Symbolist Art

Jean Delville, Portrait of Madame Stuart Merill (1892)

I’ve always loved good fantasy & SF cover art (frequently buying a book for its cover and considering that to be money well spent, even if the book itself proves disappointing), and I’ve always liked poring over books of fantasy art, be it the 1970s Ballantine Frazetta collections, Froud & Lee’s Faeries, or almost any of Paper Tiger’s albums. I never looked for the sort of thing I liked in “art-world” art, because the two seemed so far apart. Fantasy art was illustrative, even if it was frequently more inventive and expressive than the books it illustrated. It sought to create a convincing (either realistic or stylistic) representation of a fantastic world, while the more serious, non-commercial sort of art was more interested in stretching the boundaries of the medium, or in saying something. (Not that fantasy art wasn’t saying something. But usually it said something like: “Look at this awesome dragon!”)

So, I was surprised when I found that, for one brief period at the end of the 19th century, serious, mainstream art was actually producing the sort of images the fantasy art lover in me liked. The movement — though perhaps it was more a moment than a unified movement — was known as Symbolism, though it initially called itself “Ideist” or “Idealist” art. I first heard about it thanks to J G Ballard’s essay “The Coming of the Unconscious” in his 1966 short story collection The Overloaded Man, though this was mostly about Ballard’s artistic obsession, Surrealism. (Symbolism and Surrealism have a lot of territory in common, most obviously their shared distrust of reality. But where Symbolism sought to provide an alternative to reality by depicting strange inner worlds, Surrealism sought to undermine reality with a head-on assault. Surrealism grew out of the absurdism of Dada and had a sense of humour; Symbolism would have hated Dada, and doesn’t seem to have had any sense of humour at all.)

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Silence (1895)

I immediately looked out for books on Symbolism, my first being Edward Lucie-Smith’s Symbolist art from Thames and Hudson (sadly, mostly black and white, and small, while Symbolist art wants to be gorgeously-coloured and immersive), and my second being the far more expensive Symbolism, from Taschen, which was at least large and in full colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated in the space of a few brief decades.”). Gibson’s seemed to be the general attitude of the academic, English-speaking world at the time (the 1990s), but more sympathetic were non-English writers (particularly Philippe Jullian, the first to write at length on Symbolist — or Decadent, as he had it — art, who mocked their excesses and revelled in them to an equal degree), and writers of books published in the 1970s (after Symbolism had a brief, psychedelically-tinged revival).

Having found this new source of fantasy art, I set about reading as much as I could about it. Not just to find more art, but also to understand, first of all, how a mainstream form of serious art had come to embrace such brazen fantastic imagery; and secondly, why it had gone away.

The short answer to the first: a reaction against the 19th century’s growing faith in realism, rationalism, and materialism. The short answer to the second: Freud, Marx, and two World Wars.

John Duncan, Heptu Bidding Farewell to the City of Obb (1909), a subject that seems to have been invented by Duncan himself

Symbolism (which flourished in the last decade of the 19th century, at the same time as the archetypal texts of modern horror were being written) was, at first, driven by the same forces that produced Impressionism. Photography meant there was no longer any call to merely depict reality; and where Impressionism found its new endeavour in depicting the experience of seeing something rather than its literal depiction, Symbolism burrowed into the inner realm of dreams, visions, and the belief in actual other worlds, to find something that could not be photographed. Though, ironically, it was perhaps the first art movement to really benefit from photography, as this allowed its ideas to spread internationally. As Jullian says:

“While the Impressionists had nothing to gain from a process which could not render colour, the literary painters to whom line was more important, benefited enormously from photography.”

Symbolism, though it was often stylistically inventive, wasn’t about style. It was, as Gibson says, “Less an artistic movement than a state of mind.” It sought to say something new, something that could not be said by depicting the same old mythic or historical subjects. Nor was it using symbols in the allegorical manner of medieval artists. The symbols in Symbolist art didn’t have specific literal meanings, but pointed to an evanescent aesthetic mood or an entire inner reality, and had to be grasped in one go or not at all. As Maurice Denis, an artist of the time, put it:

“…the symbol reaches the soul without having to go through the rational mind.”

Or, from Norbert Wolf (in Symbolism, 2009):

“…a Symbolist picture, a Symbolist sculpture remains deliberately enigmatic; in place of intellectual understanding, the work demands an empathetic response and wishes the viewer to experience its mysterious profundity in the manner of an inner vision.”

All this meant Symbolism acquired more than a touch of the occult, and many was the Symbolist artist who attempted to start his own Hermetic brotherhood. (And it would have been a brotherhood. Not many Symbolist sisters, sadly.) And this was just one more thing that made it ripe for a fall. Freud seemed to undermine the sense that dreams and visions pointed to a higher reality, by saying they were all about sex, really; and even before the two World Wars, there was, Edward Lucie-Smith says:

“…a growing impatience with what was considered to be Symbolist preciosity and over-refinement. Artists began to long for a harsh Primitivism, just as some of their contemporaries longed for war itself.”

Carlos Schwabe, Spleen and Ideal (1909)

Symbolist artists saw themselves as delicate “souls”, as apolitical as they were unworldly, and there was no room for them in a world about to be torn apart by several million tons of shrapnel. After the war, alienation went hand in hand with cynicism, not a belief in the marvellous and mysterious, and even Symbolism’s occult strain had to give way to the desperation of postwar Spiritualism.

Symbolism did, though, leave its mark. Its artists didn’t all die out as the century turned; some pursued similar ideals to greater extremes and came up with abstraction (Gibson: “Indeed, the major pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich, Kupka and Mondrian all began their careers as Symbolist painters”), and, of course, Surrealism.

Symbolism came back, along with its stylistic offshoot Art Nouveau, in the psychedelic sixties, and flourished in the fantasy-loving seventies, with its Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks and lusciously immersive, otherworldly prog-rock albums. (And the kind of marriage of art, music and spectacle found in Yes’s collaborations with Roger Dean or a Hawkwind light-show harks back to Symbolism’s love of the “total artwork” of Wagner, or Scriabin’s experimentation with a colour organ as part of his decidedly Symbolist/occultist musical works such as “Prometheus” or “The Poem of Ecstasy”.) And I can’t help but see Jean Delville’s “Parsifal” in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” video — particularly Roger Taylor:

Later, meanwhile, Frantisek Kupka’s brooding monument “The Black Idol” seems to have found a home in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula:

“The revenge of imagination over reality” is how Rodolphe Rapetti sums up the aims of Symbolist art (Symbolism, 2004), while Guillermo del Toro, a definite fan, says “To them… mystery was the supreme goal of art.”

Not all Symbolist art can be described as fantasy art, but it has certainly turned up some new favourites for fantasy-art-loving me, while at the same time being perhaps the last mainstream art movement to so unapologetically embrace (often quite overly-luscious) beauty — another thing two World Wars put an end to. I’ve peppered some of my favourite examples of Symbolist art throughout this article, but I’ll leave you with a few more:

Fernand Khnopff, The Caress, or The Sphinx (1896)

Witold Pruszkowski, Eloe (1892)

Franz Stuck (or Franz von Stuck as he later called himself), Fighting Fauns (1889)

Codename Icarus

Another kids’ TV drama that has lingered in my memory, Codename Icarus (1981) is a quite different beast from Break in the Sun, which I wrote about a couple of years ago, though the two share a structural similarity. Written by Richard Cooper, and directed by Marilyn Fox (who, among her other credits, directed the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as working on over a hundred episodes of Jackanory), is a Cold War thriller, mixing defence-of-the-realm espionage, government corruption, and the development of a new “ultimate weapon”, with a story about the exploitation of exceptionally intelligent youngsters.

It starts with 4th-year student Martin Smith (Barry Angel) being berated by his maths teacher in front of the class for his stupidity, only for Martin to solve a difficult problem effortlessly on the blackboard. Refusing to believe it, the teacher accuses him of cheating and has his parents brought in to see the head teacher. Martin, meanwhile, sneaks into the school’s computer room to tap in some complex equations he’s been working on, and is surprised to have the computer talk back, challenging him to solve a problem of its own. Which he does, easily.

Barry Angel as Martin Smith

His well-meaning working-class parents can’t understand why they’ve been called in. The head teacher says Martin is disruptive and a poor student, but they know him to be very clever and well-behaved. Asked what’s going on, Martin later tells his father he hates his maths teacher because “He never once said that maths was beautiful.” The next time he sneaks into the computer room, Martin is confronted by John Doll (Philip Locke), the man responsible for sending through that problem the computer challenged him with. Doll is head of Falconleigh, a school for exceptionally gifted children, and he tells Martin that’s where he should be.

Philip Locke as John Doll

Meanwhile in the grown-up world, British weapons tests have been going awry when missiles have been exploding way before they hit their target. Commander Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway), part scientist, part spy-catcher, is put on the trail of finding out why. Consulting with his scientific advisor friend Frank Broadhurst (a.k.a. “the Fat Man”, though he’s hardly overweight by modern standards; played by ’Alo ’Alo’s Gorden Kaye), Andy is told there isn’t any technology that could be used to remotely set off a missile from any practicable distance, but he latches onto the idea that someone, somewhere, is pushing the bounds of science, and when he hears about the Icarus Foundation, an international charitable trust that runs schools for the most scientifically gifted young minds, he decides to investigate. (And this is the structural similarity with Break in the Sun I mentioned above: we have a kids’/teen story running in parallel with an adult story, with the two coming together at the end.)

Commander Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway) and Sir Hugh Francis (Peter Cellier)

Martin starts at Falconleigh, where he learns that pupils are addressed as “sir” or “ma’am” by their teachers (who they in turn call by their surnames, with no “Mr” or “Miss”), and there aren’t lessons, but “challenges” which they’re allowed to work on as they like. (Though, if they don’t work on them obsessively, teachers tend to turn up and prompt them to do so.) Martin meets a fellow pupil, Susan Kleiner (Debbie Farrington), whose speciality is biology, and whose initial response to being asked her name is, “We don’t have particular chums in this place.” The next day, after at first ignoring him, she finally says, “We don’t have to talk to people, you know. Not at breakfast.”

(I’m pretty sure, if Codename Icarus were made today, something would be made of the fact that many of these socially-awkward gifted Falconleigh children probably have Asperger’s.)

Martin and Susan (Debbie Farrington)

After being set a few challenges in his area of interest (subatomic physics, worryingly), Martin is told to attend “the Game” at the school’s otherwise unused squash court. Here, Falconleigh’s usual balance of power between teacher and pupil is reversed. Now, the teacher — not calling their pupil “sir” — probes, tests and mocks their charge, trying to find their psychological weak points. If that’s not enough, a few brainwashing techniques are thrown in. To ensure loyalty to the Icarus Foundation, pupils have their fears of the outside world exaggerated and their own confidence (in anything other than the abilities that got them into Falconleigh in the first place) undermined.

Martin plays “the Game”, with Peter Farley (Geoffrey Collins). These scenes in particular stuck with me.

The Icarus children’s “challenges” are being set by a man whose aim is to use their answers to create the “ultimate weapon”, though not for the purposes of world-domination, more because of some confused motives about how his own scientific gifts were misused by his country’s government during the Second World War, resulting in him losing his erstwhile genius. And, ultimately, this is what Codename Icarus is about: the gifted children’s talents are being exploited while they’re still fresh (the “Fat Man” puts forward the idea that most genius-level scientists do their best work when young, and many gifted minds “burn out” before too long), and also while they’re vulnerable enough to be exploited. Martin comes across as having a substantial teenage chip on his shoulder, seeming to despise anyone who doesn’t understand maths as he does, while being spikily defensive about the idea that the beauty of maths should ever be misused, and feeling that any attempt to merely use his gift might take it away from him. “All I want is to release that which is in you,” John Doll says, and goes on to underline the mythical Icarus metaphor: “To free your spirit and mind, so they can climb. Fly.”

To further underline it, Martin’s one and only hobby is birdwatching, and we get to see him scream a (thankfully silent) “No!” when he sees a pigeon drop dead mid-flight after it passes over one of Falconleigh’s mysterious out-buildings.

I don’t know, might this man be a villain? John Malcolm as Edward Froelich

Although the adult storyline, about the international arms race, gives Codename Icarus its heft, it’s the teen angst element that gives it its real meaning. I have to admit I (nowadays, anyway) find Martin Smith a little annoying, but that is, I suppose, part of his character. (I also find the dialogue written for him a bit mannered. It’s very cut back, in places, as though he was meant to play it surly and uncommunicative, but Barry Angel plays him with a bit more passion, and his dialogue can just end up sounding artificial. But only in places.)

Nevertheless, it has stuck with me from when it was first shown. (I’m assuming I saw it on its initial run in December 1981. It was repeated in April to May of 1984, but I have a vague memory of being pleased to find it being repeated, so maybe I saw both 5-episode runs.) I remember loving the idea of being taken away to some special school, sequestered from the rest of the world, where your genius is allowed full reign. Surely a little nuclear-level world-endangerment wasn’t too much of a price to pay? Sigh. If only I’d actually been some sort of genius…