SymbolismWe are often tempted, in our simplistic minds, to think that which followed Impressionism was automatically Post-Impressionism. And indeed, many art history books tend to take that approach, squeezing any number of quite dissimilar styles into one unholy lump. In fact, what followed Impressionism was a rather disparate fragmentation of styles. Seurat's Pointillism is an example. Van Gogh's Expressionism is another. Two more unlike styles, methods, and mindsets in painting could hardly be imagined. The heavy, lumpy, solidity of Cézanne’s work is yet another direction, as was the expressive Symbolism of Gauguin, or the Fauvist colours of Matisse, Vlaminck, and Derain.
By the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, the artistic climate was changing. Van Gogh had arrived in Paris. George Seurat was presenting a painting that would mark the dawn of a sort of "scientific impressionism." Emile Zola was publishing a novel entitled, L'Oeuver which was a thinly disguised devaluation of Impressionism and its painting icons, especially the work of Cézanne. And on yet another front, the journal, Le Figaro published Jean Moreaus' Symbolist Manifesto. As is often the case, that which is "new" attracts attention. Impression might appear "fresh" to the conservative art buyer only just coming around to accepting its broken colour and painting technique, but to the remnants of the Impressionist painters, and the next generation always waiting in the wings, it was old hat. It was a style to be imitated, as indeed was happening amongst the ever-present second echelon of less-talented artists of the time. Gauguin was new, Cézanne was new, van Gogh was new; and it was to these relatively obscure creative geniuses that the in-crowd of French art gravitated in the final decade of the nineteenth century.
Perhaps the most exciting and most promising of all the "new" movements in art at the time was that of Symbolism. This group, led by Odilon Redon and including Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Emile Bernard amongst others, worshiped the work of Gauguin in content and van Gogh in his expressive use of colour. They returned to many of the literary and mythological subjects the Impressionists had rejected in favour of the here and now, in seeking an art that was beyond reality, not just illustrations of mythical legends in an academic style, but a probing look at the meaning of such legends, trying to make improbable beings live by putting the visible at the service of the invisible. Redon's Orpheus, painted in 1903, is an excellent example of this effort. His insightful, Symbolist exposition of the Greek legend in many ways prefigures trends toward abstraction, Surrealism, and the various mystical art movements that came to the foreground during the first decades of the twentieth century. Referring to this and other new art directions that followed Impressionism as merely Post Impression, is like saying the horse and buggy was followed by cars.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 August 1999