Oh, If I Were a Symbolist

Symbolism: What is it when it’s at home? What was the point that the artists were trying to achieve? And how should it be interpreted?

Let’s start with the what. This was a technique brought into vogue by the young painters of the late 19th Century, stemming from French literature (and later, Russian and Belgian); this is where many of the Symbolists gathered inspiration from. The aim was to portray the idea of a subject, to give the suggestion of the true meaning only; poetry in art.

Image
Gaetano Previati
Creation of Light, 1913
Oil on canvas, 199 x 215 c,
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna
Rome

They accomplished this by using line, colour, and composition (other elements include tone, texture, space, and shape) in their work, and adapted the use of certain images/icons to give their work more meaning and subtext.

Key examples of imagery and symbolism include biblical characters, representative of the emotions that the artists were looking to portray. The main themes were love, lust, death, fear, anger, and sorrow. Characters from mythology (such as Greek) were also employed. Amongst the characters, angels and the Madonna were commonly used to symbolise purity and innocence, whilst characters such as Salome and monsters (like the sphinx) symbolising the femme fatale, love scorned, and the wrath of a temptress. Borrowing also from classical art, the use of the symbolic butterfly (who represented the Greek goddess Psyche) could be interpreted as the mind or the soul.

Image
William Degouve de Nuncques
Angels of the Night, 1894
Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 cm
Kröller-Müller Museum
Otterlo

Colours are also used for their symbolic characteristics: black may symbolise evil, power, sexuality, wealth, mystery, and mourning (amongst others); black and white combined may represent mourning; blue has been associated with peace, purity (when in association with the Virgin Mary), serenity, and loyalty; brown represents earth, home, and comfort; green can be representative of both nature and envy, as well as youth; orange represents energy and balance; pink may be used to indicate girlish purity and sexuality or childish innocence; purple represents royalty, spirituality, and wisdom; and red can symbolise strong emotions, such as passionate love, excitement, energy, danger, and aggression.

So, if I, in my imaginative Symbolist state, were to start painting some paintings in this style of contemporary stories, what might I be able to include? Well, if someone hired me to paint the most recent love-split of a certain Nashville-based twenty-three year old country singer…..ah, ok, you guessed it… Ms Swift, then I may have to paint a pink sphinx crushing a butterfly held by Eros. Or, for Jennifer Lawrence’s most recent awards win: Clymene (Titan of fame and renown) giving Nike (goddess of victory) a golden laurel crown, the ceremony being presided over by Dionysus (god of parties and festivals… and also wine, which could explain one particularly memorable shot of Jennifer after she accepted her award. You know what I’m talking about…), and applauded by Agon (spirit of contest).

I can see it now: the front pages of the morning’s newspapers would be educational. People would have to dig a little deeper to get to the story. The news would become poetry! I may be getting carried away, but at least consider it… At least one day a year, we should have International Symbolist News day. At least for the Celeb/Gossip magazines: there, I feel, we can use a little education.

To check out some Symbolist paintings for yourself, and truly get to grips with the painters’ meanings after all you have learned reading this article (open for debate), the Finnish National Gallery (Ateneum) is holding an In the Spirit of Symbolism exhibition until the 28th of April. Should you wish to instead browse through some striking examples a little more locally, I recommend picking up a copy of Nathalia Brodskaya’s Symbolism.

-Fiona Torsch