The Symbolists

Quoted from


“(Symbolism is) A strong recoil of the modern imagination toward the past, an enormous scientific inquiry and unfamiliar passions towards a vague and still unidentified supernatural, has urged us to incarnate our dreams and even our fear before the new unknown in a strange symbolism which translates the contemporary soul as antique symbolism did for the soul of ancient times.

Only it is not our faith and our beliefs that we put forward; on the contrary, it is our doubts, our fears, our boredoms, our vices, our despair and probably our agony.” (i)

– Emile Verhaeren in 1886.


“Symbolism was an idealistic movement, created by artists discontented with their culture. The style was refined, elegant, subtle, intellectual, and elitist.

If there is one central tenet held by Symbolist artists, it is that life is fundamentally mysterious, and the artist must respect and preserve this mystery. Thus they insisted on suggestion rather than explicitness, symbols or equivalents rather than description, in both painting and poetry. Choosing music as their model, Symbolists found the creation of a mood to be as important as the transmission of information, and sought to engage the entire mind and personality of the viewer by appealing to the viewer’s emotions and unconscious mind as well as intellect. The recognition that there was a major portion of mental activity that is closed to the conscious mind confirmed the Symbolists’ conviction that there was more to life than could be explained through positivist science.”

“… Fiction and reality became deliberately blurred,  (i)

“All that we see or seem

is but a dream within a dream.”

– Edgar Allan Poe


“The image of the artist as seer or priest was basic to nineteenth century art theory. Convinced that the unconscious was the source of both creativity and occult vision, certain artists now assumed the guise of medium and hypnotist.”(i)



“Proponents of symbolist aesthetics rejected the notion that the purpose of the arts is to represent the world as it appears to one’s senses. They proposed instead to create works that would use suggestive (and often abstract) forms, images, or sounds to embody transcendent (and sometimes spiritual) ideas and would thus offer their readers, viewers, or listeners an experience of truth, beauty, or the idea beyond the material realm. Symbolism—be it in literature, music, or the visual arts—is thus characterized by a paradox: It relies on an emphasis on material form (decorative patterns in painting, repeated sounds, or arrangements of words on the page in the literary arts) as the vehicle for transcending the material or empirical world. This foregrounding of form links symbolism to the emergence of modernist abstraction in art and literature.

“Symbolism was embedded in wider cultural and political anxieties of the late nineteenth century. The dominant philosophies of positivism and Darwinism threatened to substitute empirical facts for the traditional religious explanations of the great mysteries of the world. Human activity was increasingly explained in mechanistic psychophysiological terms and human beings appeared to be less and less in control of their thoughts and behaviors. The development of capitalist economies led to an increasing commodification of daily life and an increasingly materialistic culture. Rather than situating symbolism in the rarified world of the aesthetic, scholars came to see the symbolist alternative to materialism—evocative abstraction, suggestion, mysticism, and dreamlike imagery—as an attempt to oppose the effects of materialism and capitalism.”





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