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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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

Fantasy Music

After writing about The Roar of Love and The King of Elfland’s Daughter in the last couple of blog posts (which adapt C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter), I was going to finish off this trilogy of mewsings with a look at a piece based on The Lord of the Rings. There are certainly plenty to choose from — see the Tolkien Music List for a comprehensive, not to say mind-boggling, index — but I chose something different from my usual musical tastes, Johan de Meij’s “Lord of the Rings” symphony, a classical piece in five movements inspired by Tolkien’s trilogy. The trouble was, it didn’t quite do it for me. That may be down to the fact that I don’t listen to a lot of classical music (though I do have my favourites). I’ve been listening to it this week (particularly the fourth movement, “Journey in the Dark”, which I keep wanting to like, as it’s my favourite part of the trilogy), but although it works as music, and is pleasant enough to listen to (and has won awards — the Sudler International Wind Band Composition competition in 1989), it isn’t quite what I was looking for in a piece of fantasy-themed music. Which got me thinking about what I was looking for.

In short, something that evokes the fantastic through music. Something that creates that peculiar sense of both otherness and long-lost familiarity, of weirdness and never-never once-upon-a-time-ness, of what the Romantics used to call “the Sublime”, that you get from great fantasy in any form, whether it be fiction, art, games, or anything else.

So here’s a test. Rather like Ursula Le Guin’s “Poughkeepsie” test for fantasy fiction (where you replace all the fantastic names with mundane ones, and see if the result still has something of Elfland in it), the “Poughkeepsie” test for music would be to ignore the names given to the tracks and ask if they still evoke a feeling of fantasy.

This might be a bit unfair on de Meij’s symphony, as it’s the first wholly instrumental piece of music I’ve looked at for its fantasy content. After all, songs can evoke a feeling of fantasy through their lyrics. But it’s also true that instrumental music can create that fantasy feel. In classical music, the prelude to Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica is perfect fantasy music — in fact, I think it would make an excellent soundtrack to the opening chapters of Dracula, with its bleak wind effects and the weird, wordless singing of three female voices evoking the Count’s trio of undead brides. Similarly, Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” (which is used at the end of Kubrick’s 2001), uses wordless, microtonal singing to get a really unearthly effect. (Strange how the human voice can be the weirdest of all instruments.) Also, of the albums I’ve looked at so far, both in the previous two posts and in my top five fantasy concept albums a while back, it’s tended to be the music, rather than the lyrics, that really makes them work in evoking that fantasy feel.

I think it comes down to a bringing together of the strange and the familiar. In music, this can just mean the use of exotic instruments alongside more familiar ones, as in Jon Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow, using “World” percussion and electronic synths, or Queen using a harpsichord alongside piano, guitars and layered vocals in “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke“. The Romantic idea of “the Sublime” was exactly this: a longing for a thing that is at once far removed and deeply familiar, a sense of the weird, even the frightening, alongside a recognition so deep it transcends mundanity, forging a connection with the deepest levels of your unconscious, to those most submerged parts that just don’t fit into the everyday world yet are still very much a part of you. That reconnection with the deeply familiar yet strange could well be the main function of fantasy. Certainly, it could be what I’m looking for in my quest to find fantasy in music; if so, it might seem a bit harsh to judge pieces that don’t quite attain it — it’s a tall order, after all — and which may, after all, not be trying to achieve it. (As I said, de Meij’s symphony works quite well as music, it just doesn’t quite seem to be fantasy music, to me.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep looking. Onward, to the inward!

Queen’s Queen II

Fantasy worlds created in childhood sometimes spill over into adulthood. Thus we have E R Eddison’s peculiarly childish naming scheme for the races in his otherwise sublime novel The Worm Orobouros (with Witches, Demons, and even Pixies being his warring nations of basically human warriors). Thus we also have Emily Brontë continuing to write poems about the invented lands of Angria and Gondal (which she and her siblings had worked on intensely as children) right through to the end of her life. And thus we also have the world of Rhye — or hints of it — a childhood fantasy world created by Freddie Bulsara and his sister, which crept into reality when Bulsara became Mercury, and Queen recorded their first two albums.


I’m picking Queen II (from 1974) as the fifth of my top five fantasy concept albums, but really I’m picking the fantasy concept album that might have been, had Freddie Mercury taken over the whole thing and expanded the handful of fantasy-themed songs on the group’s first two releases into a complete concept album. My fantasy fantasy concept album, you could say.

And what an album it would have been! Early Queen manage a misty-morning never-never sound that tints many of their non-fantasy songs with the fantastic (“Nevermore”, “White Queen”); they also manage an almost religious grandiosity with equal conviction (the epic “Prophet’s Song”, “Jesus”) — both essential elements in a full-fleshed fantasy. When actual make-believe enters into it, we get something as baroque and filigree as the Art Nouveau-esque “My Fairy King”, as operatic as “The March of the Black Queen”, or something in the straight-ahead rock leagues like “Ogre Battle”. There’s humour, (“she boils and she bakes and she never dots her i’s” from “Black Queen”) — something which can puncture the make-believe bubble unless handled properly (in this case, with sufficient bombast) — there’s lyricism, and there’s even something that sounds like it was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (“Can’t go east cos you gotta go south” from “Ogre Battle”), though of course D&D wasn’t released till 1974 (and I doubt it reached England immediately), while Queen II was recorded in 1973.

Centrepiece of the whole thing must be “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke”, a rendering in music of Richard Dadd’s intensely-detailed painting (and quoting from the peculiar poem Dadd wrote to accompany the picture, apparently in an attempt to prove it was a rationally reasoned-out subject, and not entirely produced by madness). At a mere 2 minutes 41 seconds, the song contains almost as many textures and details as the painting, and is one of the few examples of one work of art inspiring another of equal value.

Speaking of works of art inspiring others, there have been (I think) two fantasy novels written using Queen’s fantasy songs for inspiration. I read one, in the late eighties (I think), and can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it. And I don’t really want to. The secret of a successful adaptation from music to literature is, I suspect, not to be too literal. When I realised the plot of the novel was building up to a battle between two ogres, my heart sank. I remember glancing at another fantasy novel more recently which was inspired by Queen’s fantasy songs, but can’t remember the details, and the internet (in a brief search, I have to admit), seems equally disinclined. (I did uncover a video game, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, from 1995, though).

Well, that’s it for my top five fantasy-themed concept albums. I’m sure there are others, perhaps even betters. If I discover one, you’ll find it in a future Mewsings. Here’s the full five, which have been presented in no particular order: