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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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

Salem’s Lot, the 1979 TV mini-series

I remember being terrified by this when I was a kid. Not the mini-series itself — I never saw it at the time — but the trailer. The trailer was all I needed. The thing that scared me most was a very brief glimpse of this ugly chap, Nosferatu in a blue mood:

Straker from Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

He continued to scare me whenever I was home alone. I’d be about to move from one room to another when I’d suddenly think, “What if I opened the door and saw that standing there?” and instantly found myself making excuses to stay where I was till someone else came home. As a result, the first horror novel I read was King’s Salem’s Lot, perhaps in a (forlorn) attempt to quell the fear — forlorn because it immediately proceeded to scare me even more with its opening tale of Ben Mears’ childhood visit to the Marsten House, and what he saw there.

Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

So, recently I decided to try and lay this particular ghost by getting the Salem’s Lot mini-series out on rental from LoveFILM. I expected to be disappointed, but wasn’t. The basic story (Dracula in small-town America) was handled well, the acting was good (a lot of competent character actors, including Kenneth McMillan as the town constable — who I mostly know as the pustulant Vladimir Harkonnen from David Lynch’s Dune — and of course David Soul and James Mason in the lead roles), but best of all it managed some nicely suspenseful, even spooky, moments. Perhaps because of the limitations of what was then allowed on TV, the gore count is low (to be measured in drops rather than modern-day bucketfuls), and there are very few of those tiresome false jumps every horror film or TV series feels duty bound to serve up at regular intervals (something which lost its appeal for me after a totally silly and irrelevant jump from an aggravated squirrel in Species, back in 1995). The Marsten House interior is an effective set (though it has its silly/surreal moment, when young Mark Petrie opens a drawer to find it full of glass eyes and a couple of live rats — why does he open the drawer in the first place? he’s looking for a vampire, not a pair of socks), and the ending has enough references to Psycho to assure you there’s someone who knows his horror films at the helm (Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist). A particularly good moment of the subtler sort of scare is when old schoolteacher Jason Burke hears an odd sound from upstairs, goes to investigate, and finds the corpse of recently-deceased Mike Ryerson gently rocking in a rocking chair. He stays like that for what seems an age before finally looking up with his scarily gleaming vampires eyes.

Mike Ryerson - Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini series)

I wrote in an earlier post (“What’s the point of Renfield?”) that Renfield, in Dracula, is perhaps a necessary counterpart to the suave count. Where Count Dracula is cool, elegant, eloquent and scary, Renfield is disgusting, mad, pathetic and drivelling, and together the pair complete a portrait of a real vampire as both coldly reasoning and psychotic, cool on the exterior but wallowing in blood and filth in his mad moments. The TV mini-series of Salem’s Lot reverses the relationship. The mortal half of its villainous duo, Mr Straker (James Mason), is ultra-calm, drily witty, cultured, neatly dressed and surrounded by beautiful antiques; the vampire, Kurt Barlow, looks like a dead rat gone blue-skinned and hairless with rot, can’t speak, and is 100% monster.

James Mason - Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

But there are, as in Dracula, other vampires. In Stoker’s novel, these are women; in the mini-series of King’s novel, (at first, anyway, till the whole town goes vampirous) these are children. And this was the second most scary thing about the mini-series: those kids floating up to your bedroom window at night to scratch at the pane and ask to be let in, surrounded by reverse-motion smoke. Which is another way I used to spook myself when I was younger. If I woke up late at night, I’d find myself wondering what I’d do if I heard someone scratching at the window. Well, obviously not open it like these kids do. But simply seeing such a thing would have been bad enough.

Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series)

It’s been a long time since I read King’s novel, so I can’t say how faithful to the book the mini-series is, but it was certainly faithful enough to remind me of reading the book a good 25-or-so years ago. Granted, it looks like a 70s TV mini-series, but I think that adds to its charm when seen nowadays — just like the HPLHS‘s old-style renderings of H P Lovecraft in their Call of Cthulhu and Whisperer in Darkness films, this is an authentically 70s-styled rendering of a 70s novel, and I’m glad I finally got to see it.

Straker in his coffin - Salem's Lot (1979)

And, I have to admit, that though I started watching the first part (it’s in two hour-and-a-half parts) just before 9 o’clock at night, I had to watch an hour of normal TV afterwards before I felt unspooked enough for bed. And I watched the second part at 11 o’clock the next morning.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

Dracula wasn’t the first Victorian vampire novel. In Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), the court of Chancery, tangled nest of claims and counterclaims that it is, sucks the life out of all those who place their hopes in it (and isn’t Miss Flite’s collection of caged birds, to be released “on the day of judgement”, a little too much like Renfield’s menagerie?). In George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), though, the vampire is literature itself, with the three-decker novel of the day being described as “A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.”

Gissing isn’t talking about the likes of Dickens, but those jobbing writers trying to make a living in a conventionally-minded market where the power lies with the lending libraries first, the publishers second, and the writers last of all. Or, worse, he’s talking about those poor idealistic writers whose ideals don’t conform to the market, but persist with them all the same. Among the former is Edwin Reardon, whose one success as a novelist has led him into a too-hasty marriage with a woman a little too expectant of better things, after which the demand to write another, and another triple-decker, better or at least equal to his one good effort, destroys his finances, his marriage, his hopes and his health. Among the latter is Harold Biffen, whose devotion to a literary ideal (his long-worked-on novel, Mr Bailey, Grocer, takes as its subject “the ignobly decent” — i.e., the trade- and working-classes, unromanticised, and so made entirely unpalatable for the genteel-minded lending-library readership) leads him to live a life of constant borderline starvation, barely able to scrape together enough for a meal without pawning his coat. He nevertheless loves nothing more than to go round Edwin Reardon’s of a Sunday afternoon to spend an hour discussing a line or two of Euripides.

There’s a peculiar scene in Dracula, in which Jonathan Harker cuts the Count with a kukri knife, only to have pound notes and gold coins pour out. The effect is surreal, more like a political cartoon than a moment from a horror novel, but it may get to the heart of it. The vampire in Victorian fiction is, ultimately, money, or rather, the peculiar Victorian attitude to money: that it is far better to inherit a fortune (unearned) than to stoop to the horror of actually working for it. It’s the need to present a genteel front, to pretend to be of the moneyed classes rather than the working classes, which causes so much suffering in so many Victorian novels.

George GissingI first read New Grub Street in search of one of those immersive reading experiences only a Victorian blockbuster can give, and was in no way disappointed. Gissing based a lot of the plot on firsthand experience of his life as a jobbing writer (exaggerated a little, perhaps, to better express his own disappointments and frustrations). He somewhat bitterly lays down the rules of being a writer. Success, for all but the genuine genius (“Oh, if you can be a George Eliot, begin at the earliest opportunity”), is nothing to do with literary ability; it’s to do with money. For money wins you connections, connections get you not just work but reputation, and it’s reputation — social as much as literary — that assures you an income. Because of this, Gissing (who was expelled from university and imprisoned for stealing, which he did to keep a woman he later married — and who later died from drink — from prostituting herself) says a writer must endeavour to remain unmarried till his success is assured. For, as a bachelor, he can accept invites to important, connection-making dinners without being expected to repay the compliment with dinners of his own, something that requires not just a presentable wife, but a presentable home — which all comes down, once more, to needing money in order to make money. If he must marry before that, Gissing says, he should marry a good-natured working class girl, who will have no expectations of living in style while her writer husband hacks away to earn his paltry living. But by doing so, he will of course sacrifice his future success, for a working-class wife will never be presentable, should the writer progress to the stage of having to give dinners.

Cover to Gissing’s New Grub Street by Mervyn Peake

My favourite moral tangle from the novel — and moral tangles are a thing Victorian novels do so well — centres on Marian Yule, the daughter of a fading man of letters, Mr Yule. Mr Yule’s worsening eyesight and diminished reputation causes him to hit on a last-gasp plan to launch his own literary magazine, at the exact same time (amazingly enough) that his daughter stands to inherit a small sum of money — small, but large enough to fund a literary magazine. Or enough to allow Marian to marry the man she loves, Jasper Milvain, the Steerpike of Gissing’s novel, whose cool judgement of the literary market fits into a perfect five-year plan to see him ensconced at the top, by providing what it demands, flattering those who will further his career, and reminding himself, with a cold practicality, not to get carried away with awkward distractions like love. The trouble is, Jasper can’t help proposing to Marian, particularly when he hears of her small inheritance. To make things that little bit worse, Marian’s father thinks Jasper wrote a bad review of one of his works, and already hates him. It’s a perfect little moral dilemma, throwing love, family and money into the same pot, then adding a twist at the right moment to ensure it all gets that little bit worse, and then worse again.

Gissing is brilliant at depicting the Gormengastian gloom of literary London (“the valley of the shadow of books” is his term for the fog-swathed British Library, the centre of literary production), a world of bruised egos, thwarted ambitions, disappointed ideals, and subtle betrayals, all in the name of oh-so-Victorian practicality. He can spin an entire chapter out of one extended exchange full of muted sarcasm and wounded loyalty, subtly shifting power relationships (that between Marian and the father she does all the literary drudge work for being one of the best), and emotional manipulation, along with a little wallowing in pessimism in the name of realism.

It’s dark, despairing, and just that little bit stern — as a Victorian novel should be. But also, so very readable.