Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. In literature, the movement had its roots in Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire greatly admired and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stephane Mallarme and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and ’70s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated through a series of manifestoes and attracted a generation of writers. The label “symbolist” itself comes from the critic Jean Moreas, who coined it in order to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadent movement in literature and art.

Distinct from, but related to, the movement in literature, symbolism in art represents an outgrowth of the darker, gothic side of Romanticism, but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, symbolist art was static and hieratic.

Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic movements which attempted to capture reality in its gritty particularity, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal. These movements invited a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams, the path to symbolism began with that reaction. Some writers, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, began as naturalists before moving in the direction of symbolism, for Huysmans, this change reflected his awakening interest in religion and spirituality. On the other hand, certain of the characteristic subjects of the decadents reflect naturalist interest in sexuality and sordid subjects, but in their case this was mixed with a stiff dose of Byronic Romanticism and the world-weariness characteristic of the fin de siecle.

Symbolism in literature is distinct from symbolism in art although the two overlapped on a number of points. In painting, symbolism was a continuation of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition, which included such artists as Caspar David Friedrich, Fernand Khnopff and John Henry Fuseli and it was even more closely aligned with the self-consciously dark and private decadent movement.

There were several rather dissimilar groups of symbolist painters and visual artists, which included Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Fantin-Latour, Edvard Munch, Felicien Rops, and Jan Toorop. Symbolism in painting had an even larger geographical reach than symbolism in poetry, reaching Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich, Victor Borisov-Musatov, Martiros Saryan, Mikhail Nesterov, Leon Bakst in Russia, as well as Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Elihu Vedder, Remedios Varo, Morris Graves, David Chetlahe Paladin, and Elle Nicolai in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a symbolist in sculpture.

The symbolist painters mined mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul, seeking evocative paintings that brought to mind a static world of silence. The symbols used in 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 movement and Les Nabis. In their exploration of dreamlike subjects, symbolist painters are found across centuries and cultures, as they are still today, Bernard Delvaille has described Rene Magritte’s surrealism as “Symbolism plus Freud”.

In the English-speaking world, 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, and its traces can be seen in the work of many modernist artists, including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Hart Crane, and William Butler Yeats in the anglophone tradition and Ruben Dario in Hispanic letters. The early poems of Guillaume Apollinaire have strong affinities with symbolism.

The cover to Aleksandr Blok’s 1909 book, Theatre. Konstantin Somov’s illustrations for the Russian symbolist poet display the continuity between symbolism and Art Nouveau artists such as Aubrey Beardsley.

In Romania, symbolists directly influenced by French poetry first gained influence in the 1880s, when Alexandru Macedonski reunited a group of young poets around his magazine Literatorul. Polemicizing with the established Junimea and overshadowed by the influence of Mihai Eminescu, symbolism was recovered as an inspiration during and after the 1910s, when it was voiced in the works of Tudor Arghezi, Ion Minulescu, George Bacovia, Ion Barbu, Mateiu Caragiale and Tudor Vianu, and held in esteem by the modernist magazine Sburatorul.

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 penetrated so deeply that it came to be thought of as a national style: the static strangeness of painters like Rene Magritte can be seen as a direct continuation of symbolism. The work of some symbolist visual artists, such as Jan Toorop, directly impacted 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 films of D. W. Griffith, and the silent movie “bad girls” portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of symbolism, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith’s Intolerance. Symbolist imagery lived on longest in horror film: as late as 1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr showed the obvious influence of symbolist imagery, parts of the film resemble tableau vivant re-creations of the early paintings of Edvard Munch.

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