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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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

cover by James Marsh

After High-Rise (1975), J G Ballard wrote one of his strangest novels, The Unlimited Dream Company. Published in 1979, it won the 1980 British Science Fiction Association award for best novel — which was, as the SF Encyclopedia points out, the only SF award he won — but, perhaps because it stands shadowed between the Ballardian monoliths of Crash (1973) and Empire of the Sun (1984), it’s a book that gets little attention, not least from Ballard himself, who rarely seems to have mentioned it in interviews — certainly nowhere near as much as The Atrocity Exhibition, to which it could well stand as a sort of opposite. It is, in a sense, his magical realist novel, his most outrightly fantastical. It’s also, compared to the novels that came before it, perhaps his first non-dystopia. But it doesn’t seem right to call it a utopia, either. Rather, it seems better to call it a sort of imaginative vision.

The narrator, Blake, is a young ne’er-do-well whose schooling and early attempts at employment are nothing but a series of increasingly bizarre and self-destructive failures:

“Whatever new course I set myself, however carefully I tried to follow a fresh compass bearing, I flew straight into the nearest brick wall.”

One morning, after an abortive and seemingly spur-of-the-moment attempt to murder his latest girlfriend, Blake steals a light aircraft (having picked up the basics of operating one while working as an aircraft cleaner at London Airport) and pretty soon crashes it into the Thames by Shepperton (which he calls “the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere”, and where Ballard himself lived for most of his adult life). Soon after emerging from the drowned aircraft (where he may have spent as long as eleven minutes trying to free himself, meaning he may actually have died underwater), Blake discovers that he cannot leave the town. If he approaches its borders they recede before him, meaning he can walk infinitely in any direction without ever leaving Shepperton.

cover to first UK edition, art by Bill Botton

He also learns he has begun to develop magical, even god-like, powers. The blood from his wounded hands has the ability to heal; he can transform himself, and others, into fish, birds, and animals; he can fly, and can give others the gift of flight, too. His bodily fluids — and it’s a novel rather full of bodily fluids — cause exotic plants to grow. His presence leads all sorts of birds to start appearing in Shepperton, from pelicans to penguins to parrots and condors. He eventually finds he can absorb people into his body, feeding off their existence within him while they reside there, awaiting release.

With so many miracles on show, he soon wins the people of Shepperton over, and it’s not long before, as in High-Rise, the commuters are ignoring their trains, doffing their clothes, and (unlike High-Rise) giving away all their possessions. Bank managers lay out the currencies from their vaults on tables for anyone to take, supermarkets and white goods stores abolish their checkouts.

The town comes to see Blake as a sort of messiah — as does Blake himself, who soon progresses, in his own estimation, to local god, and then to “the first god, the primal deity”. The only exceptions are the seven people who witnessed Blake’s crash and subsequent revival. (One of whom, Blake suspects, may have attempted to murder him, judging by the hand-shaped bruises on his body.) These seven, whom Blake comes to think of as his “Family”, often resist his orgies of transformation and flight, but they are the ones Blake most wants to transform.

Among their number is a widow, Mrs St Cloud, and a priest who dabbles in archaeology, Father Wingate (a father-mother pair whose names both mix sky/flight with religion). There’s also Mrs St Cloud’s daughter, Dr Miriam St Cloud, whose running of a local clinic is disrupted when Blake begins healing all her long-term patients. Stark, a young man who owns a nearby zoo and amusement pier, is the most immune to Blake’s wonders — when the whole town is giving away its possessions, it’s Stark who drives around collecting TV sets and washing machines, stuffing his pockets full of free foreign currency. Finally there are three children, a blind girl, a lame boy, and another boy with Down’s Syndrome. Although clearly affected by Blake’s crash, they’re almost shy when it comes to his attempts to include them in his town-wide transformations, as though they see a value in their disabilities that Blake’s easy cures and magical transformations into birds, fish, or flying humans would do away with. Blake’s relationship with the townspeople of Shepperton goes through dark patches — one of his festivals of free money and flight is about to swerve into violence at one point, and, oh yes, they later shoot him and dump his body by the town War Memorial — but ultimately it’s his relationship with these seven, his “Family”, that drives the novel in its strange, dream-like progression.

Ballard at his most bird-like, The South Bank Show (2006)

Ballard often said he was a moral writer — that his dystopias, despite the way they offered his protagonists a sort of inner fulfilment, were nevertheless meant as warnings — but it’s hard to see the moral in The Unlimited Dream Company, whose protagonist/narrator’s mix of self-deification and lack of self-recrimination often treads a line between the god-like and the infantile. The Blake who begins the novel with an attempt to murder his girlfriend is hardly a reformed character by the end, nor is he ever really challenged or taught any lessons. He comes close, several times, to crossing a line even a pagan god shouldn’t cross with Shepperton’s children, and it’s only because of a moment of distraction that he doesn’t go through with it.

US hardback, art by Carlos Ochagavia

Instead, the book seems to be a pure, if brutal, dream-like vision of transformation. Nothing matters, between its covers, but Blake’s, and Shepperton’s, ultimate liberation through flight. When things change, when Blake discovers a new power, or when the town turns either for him or against him, there doesn’t seem to be a particular reason for the change, as though these are ritual stages that have to be gone through rather than the results of cause and effect. At times, the transformation Blake seems to be offering is harsh, almost inhuman, and The Unlimited Dream Company, to my mind, sits alongside some of the more blatantly visionary writers about fantastical transformations, like Clive Barker, or the Robert Holdstock you find in the second half of Lavondyss.

Ultimately, The Unlimited Dream Company seems to work best as a dream or vision, an intense dose of imagery centred on flight, freedom, and transformation, and a literal rising above the everyday life of a suburban town.

It’s a book that took Ballard two and half years to write, something true only of Crash before it. And despite the seemingly effortless sequence of dream-like scenes in the novel, he found the writing of it “imaginatively exhausting”. At first, when you read one of Ballard’s few comments about the novel, it’s tempting not to take him entirely seriously when he says something like:

“In many ways I feel that, without realising it at the time, I was writing a piece of my own autobiography — that it’s about the writer’s imagination, and in particular my imagination, transforming the humdrum reality that he occupies and turning it into an unlimited dream company.”

(This is quoted in Interzone #106, but originally comes from Sam Scoggins’s 23-minute film, The Unlimited Dream Company — which is not an adaptation, but mostly an interview with Ballard, and well worth a watch.)

cover by Peter Goodfellow

The more I think about it, though, the more the idea that this novel is a sort of inner autobiography fits. It’s an allegory of the imaginative writer’s life. It begins with a troubled and unconventional young man’s difficulties in finding a place in life (“the police harassment and third-rate jobs, the dreams running off at half-cock”). Then the crisis, the breakdown and break-away in one last desperate attempt at self-expression, trusting himself entirely to his purest impulse, “the simplest and most mysterious of all actions — flight!”

Then, realising he’s as trapped in Shepperton as an imaginative or visionary artist is trapped in the mundane world, he sets about doing his best to transform it and its residents through the power of his imagination, bringing his own particular magic into all these humdrum lives, elevating them, freeing them, changing them at the deepest level. And he passes through darkness, and through self-aggrandisement, and through death, but ultimately he’s freed from his old, ne’er-do-well self, that history of failure.

(And the character Stark could be seen as the sort of man Blake would have become without a visionary imagination — a peddler of cobbled-together amusements, a pier-attraction zoo-owner, doing his best to bring a little exoticism and fairground magic into people’s lives, but never going to amount to much.)

The Unlimited Dream Company is an expression of Ballard’s faith that “a powerful and obsessive enough imagination can reach, unaided, the very deepest layers of the mind” — a faith in the transformative powers of imagination, a kind of creative dream-manifesto. As I say, it could be seen as an equal-and-opposite to The Atrocity Exhibition, standing in the same relation to that earlier book as Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet stands to his traumatic Red Shift — a necessary and healing counter-balance to the earlier work’s images of dislocation and trauma.

I must admit I still don’t fully get the title, though.

Ice by Anna Kavan

Penguin classics edition, 2017. Cover by Jim Stoddart.

The unnamed narrator of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice returns to his (unnamed) home country “to investigate rumours of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world”. But immediately he becomes gripped with an obsession for a young woman he was formerly infatuated with, a girl (she’s known throughout the novel as “the girl”) whose “timidity and fragility” made him want to “shield her from the callousness of the world”. Her rejection of him left him traumatised, and he still suffers from insomnia and headaches, the medication for which gives him “horrid dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim”, dreams which are “not confined to sleep only”. Even as he drives to the house that the woman shares with her painter husband, he sees her before him, helpless, surrounded by encroaching cliffs of ice — the first of the novel’s many slips into a different sort of reality.

His visit is unsatisfactory — he hardly sees her, and when he does, she hardly speaks to him — and soon after, he learns she has fled the country. Ignoring his mission to understand “the coming emergency”, the narrator follows, ending up in an (unnamed) nordic country semi-ruined by war, where the girl seems to have been taken by a militaristic leader known as the warden. The narrator poses as a historian, looking for sites of potential archaeological investigation, and manages to convince the warden to let him see the girl. He wants, of course, to take her from the clutches of this overbearing, controlling man, but when he’s finally taken to her, she’s plainly afraid of him. When the political state in the country worsens, the warden flees, taking the girl with him. Again, the narrator follows.

1985 hardback

All this time, the strangeness of the narrative is escalating. The narrator continues to have even more vivid, elaborate, and violent fantasies about the girl being endangered and his trying (and failing) to save her. In one, told that she’s dead, his main feeling is of having been “defrauded”: “I alone should have done the breaking with tender love; I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.” He also finds, at times, his identity somehow merging with that of the warden; also, with the girl’s: “It was no longer clear to me which of us was the victim. Perhaps we were victims of one another.” Sometimes, his narration slips to include scenes in which he is not present, but the girl is, and in which he can somehow know her feelings. There’s a dreamlike blurring of boundaries between the narrator, the girl, and the warden who, at times, because they’re left unnamed, seem not so much fleshed out characters as roles being played, or, perhaps, fragmented aspects of an absent whole. Is the narrator projecting his fantasies of saving/“shielding” someone onto the young woman he’s pursuing, despite her obvious fear of him, or is the young woman projecting her fear of others onto the narrator? Whenever he does get to be with her, his actions are hardly those of a protector, more those of the sort of abuser who tells his victim, “I’m doing this for your own good.”

We never learn the origins of the “coming emergency”, only that:

“Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains.”

At the same time, though, the world is descending into militaristic chaos, “a senseless mania for destruction” even in the face of the coming environmental annihilation. There are rumours about “a self-detonating cobalt bomb, timed, at a pre-set, unknown moment, to destroy all life”. It’s as if, the narrator says:

“An insane impatience for death was driving mankind to a second suicide, even before the full effect of the first had been felt.”

It all focuses on “the girl”, even though she makes only brief appearances (usually to flee from the narrator as soon as she can). Early on, we’re told the origins of her permanently terrified state:

“She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection.”

She has a permanent “victim’s look”. Fear, we’re told, is “the climate she lived in” — a fitting word, “climate”, for an ecological disaster novel. And:

“The irreparable damage inflicted had long ago rendered her fate inevitable.”

Just as the world is heading towards extinction — through ice or nuclear fire, it hardly matters which — the girl is heading towards her own inevitable fate. The ice in the world echoes her inner numbness to her own condition, driven by a lifetime of emotional helplessness; the lack of names given to countries and characters echoes her disconnection from the world around her; the narrator’s unstable sense of reality echoes how “Systematic bullying when she was most vulnerable had distorted the structure of [the girl’s] personality”.

1967 paperback

The characters, and the world they’re in, all become echoes of one another, reflections of one another. The boundaries between them are unstable, just as a child victim’s are with an abusive parent. Victims of abuse, reduced so utterly to powerlessness, take their abuser’s side in a last-ditch attempt at psychological survival. It’s quite possible Ice’s male narrator is in fact the girl’s own narrative voice, seeing herself, through another’s eyes, objectified and victimised because it’s the only way she can see herself and not experience that paralysing fear. (Which would explain the narrator’s initial trauma on being rejected by her — it wasn’t a love rejection, but a shattering of the self.) Meanwhile, the ice encroaches — the chilling distance between herself and her own emotions, freezing the world as she herself is frozen inside, forever trapped at the moment of her victimisation. (Hence, she’ll always be “the girl”, the victim of her mother’s bullying, and never a grown-up woman in her own right.)

And all this takes place in a world of power, possession and increasingly mindless violence, a totalitarian, male-dominated world on the brink of chaos, all too ready to pander to the girl’s “I deserve no better” siren call to be terrorised, victimised, brutalised.

Anna Kavan. Photo from the Anna Kavan Society’s biography page.

This was Kavan’s last novel before her death in 1968, and it’s all too easy to read it in the terms laid out in biographical sketches, which include a lonely, neglectful childhood, a probably abusive early marriage, battles with heroin addiction (which began in the days when heroin was an over-the-counter drug; she was apparently persuaded to try it in the belief it would help her tennis serve) and depression. Even her name — adopted as a pseudonym, then taken on in real life from one of her own fictional characters — could be seen in the same terms as the self-distancing use of “the girl” in Ice: an attempt to divorce oneself from one’s unhappy past, an attempt to outrun one’s shadow, to numb the pain through dissociation.

I came across this book while looking for something similar-but-different to the last disaster novel I reviewed here, John Christopher’s Death of Grass, but it was a cover quote from J G Ballard that clinched me into reading Ice. Its vision of a world being slowly encased in ice echoes Ballard’s The Crystal World, but in Ice the examination of the human story in the face of worldwide disaster is deeper (though Ballard’s is also, curiously, a tale of love triangles being fought out while the world freezes).

Kavan’s novel, with its unnamed characters, unnamed countries, and never-fully-defined disaster, has a sort of Kafkan purity of fable to it, but at its heart there’s a weird, hallucinogenic feeling in which it’s impossible to fully separate any of the characters from one another, or from their unstable, violent, ecologically-endangered world — each seems a facet of the same central, frozen crystal, a prismatic illusion thrown off from the ice-hard heart of unhealed, perhaps unheal-able, psychological abuse that seeded this novel.

Chilling.