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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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)

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth Exhibition

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is currently (1st June to 28th October) running an exhibition of items from the Tolkien archives. I’ve never been one to bask in, for instance, the particular chair an author wrote in (the chair from Tolkien’s study, and his little writing desk, are both on display), nor to get much from standing in the presence of an original manuscript, unless it’s been made more interesting with doodles (as with Mervyn Peake) or interesting corrections. I was, though, genuinely thrilled to see some of Tolkien’s original artwork, including two I must have known since first reading The Hobbit around the age of 10 or 11 — “A Conversation with Smaug”, which was used as the cover to my copy of The Hobbit, and his illustration of the trolls.

“A Conversation with Smaug” by Tolkien

What struck me about both was how small they were. Neither seemed appreciably bigger than the state in which I’d first seen them, i.e. the page-size of a 1970s paperback (they were probably more hardback size). And this smallness — tinyness, even — became something of a theme throughout the exhibition. For someone who created the first modern epic-sized fantasy, Tolkien, when he wrote, and when he drew, wrote and drew very small. The thing that really brought this home was seeing a letter written by Tolkien’s mother. Her handwriting was extremely neat, quite stylistic, but extremely tiny. I can’t find an example to reproduce, but I particularly remember her letter “p”, which had a strongly angled upright, with a little curlicue at the end, joined onto a perfect little circle. The whole thing looked as regular as typewritten text, but also, of course, being handwritten, entirely unique. And also tiny. Tiny, tiny, tiny.

Moving from that to some examples of Tolkien’s own writing, in his invented scripts, seemed more of a logical step than a leap of invention — with his invented letters being based around tiny circles with lines and curlicues attached, all so neat and tiny. Not quite as tiny as Mrs Tolkien’s, but tiny nevertheless. The tinyness of Mrs Tolkien’s handwriting could, of course, be put down to her writing on small letter-paper to keep down on postage costs, but to me, the tinyness of Tolkien’s runes and handwriting makes me think more of the privacy of imaginative creation, as though, in a way, he was making his “sub-created” world out of deliberately smaller elements, to contain it within our world, not make it stand on a par with it.

And I’ve no doubt that so much practice with tiny, neat calligraphy would have given Tolkien the control of his pen (and paintbrush) needed to produce his very neat drawings and paintings. There was a quote from Tolkien reproduced alongside one of his drawings, saying that he didn’t have the patience to be an illustrator and didn’t think he could draw, but I’m always impressed by how much the more successful of his artworks work because of the sort of sparseness and control you don’t expect to find in an amateur, who’d be more given to over-drawing, filling up the page with detail to compensate for lack of skill. Tolkien seemed to know what he wanted to draw, did it to the best of his ability, then stopped. And his use of colour on occasion makes successful use of quite restrained pastel shades, another thing I don’t associate with someone who “can’t draw”.

I have to add, though, that the last thing I looked at in the exhibition was Pauline Baynes’ watercolour map of Middle-earth, and there you could definitely see the subtle touches that showed a professional was at work. Despite being the original piece, I could only detect the barest hint of supporting pencil work — a very faint line running through the centre of the curves of text naming regions of the map was about it. (The colours were also a lot subtler and brighter than the image I’ve linked to.) Pauline Bayne’s illustrations (for the Narnia books) are something I’ve known for about as long as Tolkien’s Hobbit illustrations, so that was another thrill, seeing some of her original work.

One of Tolkien’s pages from The Book of Mazarbul”

Elsewhere, there were Tolkien’s maps — not just finished versions, but some work-in-progress versions, one of which had a second layer of paper stuck onto it, where frequent rubbings-out and corrections led to his needing to redraw a section. Role-playing gamers of a certain generation will no doubt be thrilled to see one map of Middle-earth drawn on green-lined graph paper, which was, for me, the go-to stationery for your serious fantasy role-play mapping (having smaller squares than standard squared paper, it seemed you were being that much more serious). Role-players will also be happy to see Tolkien’s artistic attempts to recreate pages from the Book of Mazarbul that the Fellowship find in Moria, recording the last days of the dwarves’ attempt to reclaim their old domain. Tolkien has artistically burned the edges and added suggestive smudges of blood-like red. It could be a prop from a particularly well-made dungeon crawl.

There were also letters. On display was a reader’s report from a young Rayner Unwin on The Lord of the Rings, and a few fan letters, one in runes, one from a young Terry Pratchett (praising Smith of Wootton Major), and some illustrations to The Lord of the Rings done by Princess Margrethe, two years before she became Queen of Denmark.

All in all, a good exhibition. Not many physical objects (a chair, a collection of pipes, an old — and, again, tiny — notebook), nor many photos, but the things I got the most out of, anyway, were the originals of the illustrations and book-cover designs (those for The Lord of the Rings and the first hardback of The Hobbit were all there). The exhibition was held in one reasonably-sized room, but it didn’t feel small, thanks in part to that intriguing Tolkienian tinyness.

Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta, from

He’s elemental. He’s ugly. His body is scarred, nicked, battered, and beaten. His face is a face that’s been punched many times; but it’s the face of a man who comes back every time. His limbs are taut-muscled and gnarly-veined like twisted tree roots; his skin has a green sheen like verdigrised copper. Barbarous, piratical, adventurous, dark-eyed, deadly and dignified, the epitome of contained power in glorious, brooding, post-melee repose, Frank Frazetta’s ‘The Barbarian’ — painted in 1965, and used as the cover for the first of Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks — is, to me, the essence of the sword and sorcery hero.

He is, of course, surrounded by death — the ghostly skulls hanging like a desert mirage in the flaming sky behind him, and the gloopy mass of blood, bones, and corpse-parts he’s standing on — but he’s triumphant. Unlike the rather stiffly-posed Conans that came before, with their neatly cut hair, their sandals and freshly-pressed tunics, here Frazetta brings mess and dirt to fantasy painting. More than a decade before George Lucas’s idea of a ‘used future’ made Star Wars so convincing, this Conan has been through the wars.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

There’s a woman clinging to his leg — the sex to compliment the icky-sticky death, because this is a male fantasy — but I don’t think she’s submissive. She’s holding onto his leg with what seems to me (I may be wrong — there is a chain in the background) to be genuine affection, as if to say, ‘This man’s mine. Clear off.’ And I think she can back that threat up. I’m pretty sure that’s her axe sticking out of the ground behind her.

‘The Barbarian’ is a Symbolist work of art, as the decadent Symbolists (much as I love them) could never have painted it. It’s simply too vital. Just compare it with a similar (though late-Symbolist period) work, Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s ‘She’ (from 1905). Mossa’s ‘She’ is that Symbolist nightmare, the femme fatale, here presiding over a mound of dead bodies; pale and languid-eyed, crows and skulls are in her hair (and a pistol, among other weapons, hangs from her necklace) because she, unlike Frazetta’s barbarous pair, is on the side of death. Frazetta’s barbarian, and his recumbent barbarienne, are on the side of life. But, it should be noted, their life, not yours. This pair is no abstract celebration of vitality. If you get too close, you may end up as one more decoration on their mound of corpses.

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta, from

‘Egyptian Queen’, painted for the cover of Eerie issue 23 in 1968 (though Frazetta modified the face soon afterwards), is perhaps the archetypal Frazettan female. Sultry and kitten-faced, she exudes the same elemental power and dignity as ‘The Barbarian’, only with a shade more (though a very gloomy shade, it has to be said) civility. Her pedestal isn’t a mound of corpses, it’s an actual pedestal (though the chipped stone edge implies battles have been fought in this chamber), and she stands between her snarling pet leopard, and her scimitar-wielding bodyguard, with regal calm. Even that marble pillar presents its flame-like lustre as an aspect of her smouldering vitality. Again, it’s a painting that encapsulates power, perhaps recently-exercised, now in brief repose; and though it may, in this case, be political rather than physical power, it very much resides in the physical figure of the queen herself — not in statutes of law or machineries of state, but in sheer, living vitality. She perhaps owes something to Hollywood — her headgear and leopard could have come from 1934’s Cleopatra — but she has none of that film-star frivolity & foot-stamping pettishness about her. This is a woman who really could rule an empire (albeit a crumbling one — but they’re the best ones to rule).

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Frazetta_TigerFrazetta’s greatest artistic quality is, I think, the combination of vitality and dignity he gives his figures. (And I don’t just mean his human figures, but his apes and lions and lizards, too.) His battles are always battles between equals. They’re not contests of physical prowess, they’re contests of dynamism and heroism, of sheer vitality. The un-armoured woman with only a dagger in her hand is clearly the equal, in Frazetta’s world, of that flame-eyed tiger, or that pack of wolves, or that flock of pterodactyls, because she has just as fierce a will to live. The conflict isn’t really conflict, it’s a pairing, a flashing moment of dynamic tension between equals.

It’s true, not all his paintings present women as heroically as they do the men, but in the best of them it’s vitality itself that’s the subject, heroically embodied, whether in the human body, male or female, or in troglodytes, gorillas, crocodiles or panthers. It even seethes out of the twisting roots of jungle trees, and the roiling waves of storm-tossed oceans. It’s that sense of elemental vitality I like to find in the best sword and sorcery: the feeling that the life-force (an old-fashioned term, but surely worth a non-scientific resurrection) is at its most potent when faced with death and darkness, surrounded by wildness and fierceness, and couched in the nobility of the individual, however rough and haggard, or svelte and beautiful. Frazetta’s work is, above all, exciting, living, and elemental — the essence of sword and sorcery.