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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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

The Conversation

Sometimes the quieter characters are the more interesting ones. Franics Ford Coppola’s The Conversation lets us into the tightly-controlled, paranoid world of Harry Caul (played by one of my favourite actors, Gene Hackman), a lone-wolf surveillance expert renowned for his ability to tape the untapeable. As the film starts we see him working on just such an operation, using a variety of microphones to capture a conversation between a young couple as they wander round a busy city square at lunchtime; then, back in his office (the wire-caged end of an otherwise empty floor), he gets down to what you just know is his favourite part: hidden away from the world, fine-tuning the mix of his audio sources into a single, listenable record of this mysterious, fragmented conversation. Harry Caul is a craftsman.

Conversation_01

He’s also a deeply vulnerable man. All the control, all the paranoia — a consequence, perhaps, of knowing how much can be listened to, recorded, gleaned — makes the vulnerability that much more plain. Caul wears a finicky but oh-so-practical transparent mac over his work clothes, which could be the symbol of the namesake birth-caul he seems to be keeping himself wrapped in, a barrier against the world. He claims to have no phone in his apartment, but we know he has, we see him using it. He regularly visits a woman (Terri Garr) who doesn’t know what he does for a living, or where he lives, but still knows more about him than Harry would like. The way he enters her apartment, for instance: “You have a certain way of opening the door. You know, first the key goes in all quiet, and then the door comes open real fast, like you think you’ll catch me at something.” Whatever secrets Harry thinks he has, the truth about his vulnerability and fear of opening up is obvious to everyone.

Conversation_03

As much as the first half of The Conversation is a plunge for us into Harry’s strange world, in the second half, he plunges deeper still into vulnerability and paranoia. When he goes to deliver the minutely polished tape of that lunchtime conversation, he’s told he can’t hand it over in person. So, he gives back the money and leaves with the tape. This, oddly, makes the character in my eyes — he may be strange, he may be reserved and secretive, but he has an ethic, not just to his craft, but to his word.

Conversation_05

The key scene where everything goes wrong comes soon after. There’s a surveillance industry conference and he and a few fellow professionals go back to Caul’s office with some drinks and a couple of good-time girls. Harry does a quick scan to make sure all the sensitive materials are hidden, locked away in a cage-within-the-cage of his already cage-like office. His fellow experts try to get him to open up about his past triumphs, to no avail. We learn that Harry once taped an impossible-to-tape conversation that got some people killed. They joke, but Harry doesn’t like it. He takes one of the women off into the empty space of his office and finally opens up to someone — only to find his colleagues listening in, playing a trick. But this is nothing compared to the trick the woman’s playing on him.

Conversation_06

The thing with this sort of story is first to make, then break, a character. A difficult-to-like person like Harry has first to be made in our eyes — we have to find him interesting (he’s certainly that, with his highly controlled ways) but also worth liking (and I think this is where his work ethic, and his keeping to his word despite having to turn down money, wins us over to this otherwise cold fish — that’s if his secret saxophone playing hasn’t already). But then, just when we’re starting to get comfortable in his distinctly uncomfortable world, the breaking starts. That precious, worked-over-a-hundred-times tape is taken off him, and he’s desperate to know it’s not going to be used to harm the young couple, not like last time, not again. He uses his surveillance skills to try to find out, but he’s close to breaking point. The need to know won’t help a jot if the deed’s already done. But, it turns out, Harry’s being tricked again. All that carefulness, control and paranoia only makes him that much more vulnerable. He’s not just been tricked, he’s being played.

Conversation_10

At the end, a single phone call — to that phone he claims he doesn’t have — is enough to tip him over the edge. They’ve bugged the world-proof enclosure of his apartment. And Harry, being the surveillance expert he is, can think of a thousand places they might have planted a bug, and a thousand types of bug they might have planted. He proceeds to tear his little sanctum apart, till he’s left with nothing, a ruin — the end result of all his attempts to control the uncontrollable. Even though, we know, from watching him, that the few secrets he has aren’t worth anyone’s while trying to discover. They’re the simple human secrets and vulnerabilities we all have, only Harry has them all the more because he pretends he doesn’t.

Conversation_11

Count Dracula (1977)

I thought I’d round off what has been a vaguely vampire-flavoured month at Mewsings with a look at my favourite adaptation of Dracula. I first saw it at school, bizarrely enough, shown over a couple of English lessons, though I don’t know what work we did in association with it. (This puts it in the same category as The Man Who Would Be King, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and a play-for-today adaptation of Z for Zachariah — which, along with a frankly gratuitous school viewing of Threads, served to convince me that the next winter was most likely to be a nuclear one).

So what makes it the best, for me?

Firstly, it’s understated. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was visually interesting in hallucinogenic moments, but so overblown (not to mention unintentionally comic in the awful stiffness of some of its British accents), it’s better treated as an overlong pop video than an attempt to tell a story. This 1977 adaptation, though, is horror done as a BBC costume drama. The fantastic elements are secondary to the characters, and the actors aren’t doing melodrama, they’re doing serious drama. Mina (Judi Bowker) is a perfect English rose; Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) a wildflower of a brasher, brighter, ultimately less hardy variety; the Count (Louis Jordan) is darkly foreign, charming, mysterious and coldly commanding — very believable as the supremely suave sociopath that Dracula is. The English reticence so vital to the novel is here entirely believable (as it isn’t in Coppola’s superheated lay-it-all-bare version). So, Jonathan Harker notices the Count’s hairy palms, but is too polite to comment on them; and Lucy’s fangs, when they start to emerge, are obvious for all to see, but no-one mentions them, either, because why would they? No-one expects her to be turning into a vampire, and besides, it would simply be impolite. The result is so much more convincing as a human drama, and therefore as a horror story.

Secondly, I like its visual style. I have a Doctor Who-grown fondness for the look of 70s BBC drama anyway, with its muted colours, murky videoed interiors and grainily-filmed exteriors (in actual English settings — Whitby, here, is the real Whitby, where of course Stoker went on holiday prior to writing the novel). The few visual effects are mostly used to create a mood than convince you you’re seeing something fantastic — so we have a blood-red and silver shot of the Count when the hunger’s on him, and Lucy dancing in her nightgown in one corner of the screen while the rest shows her being quietly vamped (perhaps representing how one sane corner of her mind has cut itself off from what’s happening to her body). There are some “convince them it’s real” visual effects, and it’s true these have not only dated, but probably never worked in the first place (I’m thinking of one particularly pathetic bat-on-a-string), but they are minor & brief, and can be forgotten (in the way you train yourself to do if you love watching old Doctor Whos — even Genesis of the Daleks has its giant clam scene).

Perhaps all this is possible because it’s a TV mini-series, and so has a chance to linger on character moments in a way that a film, being shorter, can’t. All the same, I can’t imagine a similar mini-series being made today, when usually the slightest hint of fantasy or horror is enough to unleash every make-you-jump cliché and make explicit every possible level of erotic interpretation, however much its power in the original relies on restraint. In the novel, the Count is only as successful as he is in England because people keep all their dreams and fears to themselves; in a sense, it’s only when Mina initiates a free-for-all bout of reading each others private diaries and journals — sharing everyone’s secrets like a touchy-feely vampire hunter’s support group — that the Count loses so much of his power, and is ultimately defeated.

Count Dracula is available on DVD, where it’s divided into two parts. I usually can’t help myself but watch both in one sitting.