Symbolism, Art, Culture, Nature

September 17, 2012

‘From Van Gogh to Kandinsky; Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910’

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

There is this tension threaded throughout European thought between the desire to know things as they are and to understand the forces behind them. The first seeks to benefit from scientific, rational, objective analysis and know the world as it is, in its physical properties, free of mystical taint or superstitious nonsense, while the second wants to know better the way things feel, what motivates them, what lies in the mysterious depths behind surface realities. The Symbolist movement, which became influential in the late nineteenth century, reacted against the way scientific rationalism had begun to reduce the world to its facts, to what could be observed and quantified, and instead sought to represent life with art that radiated meaning.

‘Clytie’, Leighton, 1892

In ‘Clytie’ (1892), Lord Leighton Frederic painted the myth of Clytia, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in this rendition the lovelorn girl is not yet turned into a sunflower, destined to face her god Apollo every day. Instead she sits in the shadows of a hill at dawn, awaiting the sunrise and its glory. Frederic himself knew something of this yearning, it would seem from his words: “Sunlight can never be accessory – its glory is paramount.” Golden clouds, filled with the promise of light, roil above the still dim land and her silent waiting. The Arcadian world of nature could embrace us, even in death, so that human frailty and mortality could find its place in a greater reality.

Van Gogh ‘Wheatfield with a Reaper’ 1889

When Van Gogh painted his ‘Wheatfield with a Reaper’ in 1889, he wrote in a letter that he sensed the possibility of such reconciliation (even as his mental and physical health was failing him). G F Watts’s ‘After the Deluge; the 41st Day’ (1885-86) similarly makes the sun significant as a symbol of rebirth into a world refreshed after trauma, while J F Willumsen’s ‘Sun over the Southern Mountains’ (1902) lights up the city below as if it were a place where life was saturated in abundance. Philosophies of vitalism, the healing power of nature and the spiritual possibilities of humanity abounded and the Symbolists brought them to life in vividly impressive colour.

Watts ‘After the Deluge; the 41st Day’ 1885-86

Willumsen ‘Sun over Southern Mountains’ 1902

To say it was not all visions of splendour would be an understatement, however. At the same time, many Symbolists made extensive use of sombre, dark tones that explicitly spoke of a tragic, wasteful end to civilisation as we know it. The city was often characterised as a site of disease, corruption, squalor and death, and in the exhibition these paintings are matched with musical Nocturnes that share a similar mood of melancholy (by Debussy, Chopin and Whistler, for instance). Rachmaninov’s symphonic poem ‘The Isle of the Dead’ matches perfectly the sense of loss featured in this section of the exhibition, which interestingly features the city as an empty place of silence (like a dark reflection of Wordworth’s London before it is filled with the noise of the day) rather than as a place of chaotic destruction. This is the sense of foreboding that sent Gauguin to his beloved tropical islands, visiting indigenous societies as a way of reconnecting with nature and communicating his love of simplicity in his naïve and sophisticated manner.

The recognition of humanity’s smallness can confer either a freedom to be lived or a threat to be blotted out and this is another tension featured in this collection.  The symbol, like myth, can convey something particular to a certain person or time, yet it can also transcend that specificity. It acts to suggest certain moods, which often lead beyond the bounds of reason, or even the senses as they are conventionally understood. It can be completely open to interpretation but convey a definite atmosphere; it transgresses and blurs yet points towards, offers hope, or acts as a warning. The Symbolists sought to escape the machine of industrial civilisation and its ‘iron cage of reason’ (as Weber put it), seeking surcease in timeless truths (all things must die but there can be beauty in this) and representing the quest to escape being caught up in the engine of linear progress. Some of the paintings in this exhibition seem to have been forced into line with its framework: that landscape can be treated in a way that conveys ideas as well as moods and moments in time (see Richard Dorment’s review in The Telegraph 17/09/12). But the way light is used to convey both hope and threat, while darkness can equally offer a new path into deeper mystery or the ominous menace of coming doom, made it a fascinating survey of another moment in European thought and art where the tension between culture and the rest of nature is treated with sensitivity and complexity, optimism and dread.



  1. Reblogged this on ochelepep and commented:
    With new invention, man will learn alot about wonders of this planer

  2. Very insightful. In a time where American schools with fiscal constraints choose to abandon the arts in favor of sciences, you express well why this strategy is a mistake… at least to me.

    • Thanks Steve. Yes, it would seem that effective critical thinking – which, at its best, is allied with fertile creative thinking – is off the agenda for the time being. In the west, the profit motive cannot be budged from the pedestal of its media dominance, while in some other places real questions can’t even be asked (either through totalitarian controls as in China or due to lack of education and historically constructed social inequalities in many ‘developing’ nations). Still, we forge on …

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