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The Symbolist mirror of nature

The search for unsullied nature pervades Symbolist art in the run-up to the First World War, says Penny Cole

Through a series of rooms in Edinburgh’s grand Scottish Academy, the landscapes shift from a sun-bathed atmosphere to soft twilight.

This exploration of European Symbolist landscape painting is all about the mood, the light and the meaning of nature. Avant-garde poet Stéphane Mallarmé urged painters not to paint the thing itself, but the effect it produces.

Gallen Pine
Akseli Gallen-Kallela The Broken Pine, 1906 Oil on Canvas, 124 × 137cm
Ateneum Art Museum Finnish National Gallery/Central Art Archives/Petri Virtanen

Symbolist art was partly a response to increased industrialisation and the crude, mechanistic materialism that accompanied it throughout Europe from the end of the 19th to the first decades of the 20th centuries. Painters reacted against inhuman conditions in cities and the destruction of the countryside. They attempted to reproduce an inner vision, which could not be mass produced.

As a movement, Symbolism was consciously cross-disciplinary. Writers like Paul Verlaine and Mallarmé described landscape in dense detail in their poems, whilst the artists they influenced attempted to show the ideal in painting. Debussy used Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune as the basis for ballet music, and a production by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that shocked Parisian society in Paris in 1912. The ballet explored the power of ritual, one of Symbolism’s favourite themes.

Other themes were the desire to contemplate nature untouched by human society, even if such a landscape had now to be imagined rather than real; dreams and the inner vision.

Other aspects of modernity fed in to the Symbolist project. Freud was exploring new ideas about the human mind – the conscious and subconscious and Jung’s dream theory is a classic of Symbolist thought.

Photography was changing how people viewed the world, and some felt it challenged painting to justify its continued existence. Even where these paintings are naturalist in their execution, they always attempt to show more – how the painter responded to the landscape, or the addition of imaginary elements.

Willumsen Sun
Jens Ferdinand Willumsen Sun over Southern Mountains, 1902
Oil on canvas, 207 x 207 cm Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm Photography: Tord Lund

One of the most spectacular paintings, in sheer size and impact, is the Danish artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen’s Sun Shining on the Southern Mountains. The work uses a combination of photography, naturalist watercolour and the artist’s imagination to convey the insignificance of human society in the vastness of nature. That might seem a daunting message, but both nature and the little lakeside village are bathed in the same beneficent sunshine glow.

In Monet’s haystacks, the background is entirely eliminated to leave them floating as sparkling colour shapes.  Others, following Whistler’s Nocturnes, simplified cityscapes to mere suggestions of shape and blocks of soft colour, thus indicating what the city might be, rather than what it is.

There are Mediterranean landscapes stuffy with heat, dotted with Arcadian images of shepherdesses and nymphs. These have a stifling effect – one longs for a bit of reality, however harsh. But with their ruined temples and broken statues, they also recall how civilisations can fall and their best art can’t save them. This was a profound concern for artists confronting the growing conflict between the imperialist powers that exploded in the First World War.

The more esoteric paintings are slightly embarrassing to a modern audience, even slightly hilarious – for example the English artist Walter Crane’s Horses of Neptune. But this is to view the painting with unforgiving 21st century eyes – the fact that the white horses of the foaming waves have now become an advertising cliché is hardly his fault!

Gallen-Kallela Lake Keitele
Akseli Gallen-Kallela Lake Keitele, 1905 Oil on canvas, 53 x 67 cm
Lahti Art Museum, Finland Photography: Finnish National Gallery/Central Art Archives/Hannu Aaltonen

Perhaps the most interesting painters are those from Scandinavia and in particular the work of Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela stands out. His painting of Lake Keitele combines both naturalism and Symbolism. The ripples in the water were supposedly left in the wake of the legendary boat of Väinämöinen, the magical central character of a Finnish saga.

Celebrating this Finnish myth in 1905 had a political point. That was the year when, as a result of the 1905 Russian Revolution loosening the power of the imperial neighbour, and the subsequent Finnish General strike, the country gained a new democratic parliament and the widest franchise in Europe, including votes for women. His Symbolism was political rather than individualistic. The earlier Broken Pine was produced at a time when Russian imperialism was pressing down hard on its neighbour.
Whilst Symbolist art rejects naturalism, it does not entirely reject nature, though it seems it has validity only insofar as it feeds the artist’s need for meaning, rejecting the ‘in and for itself’ of the natural world. Though humans and their works are largely absent from these landscapes, they are of course sometimes queasily present since this nature exists only in their dreams.

Only Van Gogh addresses the central relationship of humans with nature, that of labour. Of Wheatfield with Reaper he wrote to his brother Theo: ‘I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in the sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped … But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.’

Mondrian Bosch
Piet Mondrian Bosch (woods) near Oele, 1908
Oil on canvas, 155.2 × 186.0 cm, Collection of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Two of the key artists in this exhibition went on to transcend Symbolism and make their way towards abstraction, solving some of Symbolism’s aesthetic difficulties by leaving nature to itself. Piet Mondrian’s Woods near Oele is a symphony of colour and natural geometry which continues to resonate in the later style for which he is best known. Vassily Kandinsky, the godfather of abstraction, developed a whole theory about the emotional effect of colour, and came to believe that abstract painting could convey spiritual and emotional values simply through the arrangement of colours and lines.

Kandinsky Cossacks
Wassily Kandinsky Cossacks, 1910–11 Oil on canvas, 94.6 x 130.2 cm
Tate, London Photography © Tate, London 2011

Cossacks retains some representational elements, such as the two Russian cavalrymen in tall orange hats in the foreground. But later, these arrangements of line, colour and shape were left to speak entirely for themselves.  And, whilst including artists such as Gauguin, Whistler and Monet as “Symbolists” may display excessive curatorial elasticity, Monet’s Haystacks have indeed become symbols of his single-minded focus on the effect of light on landscape and mood.

23 August 2012

Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, National Gallery of Scotland, until 14 October 2012, ticket £10; £7 concessions.

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