Dark Fairytales for our Time

symbolist-blog2Alan Rosenberg | November 29, 2016

An upcoming exhibition of esoteric 19th century Symbolist paintings is sure to shock and surprise visitors to the Guggenheim Museum who know the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building as a shrine to icons of 20th century abstract art. Off the curving walls will be the jaunty, geometric baby’s building block abstractions of Kandinsky and Klee, their places taken by dark fairytale scenes of far-off empires and the decadent depths of the human body and spirit. If your awareness of Symbolism is limited to the relatively pretty paintings of Paul Gauguin or Odilon Redon, this exhibition will open your eyes and mind to an array of decadent artists whose paintings depict gruesome rites, hollow-eyed nymphs, piles of corpses, blood-sucking fiends, angels of death and Lucifer himself.

The show ”Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897” will open on 30 June 2017 and will shed light on Joséphin Péladan, an eccentric Parisian impresario who crowned himself the “Sar” of a new mystical art movement and established the Salon de la Rose+Croix to exhibit the art of his followers. Salon exhibitors included Jean Delville, Rogelio de Egusquiza, Charles Filiger, Ferdinand Hodler, Fernand Khnopff, Alphonse Osbert, Gaetano Previati, Carlos Schwabe, Alexandre Séon, Jan Toorop and Ville Vallgren.  These artists reacted against the industrial revolution, against modernism, and fought its most pervasive myth — progress.

Philippe Jullian, one of the great historians of Symbolism, said that these painters “discouraged by a world dedicated to progress, began to seek refuge in fantasy”. While science and technology were moving faster, farther and forward, the Symbolists were looking in, down and back towards the primal, the primitive, to folklore, mythology and even to the primordial origins of life. The Symbolists looked back to ancient myths, and lost civilizations, depicting these visions in the excruciating detail that was the specialty of academic painting. Symbolism is where the Academy went to die: increasing abstraction and modernism ultimately prevailed but the Academy left a glittering corpse in the form of Symbolism.

So, why the Guggenheim? Well, the road from Impressionism to Minimalism (or from Cezanne’s apples to Ad Reinhardt’s black squares) is not a straight one. Several abstract artists began their careers as Symbolists, notably Wassily Kandinsky and Frantisek Kupka, who both traded in mystical visions of the Orient for abstract compositions that evoked the spiritual qualities they sought in the Far East during their Symbolist youth. The Symbolists and the Modernists were both attracted to the primal, the primitive. Modernists found primitivism in the abstract art of Africa while the Symbolists found it in the myths and tales of their own European cultures.

What does this all mean for fashion? The Symbolists had strong ideas of women and their appearance. This was the era of the Femme Fatale and the Symbolist woman was as fatale as it gets. Symbolist style was the heroin chic of the fin-de siècle. Some of the themes that obsessed the Symbolist painters show up in what can correctly be called the “alternative” fashions of the turn-of-the-century.

The symbolist woman was nocturnal, subterranean, sub-marine, sphinx-like. Art Nouveau was the contemporaneous trend in architecture and interior design, and many of the elements found in Art Nouveau design are sure to appear in contemporary fashion under the symbolist influence. The poppy, the symbol of oblivion, was a favorite motif of symbolist painters and Art Nouveau designers. Seaweed, representing the underwater world (symbolic of death and the afterlife), appeared on Art Nouveau furniture and buildings and is due for an appearance in contemporary fashion and interiors. The Symbolist woman of the new millennium promises to be a femme fatale dressed in fairy tale fashion with a dose of heroin chic.