antoine Wiertz’s La Belle Rosine (1847) is a foundational work and perhaps the best proto-Symbolist paintings, as haunting as anything made later.

The art selected is excellent and a tour de force of Symbolism’s highlights, as well as including lesser known artists. The sculptures – principally busts of young women as enigmatic allegorical personages – remind us of the importance of that medium in 1900. The catalogue includes short essays and many comparative illustrations, as well as full-page illustrations. The biographies of more obscure artists are welcome; there is no bibliography.