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colour, even if author Michael Gibson was disdainful of the art itself, finding it solipsistic, neurotic, perverse and withdrawn, a wounded response to the modern era’s erasing of certainties (“Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated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

Axël by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam

I first heard of Axël by Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (to give him his full title) when its most famous line was quoted by Colin Wilson in The Outsider. Towards the end of the play, its young hero, Count Axël of Auersperg, having declared his love for the heroine Sara, realises that, from this point on, life can only be an anticlimax. Sara has just suggested a good two pages’ worth of places they might go, wonders they might see, raptures they might endure, but he replies:

“As for living? our servants will do that for us.”

And so the pair share a cup of poison — a “magnificent gem-encrusted cup”, that is, because at this point Axël and Sara are virtually swimming in a recently-uncovered stash of gold, silver, gems and jewellery — and the play ends with their deaths.

At one time I was determined, having read Wilson’s Outsider a couple of times, to go through all the books he mentioned in it, reading them, too. (I recently compiled a list of the works he mentions, and put it up on my site.) I’m now pretty sure I’ve no interest in reading every book Wilson alludes to, but Axël somehow remained one I wanted to try. It’s difficult to get hold of, despite being translated into English twice (by H P R Finberg in 1925, and Marilyn Gaddis Rose in 1970); Wilson himself might have only known it through Edmund (no relation) Wilson’s summary in the final chapter of his 1931 critical study of “imaginative literature”, Axel’s Castle (and by “imaginative literature” he meant mostly the French Symbolist poets — Edmund Wilson seems to have hated fantasy, famously denouncing both Lovecraft and Tolkien). But, finally, I tracked down a paperback copy of Gaddis Rose’s translation, published in 1986 by the Soho Book Company, in a suitably French-decadent yellow cover.

Edition published by Jarrolds, London, 1925

The play opens with Sara, an orphan consigned to a nunnery, just about to take her final vows. It’s a rich ceremony, and one the church has much interest in, Sara being quite wealthy. Sara herself says nothing while she’s presented at the altar and lectured (at length) by the Archdeacon, who, finally, asks if she will “accept Light, Hope and Life” in devoting herself fully to God. With one word — her first, and it’s a “No” — it’s as though the very church comes crashing down around her. Nuns run for cover, the abbess starts shrieking and the Archdeacon — inevitably — delivers another lecture. Then Sara throws a handy axe through a window and makes her getaway.

The second act shifts to a castle in remote Auersperg in Germany, in whose dark, endless forests the young Count Axël spends his days in hunting and his nights receiving instruction from the mysterious Master Janus. A visitor, Commander Kaspar, hears a legend about the young Count’s father. When Germany was threatened by Napoleon, an enormous portion of the country’s wealth was given to a select group of military men to hide in some remote spot, in case Napoleon should win through and claim it for spoils. The old Count hid it in his lands, then was killed (in a plot by several of his countrymen who wanted the treasure for themselves). Only his wife knew where the treasure was, and she died soon after. When the Commander confronts Axël with this story, the young Count, who up to this point has been entirely civil towards his guest, takes instant offence and calls for duelling swords. There then follows a very, very long portion in which Axël defends his unwillingness to either look for the treasure himself or let anyone else do so. (The translator, in her foreword, says that Axël has “perhaps the most tedious second act in modern drama”, and it’s this long justification scene she’s talking about. Yeats, who initially enthused about the play during its first performance, later recommended that, should it ever be brought to Britain, its second and third acts should be reduced in length “enormously”.) Axël, contemptuous in every way of the complacency, materialism and worldliness Commander Kaspar represents, kills him in the ensuing duel, then, disgusted with himself, goes to see Master Janus.

Master Janus is an occultist — “I do not instruct; I awaken” — and he tries to pull Axël out of his despondency by declaring his pupil’s disgust with both himself and worldly life in general to be only an indication that:

“…you are ripe for the supreme Test. The vapour of the blood shed for the Gold has just diminished your essence. The fatal effluvia envelop you, penetrating your heart—and, under their pestilential influence, you have become a child again, stammering mere words. Heir to the instincts of the man you killed, you live through the old thirst of voluptuousness, power, and pride, inhaled and reabsorbed into your organism, lighting up the reddest blood in your veins. O redescended from the sacred thresholds, the former mortal is going to come back to life in the disavowing eyes of the guilty Initiate! The Hour has come…”

And so on. Janus has an answer for everything — a long answer, in technical occult jargon — but it always seems to boil down to the same thing. Whatever Axël says, however much he disavows or rejects, it’s “Then at last you are truly ready to begin,” as though everything up to now has been a mere preparation. And, as the act continues, you get the impression that this is how it will always be with Master Janus — always a beginning, always a promise of some great transformation to come, but never the fulfilment. Finally seeing this, Axël bursts out with:

“I want life! Not more knowledge!

And he banishes Janus. (Who, as he leaves, mutters, still self-justifying: “…the Work nears fulfilment.”)

In the final act, Sara comes to the castle. She, it turns out, knows where the rumoured treasure is hidden. At night, she creeps down to the crypt and presses a certain death’s-head decoration, opening a secret vault overflowing with coins and gems (“a scintillating torrent of gems, a rustling rain of diamonds”). But she’s unaware that Axël is hiding in the crypt, having come down there to end his life. After a brief misunderstanding (Sara, armed with two pistols, shoots Axël, wounding but not killing him), the two fall instantly, passionately in love. Sara gives her speech about all the things they could do; Axël gives his:

“If we accepted life now, we should commit a sacrilege against ourselves. As for living? our servants will do that for us.”

And so the play ends, with the self-slain Axël and Sara a Romeo and Juliet caught, not between Montagues and Capulets, but Idealism and Reality.

Villiers de l’Isle-Adam

Villiers de l’Isle-Adam worked on Axël for almost twenty years. Despite his title, he was not rich. Significantly — considering the buried-treasure plot in this play — his father wasted the last of the family wealth buying up estates, often at inflated prices, convinced they’d contain buried treasure. At the age of seventeen, Villiers went to Paris, to pursue a similarly fruitless task, though the treasures he sought to unearth were of the imagination. He became a poet and, once the wealthy aunt who supported him died in 1871, spent most of the rest of his life in poverty. (He died in 1889.) During the time he worked on Axël (as well as other works — his Contes Cruels are his most-read work), he passed from Catholicism to Occultism and back to Catholicism again, a movement tracked by the play’s many renunciations: of Catholicism, materialism, Occultism, then life itself. He did achieve some success towards the end of the 19th century, as poetic and artistic Symbolism came into fashion, but by this time his health was failing. On his death-bed, he planned a legal case against God for taking away his life before he could finish his work.

Detail of one of Gustave Moreau’s many Salomés

Axël is a play more to be read than performed. (When it was performed, it was about five hours in length. Some of the speeches are very static and go on for pages.) It might have looked fabulous had it been set-designed by Gustave Moreau — certainly the ending would have, with Sara bathed in jewels like one of Moreau’s Salomés — and perhaps could have been twinned, in a buttock-numbing double bill, with Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, another archetypal Symbolist drama.

Its series of renunciations (the acts are titled “The Religious World”, “The Tragic World”, “The Occult World”, “The Passional World”, after what each rejects) remind me of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which certainly has Symbolist affinities. But Axël ends merely in death, a final renunciation, whereas Lindsay’s work turns its last, all-encompassing world-rejection into its protagonist’s transformation and a return, with renewed purpose, to the world he’d rejected.

Another comparison is the 1970 film Performance, if Count Axël were (as his umlaut suggests him to be) a heavy metal singer in retreat, self-cosseted and no longer able to create, and with Sara in the James Fox role, only not a gangster on the lam but a nun on the run. But, again, Performance hints at some sort of transformation beyond its concluding deaths, whereas Axël doesn’t.

Axël lacks that final vitality. At times, its rejections feel like a list of its writer’s resentments and self-justifications rather than a genuine stand for truth. In her foreword, Marilyn Gaddis Rose calls it “the epitome of Symbolist drama”, and it does, at its best, feel like a Moreau painting — scintillatingly bejewelled and Romantically doomed — but, as with Moreau, the figures are too stiff to feel like real human beings, and the whole thing is ultimately too static to work as drama. It’s one of those works, I think, it’s perhaps better to know about than to read, and maybe it’s better — as with Axël and Sara’s love — as a single line and a hint of what might have been:

“As for living? our servants will do that for us.”

Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta

The Barbarian, by Frank Frazetta, from

He’s elemental. He’s ugly. His body is scarred, nicked, battered, and beaten. His face is a face that’s been punched many times; but it’s the face of a man who comes back every time. His limbs are taut-muscled and gnarly-veined like twisted tree roots; his skin has a green sheen like verdigrised copper. Barbarous, piratical, adventurous, dark-eyed, deadly and dignified, the epitome of contained power in glorious, brooding, post-melee repose, Frank Frazetta’s ‘The Barbarian’ — painted in 1965, and used as the cover for the first of Lancer Books’ Conan paperbacks — is, to me, the essence of the sword and sorcery hero.

He is, of course, surrounded by death — the ghostly skulls hanging like a desert mirage in the flaming sky behind him, and the gloopy mass of blood, bones, and corpse-parts he’s standing on — but he’s triumphant. Unlike the rather stiffly-posed Conans that came before, with their neatly cut hair, their sandals and freshly-pressed tunics, here Frazetta brings mess and dirt to fantasy painting. More than a decade before George Lucas’s idea of a ‘used future’ made Star Wars so convincing, this Conan has been through the wars.

Gustav Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, She (1905)

There’s a woman clinging to his leg — the sex to compliment the icky-sticky death, because this is a male fantasy — but I don’t think she’s submissive. She’s holding onto his leg with what seems to me (I may be wrong — there is a chain in the background) to be genuine affection, as if to say, ‘This man’s mine. Clear off.’ And I think she can back that threat up. I’m pretty sure that’s her axe sticking out of the ground behind her.

‘The Barbarian’ is a Symbolist work of art, as the decadent Symbolists (much as I love them) could never have painted it. It’s simply too vital. Just compare it with a similar (though late-Symbolist period) work, Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s ‘She’ (from 1905). Mossa’s ‘She’ is that Symbolist nightmare, the femme fatale, here presiding over a mound of dead bodies; pale and languid-eyed, crows and skulls are in her hair (and a pistol, among other weapons, hangs from her necklace) because she, unlike Frazetta’s barbarous pair, is on the side of death. Frazetta’s barbarian, and his recumbent barbarienne, are on the side of life. But, it should be noted, their life, not yours. This pair is no abstract celebration of vitality. If you get too close, you may end up as one more decoration on their mound of corpses.

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta

Egyptian Queen, by Frank Frazetta, from

‘Egyptian Queen’, painted for the cover of Eerie issue 23 in 1968 (though Frazetta modified the face soon afterwards), is perhaps the archetypal Frazettan female. Sultry and kitten-faced, she exudes the same elemental power and dignity as ‘The Barbarian’, only with a shade more (though a very gloomy shade, it has to be said) civility. Her pedestal isn’t a mound of corpses, it’s an actual pedestal (though the chipped stone edge implies battles have been fought in this chamber), and she stands between her snarling pet leopard, and her scimitar-wielding bodyguard, with regal calm. Even that marble pillar presents its flame-like lustre as an aspect of her smouldering vitality. Again, it’s a painting that encapsulates power, perhaps recently-exercised, now in brief repose; and though it may, in this case, be political rather than physical power, it very much resides in the physical figure of the queen herself — not in statutes of law or machineries of state, but in sheer, living vitality. She perhaps owes something to Hollywood — her headgear and leopard could have come from 1934’s Cleopatra — but she has none of that film-star frivolity & foot-stamping pettishness about her. This is a woman who really could rule an empire (albeit a crumbling one — but they’re the best ones to rule).

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934

Frazetta_TigerFrazetta’s greatest artistic quality is, I think, the combination of vitality and dignity he gives his figures. (And I don’t just mean his human figures, but his apes and lions and lizards, too.) His battles are always battles between equals. They’re not contests of physical prowess, they’re contests of dynamism and heroism, of sheer vitality. The un-armoured woman with only a dagger in her hand is clearly the equal, in Frazetta’s world, of that flame-eyed tiger, or that pack of wolves, or that flock of pterodactyls, because she has just as fierce a will to live. The conflict isn’t really conflict, it’s a pairing, a flashing moment of dynamic tension between equals.

It’s true, not all his paintings present women as heroically as they do the men, but in the best of them it’s vitality itself that’s the subject, heroically embodied, whether in the human body, male or female, or in troglodytes, gorillas, crocodiles or panthers. It even seethes out of the twisting roots of jungle trees, and the roiling waves of storm-tossed oceans. It’s that sense of elemental vitality I like to find in the best sword and sorcery: the feeling that the life-force (an old-fashioned term, but surely worth a non-scientific resurrection) is at its most potent when faced with death and darkness, surrounded by wildness and fierceness, and couched in the nobility of the individual, however rough and haggard, or svelte and beautiful. Frazetta’s work is, above all, exciting, living, and elemental — the essence of sword and sorcery.