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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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

I was disappointed to read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (director of Amelie, co-director of Delicatessen) was accusing Guillermo del Toro of plagiarism in his latest film, The Shape of Water. Partly, my disappointment is down to both directors having made favourite films of mine (Pan’s Labyrinth, Amelie, Delicatessen, and City of Lost Children all real favourites), and I’m always disappointed (though never too surprised) when creators I like criticise one another. But another reason is it seems somewhat ungenerous of Jeunet, considering how liberally he himself has borrowed from other films.

The main scene Jeunet singles out is where Sally Hawkins’s character and her neighbour (played by Richard Jenkins), sitting together on a sofa watching an old musical on TV, start tap-dancing along while sitting down. Jeunet said it was “cut and pasted from Delicatessen” (quote from The Telegraph) — no doubt meaning the scene where Dominique Pinon and Karin Viard, sitting on a bed and bouncing in order to locate a squeaky spring, fall into a sort of sitting-down dance. (You can see both at an article on The Playlist, which also reveals that the Jeunet quotes were Google Translated from the original French.)

Jeunet also says Shape of Water’s having scenes featuring “the painter, the apartment, the girl who is a bit naive” must be inspired by Amelie, which strikes me as almost deliberately vague. I wouldn’t call Hawkins’s character “naive” — certainly not as Amelie is — she’s also clearly a woman rather than a girl, and the relationship between the characters Jeunet mentions is quite different. (In Amelie, the painter is very much a mentor figure; in Shape of Water, the relationship is of equals.) It’s far too vague for an accusation of plagiarism. (Hitchcock’s Blackmail also features a scene with a painter, an apartment, and a girl who is a bit naive, though of course it turns out far differently.)

Perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the scene Jeunet doesn’t mention. At one point in The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’s character shuts herself in a bathroom with the love of her life (who happens to be an aquatic humanoid more comfortable breathing through his gills than his lungs), blocking the bottom of the door with towels and turning on all the taps so they can flood the bathroom and enjoy a little underwater love. It’s reminiscent of the scene at the end of Delicatessen where Dominique Pinon’s Louison and Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie lock themselves in a bathroom, stop up all the gaps, turn on all the taps, and flood the bathroom, in this case to aid their escape from the other residents of the building, who want to eat at least one of them. Perhaps the reason Jeunet doesn’t point out this similarity is that this scene also occurs in a 1975 Paul Newman film, The Drowning Pool, in which Newman and a woman are locked in a large bathroom, block the drains, turn on all the taps, and flood the place to escape. In all three films, the central couple are carried out in the flood when the blocked door is finally opened.

The Drowning Pool (1975) — they had a bigger bathroom

It’s just as easy to find borrowings — unconscious or not, accidental or not — in Jeunet’s films. The most obvious, to my eyes, is in Amelie. The scenes where Audrey Tautou’s character sneaks into the grocer’s apartment to play various sneaky little revenge-pranks on him are very similar to those in the 1994 film Chungking Express — not just in the idea of a young woman sneaking into a man’s apartment and playing little tricks, but down to some of the tricks themselves. In Chungking Express, Faye Wong’s character, among other things, swaps a pair of slippers and puts sleeping pills in a bottle of drink (if I remember right); in Amelie, Audrey Tautou’s character swaps a pair of slippers for those a size smaller and puts sugar in a bottle of some alcoholic drink.

Chungking Express — this is not her apartment

To make all these accusations of plagiarism more complicated still, in an Empire magazine feature (Le fantastique M. Jeunet by Olly Richards) from January 2010, Jeunet says of the flooded bathroom sequence in Delicatessen:

“It’s funny, because maybe six or seven years later I saw a short film with Laurel & Hardy and it’s the same idea. Same bathroom with two cops outside. I understood that probably [co-director] Marc Caro or me saw that when we were kids and then forgot it. Then it sat in the back of the mind.”

It’s an old idea that good artists copy, great artists steal, but I can’t help feeling there’s a danger of a huge loss of subtlety as soon as the accusation of plagiarism comes up. There are, most certainly, cases of outright plagiarism, but there will also be cases of unconscious influence, parallel development of similar ideas, drawing from the same sources, and so on. How to tell the difference? Surely, in these sorts of cases, you ought to be able to judge by an artist’s, or director’s, creative integrity, as evident from their existing body of work, something I think del Toro and Jeunet have both demonstrated.

I’m certainly not putting myself on a par with Jeunet or del Toro, but, as it’s the one area where I have some chance of knowing a deeper level of the story, I’ll bring in a couple of examples from my own writing. Some time ago, I decided I wanted to write a Lovecraftian story, and worked hard on coming up with a plot that, to me, summed up the essence of what Lovecraft’s fiction meant to me, in terms of the implications of its world and worldview. This was eventually published (“Zathotha”, in Cyäegha #4 in 2011). I was completely unaware, till I was re-reading it some time after it was published, that I’d in fact reproduced the plot of my favourite Clark Ashton Smith story, “The Double Shadow” — both feature characters carrying out a magical ritual they don’t understand, that leads to the ineluctable approach of an entity that absorbs its victims, and nothing can be done to stop it.

To give another example, I used the idea of a phantom staircase that appears only at certain times, in The Fantasy Reader. I came up with the idea while playing about with the sort of thing that happens in dreams — I have loads of dreams where I find myself in a small house or apartment that, despite its limited size, has endless rooms with doors that open onto other rooms with more doors, and so on, with even the occasional staircase leading to yet more rooms and doors. It was only well after I’d started working with the idea that I remembered it was also in David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. It’s a book I’ve read loads of times, and I even run a website about Lindsay, so, no court of law would ever accept that I hadn’t taken the idea from him, and I’d certainly be happy to say that I had, and it may be I did, unconsciously, but my feeling is I took it from the same place where he, perhaps, found it.

Both del Toro and Jeunet are, even by directorial standards, outright cinephiles, and both not only talk about their influences, but include tributes and references to much-loved films in their work. (The Shape of Water and Amelie both contain scenes set in cinemas.) I have a feeling Jeunet’s reaction may be more emotional than rational — perhaps he saw someone doing the sort of thing he considers his territory, and getting a lot of plaudits, and felt left out. I can certainly understand that. As I say, I like both directors, and would like to see both in the best light.

Anyway, The Shape of Water is a very nice film. I didn’t find it as intense as Pan’s Labyrinth, though it has a lot in common with that film. But it’s definitely the sort of film I’ll want to watch a few more times and really get to know — as I have, and will continue to do, with Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as Amelie, and Delicatessen.

Pan’s Labyrinth

I’ve been wanting to write about Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films, for some time, but whenever I sit down to watch it, I find myself wondering what there is to say. Aside from how much I love the way it mixes wonderfully dark fantasy with convincing real-world drama, the sheer artistry of the film is sort of overwhelming — not just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the storytelling, but the way so many of the strands of the story echo and resonate, so every character, every event, every location, acquires a deeper significance from the way it counterpoints other parts of the film. The whole thing works like a perfect piece of clockwork (an apt metaphor for the clockwork-loving Guillermo del Toro) — wonderful to watch, but difficult to write about without simply gushing.

Then I realised I had to write about not what I like most about the film, but what troubles me most about it.

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, and bought it as soon as it came out on DVD. (And, yes, once again on Blu-ray.) When I sat down to watch the DVD for the first time, I was shocked all over again by the opening scene, in which the young Ofelia lies dying at the centre of the Faun’s labyrinth. I’d somehow managed to forget this most troubling fact, that the film’s heroine dies, even though it’s underlined by happening at both the start and the end of the film, so it really ought to be unforgettable. In her BFI Film Classics book on Pan’s Labyrinth, Mar Diestro-Dópido says of this moment:

‘The shocking impact of this scene lies precisely in the sudden absence of magic; we see Ofelia as she really is, vulnerable and defenceless, a thirteen-year-old child incapable of inflicting harm — and a stark reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children who fall victim to adult wrongdoing, particularly during war.’

Every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s death seems so monstrously unfair. Having passed through three fairy-tale trials, facing genuinely disturbing horrors with real courage and an ultimate fidelity to her conscience — trials which, in most fairy tales, would have granted her the right to the happily-ever-after rewards of selfhood and adulthood — everything’s taken away from her. One way of reading the fantastic elements of the film is as the dying Ofelia’s hasty weaving of a story around the bare few mundane facts of her too-short life, to try to make them meaningful, to make them all point, in a final, desperate act of imagination, to, yes, her really being a princess after all, and this not being a horrible and pointless death but some sort of wonderful fulfilment. Yet, the vision of herself being received by her father, mother, and (somehow, because he’s still alive in the real world) her baby brother, in this magical underworld kingdom, occurs in the moments before she dies, not after, so perhaps this is nothing more than the dying dream of a young girl, one more victim of a brutal, fascistic reality, where death and suffering are handed out as freely as Franco’s daily rations of bread.

But even if it is just a dying girl’s fantasy, there’s another way to look at the story told by Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is about staying true to one’s conscience in the face of a fascist brutality that demands instant, unquestioning obedience at all times. And it’s a wonderfully disobedient act to rework such a harsh reality into your own private narrative, weaving the spaces between the facts with a fairy tale of your own devising.

How else can so helpless an individual as Ofelia triumph in such a brutal world, except through an act of imagination? It’s a world that does its best to deny stories. Captain Vidal — like fascism itself — denies everyone their ability to tell, or enjoy, any stories but those the ruling party tell, criticising Ofelia’s mother for letting her daughter read fairytales, and, in the banquet scene, for telling the story of how she and Vidal came to be married. But Captain Vidal is in the grip of his own story. His father supposedly smashed his pocket-watch the moment before his death, so his son would know how a truly brave man dies, and though Vidal is constantly looking at that cracked watch, and tending its clockwork alone in his office, he denies his father ever had a watch — a denial which only goes to show the power the story has over him. Fittingly, at the end, when he tries to control the story his own baby son will be told about him, his quietly resistant housekeeper Mercedes tells him his son will never even know his name. This, in such a harsh, unfantastic world, is how victories are won: through acts of imagination. History may be written by the victor, but fairy tales can be acts of rebellion.

Near the beginning of the film, Ofelia tells her as-yet-unborn brother the story of a flower that confers immortality, but which nobody goes near because its thorns are poisonous. Her own fairy-tale tasks are designed to test whether she, Ofelia, has been in the mortal world too long and lost touch with her immortal self, the Princess Moanna. But ‘immortality’ in Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t of the literal, Woody Allen kind (‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’). It’s closer to the pagan idea of living so heroic a life your name will be remembered, and your story told, even after your death.

Dying alone at the centre of a ruined labyrinth, Ofelia confers on herself a very deserved immortality, by telling herself her own story, with herself as the heroine. Whether the fantasy elements of the film really happened or not (and only Ofelia’s escape from the locked attic using the Faun’s chalk-doorway method seems to imply they did), the story she tells herself is true — a true image of her conscience and inner life, that is — and it’s this, her being true to herself despite the threat of death, that confers on her the Pan’s Labyrinth version of ‘immortality’ in the end.

After all, she gets a film made about her.

(And a very good one, too.)