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.

Two poems by Guy Walker

Guy Walker is a French and Italian teacher who lives on the south coast of England. He edits the magazine https://www.british-intelligence.co.uk/ and blogs at https://roseatetern.blogspot.com/

Spleen by Charles Baudelaire – English Verse Translation


I have a thousand years of memories.

A chest of drawers rammed full of elegies,

Of served writs, billets doux and balance sheets,

Romances, heavy plaits rolled in receipts,

Encloses fewer secrets than my mind;

A pyramid or staggering crypt, you find

Contains more dead than does a limed mass-ditch.

– I am a moon-abhorred graveyard, in which

The biting worms there, like remorseful dread,

Attach themselves onto my hallowed dead.

I am a boudoir decked with shrivelled roses,

And heaps of tired couture, which juxtaposes

With grieving gouaches, bleached Bouchers which inhale

The odour leaked from an unstoppered phial.

When dull indifference’s first born, Ennui,

Takes on the spans of slow eternity,

Then, under heavy flakes of snowy years,

For length, the limping, hobbled days can know few peers.

– And you, a living being, you are no more;

As if drowned on Sahara’s trackless floor,

An old Sphinx who the maps say isn’t there,

Forgotten by a world which doesn’t care,

A granite mass that’s swamped in fear whose cries

Keen desperately; yet to a sun that dies.

Human Discourse

Behind plate windows, and beneath large skylights,

Thick woollen scarves and coats and autumn twilight.

“Technologies in art are superseded,

Egg tempera gave way to oils. What’s needed

Now‘s modern media.” And the crowd of French

Girls laugh and murmur; fidget on the bench.

“The lemon chia seed cake’s lovely, will

You have another latte?” Seeing light spill

Across the Common, passers-by steal glances,

“You can’t dispute that my device enhances.”

Professor Croce cleans his glasses, blinks,

Begins another peroration, thinks

Conception matters more than tools. A dog

Skitters on wooden laminate. “You’ll jog

The waitress, fooling ‘round!” — “ . . . used orpiment,

Lead white and cinnabar.” A hatstand meant

For fewer coats slews drunkenly, till caught,

And ‘busboys’ stack up plastic racks now brought

To steaming scullery door. The street-doors yawn,

Black revenant wind intrudes with dry leaves drawn

From gardens. Later on, and side by side,

The Prof and Eugene cough, their legs astride

And rocking back, sequestered maleness grasped;

They study walls and ceiling tiles while fast

Around white streaming bowls, they let careen

Their urine’s curtain, slewed on porcelain’s sheen.

Gimme shelter – the fall and rise of the 60s

Rites of Dionysus, by Tim Shaw

MARK GULLICK says the hyperbolised decade turned naivety into nastiness

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. We’re at the end of the greatest decade in the history of mankind, and as Presumin’ Ed has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” Withnail and I

“At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical adventurer than the chaos of Milton – to be in a state of irreclaimable disorder…” Editorial introduction to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

If you can remember the Sixties, runs the rusted old adage, you weren’t there. For today’s political Left, most of whom weren’t there, it was the blessed decade, a time of liberation, sticking it to The Man, and sex and drugs and rock and roll. For those few Conservatives who remain, it was the fons et origo of the chaotic times in which we find ourselves.

The world-historical events of the 1960s centred around America. JFK’s assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act and King’s killing, Vietnam, the Apollo moon landing – all these shook, rattled and rolled the country where, as de Tocqueville had claimed in 1835, the world’s first great experiment in democracy had begun. And if the Sixties were remade as a movie, for good or ill, then it would feature an Anglo-American soundtrack – rock music.

Defining musical genres is a mug’s game. With rock music, it defines itself on listening. As with the famous American judicial case requiring a judge’s clerk to define hard-core pornography, with rock music you will know it when you see it. And, in this case, hear it. The first band I saw, at the age of 14 in 1975 and for £2.50, was Led Zeppelin, themselves a product of the Sixties and its bequest of rock music. The man I was watching transfixedly, Jimmy Page, was inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Presley’s Come On Baby, Let’s Play House. Zeppelin were shatteringly loud. This was a while before The Who forced legislation to reduce the volume at concerts following their 1977 gig at Charlton Football Stadium in south London. The band could be heard in Brighton. I couldn’t really hear anything, not with any clarity, for two days after Led Zeppelin. Quite simply, in Nietzschean terms, here was Dionysus.

But rock music grew not out of its father’s thigh, as did the mythical Dionysus, but out of electric pop and R&B. The details are unimportant, but The Stones began the Sixties as a Chuck Berry tribute band and ended it as Their Satanic Majesties. The Sixties – something happened out there. A number of tributaries flowed into one river, and the counter-culture got the music it required.

I’ll return to the schism which eventually separated rock music from rock and roll, R&B and pop music, but a mixture of youth rebellion, drugs hard and soft, and economic affluence produced a coat of arms for a culture-changing musical crusade which began at El Paso, the Marty Robbins single which was the first January Billboard number one of the Sixties, and ended at Altamont Speedway Stadium in December 1969.

Rock music itself took a broad base of blues, R&B and rock and roll and used it to weave the bands’ own designs, all amplified beyond old-school levels. Rock music is primal and it is Dionysiac. The Sixties’ alchemical mixture which became rock music was bubbling away before synthesisers, sequencers and computers (some experiments aside), and so was visceral, sweat-soaked and animalistic.

Certainly the electric guitar was the weapon of choice for the cultural skirmishes ahead, the staff adorned with pine-cones held aloft by the followers of Dionysus. Coming from the back row of the swing bands of the 40s and 50s, the electric version of the instrument became more prominent when people like Louis Jordan began cutting band numbers to save money on the road. It was Charlie Christian who first made the electric guitar talk through amplification (his famous original guitar was bought by Steve Howe of Yes), and the thread would wind through the guitarists of the Sixties – Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend – the last included as possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist of a crew best known for their solos.

It was the way in which the instrument was played rather than innovation in guitars themselves, with vintage guitars being prized as the age of mass-production began. The riff was born in the Sixties. When Townshend got back from an American tour in 1964 and turned on the radio, he heard the famous staccato barre chords of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. It certainly got Townshend. He sat down and wrote the equally famous chopped riff for I Can’t Explain.

John Entwistle of The Who

The Sixties also saw the rebirth of the often-forgotten bass guitar in rock music. As a bass player myself, I can say that the decade energised and freed the instrument. McCartney’s melodic scales on his iconic Hofner Violin bass, Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’s rhythmic work in tandem with the mighty John Bonham, the blues scales of Free’s Andy Frazer, The Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Cream’s Jack Bruce set the instrument free, away from the straight rock ‘n’ roll runs and country plod of the Fifties, and no one more so that The Who’s legendary John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle, who brought the bass to forefront of the band’s tumultuous sound.

Rock music was banned in Yugoslavia in the Sixties as subversive, which was precisely its appeal to bored and affluent Western youth who were experiencing a relaxation of authority and discipline after the strait-laced Fifties. Todd Gitlin called rock music incoherent and primitively regressive, while Gerard Howard dubbed it the “Pied Piper’s tune of the new freedoms”. The children led by the Piper in the fairy-tale, of course, were free right up until they were slaughtered in the wood.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix nut-shelled the Sixties in one performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He played the electric guitar in a way no one had ever seen or heard. Then he set light to it and smashed it to pieces. This was a sign, a pointer to where the American dream was heading. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud famously writes that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”. The dream-work becomes a text to be read off, and the signifiers relate to a signified which is never fully present (Derrida had much to say about this). What type of unconscious can be read off from, and thus lurks beneath, the American dream? In terms of rock music, the dream was interrupted.

Just as the first British invasion of the 18th century led to the Declaration of Independence, American pragmatism built on British conceptual guidelines (Locke and so on), so too it could be argued that the British invasion of the 1960s led to rock music as a progression of electric pop and rock and roll. Arguably, The Beatles began the metamorphosis, moving from covering R&B and Motown songs to writing their own, influenced by both but with something British layered on top. The list of British bands desperate to ‘crack America’ grew quickly. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Who, Herman’s Hermits… When The Stones recorded at blues HQ Chess Records, significant ground had been ceded by American forces.

There were, of course, two main offensives from Blighty, two very different bands who were attracted to America under different pretences. And, just as Coleridge claimed every man was born a Platonist or an Aristotelean, so too the Sixties had an ontological choice of its own: The Beatles or The Stones?

The Beatles had the shop-store mannequin look A&R men had been looking for, while The Stones always looked to be up to no good in publicity photos. After the amphetamine-crazed early Hamburg scene, The Beatles settled into a life, viewed in terms of narcotics, of marijuana and LSD, mostly. The Fab Four were not known for their live work, which were mostly exercises in young girls screaming themselves hoarse at a slightly animated version of Kraftwerk. The Stones were becoming notorious for their live transformation. Jagger had stopped hopping about like a small variety of garden bird and was now part-turkeycock, part infernal drag queen. Richards was becoming the troubadour. It has to be The Stones, for me, but debate is welcomed. In the end, The Stones couldn’t write Blackbird, but The Beatles certainly couldn’t have performed Midnight Rambler.

In the end, the British took coals to Newcastle (home of The Animals). American rhythm and blues made it to the record shops of the home counties, bands began emulating them, realised that with minor alterations they could cut the suit to fit them, and sold the result back to a willing American public. Perhaps America could have come up with rock music unaided, but then maybe it was too affluent, too shiftless, too relaxed in its hedonistic consumerism. It wasn’t getting over the effects of the worst war the world had even seen, it wasn’t rationed, it wasn’t austere and economically fragile. The British invasion added urban grit to rock music in its infancy, some gin in the baby’s bottle. For this tonic, we have the institution of the British Art College to thank, partly, for bringing Townshend and Clapton and others out from their artistic shells.

America tried to replicate the success of The Beatles with the manufactured Monkees, who actually went on to be a halfway-decent pop band. It is regrettable that the urban myth informing us that Charles Manson auditioned for the band proves to be untrue. Manson was in Rikers at the time, but how would the band have developed? Manson did actually write music; Guns ‘n’ Roses covered his Look at Your Game, Girl.

The rock music whose source lies in the Sixties would be a raging river in the 1970s, and one of its effects would be punk at the end of the decade. Psychedelic rock made its appearance in the 60s and was not confined to freakish one-offs like The Chocolate Watch band. The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who all had their flirtation with psychedelia, as did – more tellingly – the early Pink Floyd, waiting for the Seventies for ultimate fame.

One of the tributaries from the 1960s was garage rock. Determinedly lo-fi, garage was cheaply recorded electric pop music, a dress rehearsal for punk, and a genre only really defined after it was gone. But it must have stirred the sediment of the rock mix. The FBI investigated Link Wray’s 1958 classic Rumble. What were they looking for? Seditious lyrics? (Rumble was famously an instrumental.) (1)

Link Wray

The most obvious and influential off-shoot of garage rock was The Velvet Underground. In the context of the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s ethos of combining consumerism with multimedia with business was visionary. It is said of the first Velvet Underground LP that not many bought it, but everyone who did formed a band. The band combined raw garage rattle and roll with a Euro-gothic, dilettante style. Rock would always have more than a trace element of poison, which is where Velvet Underground came in, to attempt to puncture the homely sureties of, say, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

CSN&Y were a sort of anti-Velvet Underground, rural in feel as opposed to urban, harmonic not dissonant, lyrically upbeat, not dabblers in despair. But both of these elements would combine in the best rock music. America had two sides of its rock ball mask, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, perhaps, and they may as well be thought of as rural and urban. Rock music was far from being one monolithic creature as the Sixties ended. In the last two years of the Sixties, The Band released their debut studio album, Music From Big Pink,and Iggy and the Stooges released their eponymous debut album, featuring Now I Wanna be Your Dog.

CSN&Y also shared with The Velvet Underground a microcosmic tendency of America: internal rifts and splits, acrimony, self-induced problems, civil war. Rock music may have been formed by the coming together of many influences, both musical and cultural, but it was going to be its father’s son, part brilliance, part destructive self-hatred.

Warhol epitomised a big part of the Sixties’ cultural ethos: business. Further to this, rock music as business. This was the days of album and single sales and gigs, and that’s it. No brand association, no commercials in your videos, no many-headed hydra of internet hits and downloads. Now, everything is a hit record just like every book is a best-seller. You just tell people it is. Everyone’s a winner. Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But he went on to write in his autobiography From A to B and Back Again, “…in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous”.

The two sides to rock music in the 1960s shows the same rift, the same oscillation between genius (or vast success) and madness (or a vast amount of drugs) as existed throughout America, with a metaphorical shift or two. Rock music, like its Anglo-American parents, would be born schizophrenic, presenting both the Apollonian spectacle of live rock music and its ornamental imagery, and the Dionysiac back beat, a music which could be exhilarating for a time, then change into something mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In the end, rock music might be the consolation for what the 1960s did to us. This Janus-faced god has returned to the woodland, true, and there is no real rock music to be found today. Entertainment has become wholly Apollonian and rock was always the herald of the Dionysiac, even when the harbinger was a fairly witless stoner like Jim Morrison.

“There is no real rock music to be found today…”

Rock music in the Sixties wore the reversible mask of tragedy and comedy, or at least light-heartedness. It aimed at Woodstock but it ended up with Altamont. And so did we.

Woodstock was the very model of how capitalism works in that it set up a huge venture, lost money partly due to the concert being half attended by people who had no tickets, then made its money back selling the film rights. The performances were legendary, and the counter-culture had a focal point, a quasi-religious event.

But what could counter the counter-culture? The other face of the mask, perhaps, the one shown at Altamont, a few months after Woodstock and an attempt to cash in on the idea. Students of popular culture will be familiar with received opinion. Promoters were beginning to realise in post-Woodstock 1969 that there was an awful lot of money to be made from the potent combination of rock music and the kids who wanted to hear it live. Altamont Speedway in Indiana was duly selected for a gig headlined by The Stones.

Their Satanic Majesties hired Hell’s Angels to see to security, and provided them with $500 dollars’ worth of beer. As things became increasingly fractious in front of the stage, and while the band were playing Under my Thumb, not the diabolic anthem Sympathy for the Devil as legend would prefer, a young black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by one of the bikers. It was December, 1969.

The Sixties strove for Woodstock but it ended up as Altamont. Remind you of anything? The contemporary Western world, for example, forever telling us we are on the road to Woodstock, only to find we had the Altamont tickets. Front row. And the Sixties was not only music. Rock and roll was also an attitude. Hunter S. Thompson, Warhol, Lennie Bruce, the Beat – all of these acts were riffing on the same centre of gravity.

Rock music was the answer to a lot of questions, musical, social, political, aesthetic, and it had the broadest sweep both of influences and by what it went on to create. In the UK, among other genres, glam rock and punk were both waiting to see what the seeds of the Sixties would grow in a darker part of the garden.

One of Baudelaire’s collection of poems, Les fleurs du mal, is entitled Music, and contains lines Dionysian enough to serve as an epitaph, if it is that time, for rock music:

I feel the tremblings of all passions known 
To ships before the breeze; 
Cradled by gentle winds, or tempest-blown 
I pass the abysmal seas 
That are, when calm, the mirror level and fairy-tale 
Of my despair!

Editor’s Note

  1. Link Wray is No. 45 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists, credited with inventing the much-copied distorted “power chord”. A live version of Rumble may be found here