A collaboration between the National Galleries of Scotland, the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and the Ateneum Museum, Helsinki, this was the first ever exhibition dedicated to Symbolist landscape painting.
Symbolism emerged in Europe after Impressionism as artists developed a more imaginative and emotional response to the world around them – a route which took them from Naturalism to the edges of Abstraction.The exhibition presented a broad range of poetic and suggestive paintings of nature from 1880-1910. It focused on the leading artists of the time such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch but also introduced a group of less well-known artists from Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe.
The exhibition comprised of six sections, which focused on a different aspect of Symbolist landscape painting.
In a period of industrial development and materialism, Symbolism provided an antidote by rejecting the real world in favour of an alternative land of dreams and visions.
As enormous changes and accompanying anxieties, swept through Europe in the nineteenth century, artists used the imagery of Arcadia, the mythic land of peace and plenty, as an escape. Some drew on the landscape of the Mediterranean, evoking a timeless concord between man and nature. Others, such as Paul Gauguin, sought an earthly paradise in far-flung locations such as Martinique, Tahiti and the Marquesas islands.
However, the idea of Arcadia was also used to express the uncertainty that came with great social and technological changes. By using imagery from the classical past, artists drew on the idea of the fragility of culture and the passing of civilisations. The landscapes and myths of antiquity could be subverted to show the menace and unpredictability of modernity. Paintings such as Emile-René Ménard’s Ancient Land, showing a ruined Greek temple below a gathering storm, suggest melancholy and nostalgia for the transitory nature of even the greatest civilisations.
Moods of Nature
Symbolist artists rejected the prevailing style of Naturalism, which sought to replicate the material world from a rationalist point of view. In contrast, the Symbolists expressed the world beyond superficial appearances and used subjects and motifs to create underlying meanings.
The landscape also aided artists to articulate nationalist concerns. By carefully selecting scenes that had special national significance, artists were able to promote their homeland or suggest the notion of a waning culture. The Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, for example, drew on the mythology and imagery of his native country to assert Finnish independence from Russia.
Landscape painting offered artists the chance to fuse their own concerns with those of a wider public. Though individualism and expression lie at the heart of Symbolist art, the placing of events in a specific setting and the use of local attributes provided viewers with recognisable imagery and articulated the broader issues of the age.
Dreams and Visions
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the science of psychology emerged, extending knowledge of the human mind and the unconscious. Symbolist artists attempted to open the door to look beneath the surface of visible reality to the world of dreams and nightmares. Landscape provided a number of possibilities for the suggestion of mental states. Gauguin, Munch and Van Gogh using vivid colour to express their very personal visions: the religious fervour of a simple Breton community in a vermilion field; the inner turmoil of a couple walking along a deserted beach; or the symbolic figure of the Sower set against a vivid green sky.Other artists created metamorphic dream worlds: a protective mother transformed into a dust storm rushing through a cornfield, symbolising the much-beleaguered Polish nation; or crashing waves which metamorphose into galloping white stallions.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels enjoyed rapid economic and industrial growth. It was a period of wealth for much of Europe, but industrialisation led to a significant increase in the urban population. To many Symbolist artists, the modern city was overcrowded, dirty, disease-ridden and potentially threatening; it signified joylessness, claustrophobia and anonymity. Some artists responded by transforming the city into a hazy, dreamlike landscape, rendering the familiar mysterious and enigmatic. The combination of a reduced palette, unorthodox compositional devices and a lack of human presence created a series of eerie and dislocated spaces. The earliest use of these transformative, atmospheric effects can be found in Whistler’s Nocturnes. As London was overcrowded with people and the city itself noisy and dirty, Whistler preferred to paint from memory and in silence. He also encouraged other artists to capture the moment, ‘When the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky...and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and the fairyland is before us.’
Rhythms of Nature
In the nineteenth century, scientific discoveries and theories about the universe both shocked and fascinated people. Old systems of belief, placing man at the centre of the cosmos, were shattered. For intellectuals and an eager public, making sense of this new knowledge was a pressing and engaging problem. For artists, the question was how to find the imagery to match it.
George Frederic Watts took his role as an artist to a high calling, stating: ‘I paint ideas, not things’. For him, landscape provided elements which he could transform to project profound meaning via natural grandeur, as in his large, imposing painting After the Deluge: The Forty-First Day. This simple image – a vast sun hanging over an expanse of calm, unbroken water – is far from a mere sunset; it evokes the cosmic energy of a star.
The sun was a consistently important motif in Symbolist landscape painting and artists of very different kinds responded in a variety of ways. Some used the sun to depict the vastness of nature, others to symbolise the unity of organic matter while some, such as Vincent van Gogh, highlighted the minor role of human endeavour within the eternal transformations of the seasonal cycle.Some of the most important innovations in European painting between the 1870s and the First World War were stimulated by the subject of landscape, in particular, the growing momentum towards non-representational works. Landscape offered scope for improvisation and self-expression, while absorption in nature was identified with poetry, purification and enhanced states of emotion. While some landscape painters allied themselves with the material progress of modern society, others used landscape to evoke parallels with less materialistic forms of expression such as music and spiritualism, expressed through specific choices of colour and motifs.Whistler, for example, created harmonious, poetic works which went beyond mere description. He gave his paintings musical titles such as ‘symphony’ and ‘Nocturne’, evoking the music of Chopin. Following Whistler’s example, Charles Angrand referred to his work, The Seine at Dawn (Mist) as a ‘grey symphony’ and Paul Signac exhibited a group of five works as a ‘symphonic’ sequence. By the early twentieth century, experimental artists such as Kandinsky, Trachsel and the Lithuanian composer Čiurlionis, inspired by spiritual concepts such as Theosophy, achieved almost transcendental effects through the imaginative treatment of form and colour.