Venture deep into the hinterlands of modern art history, and you come across the artistic movement of the 1880s and 1890s known as Symbolism. An international, diffuse, idealist, and mystical reaction to the naturalism of the 1860s and 1870s, Symbolism is usually presented as a detour or more likely a dead-end backwater for the losers and losing ideas of progressive modern art. “Whereas naturalism finds support in the French philosophy of Comte and Littré,” wrote the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, “Symbolism finds it in the German philosophy of Kant and Fichte.” Academics have long dismissed Symbolism as conservative. Even in the 1890s, Symbolism was criticized for its elitism and traditionalism. Julien Leclercq, a friend of Paul Gauguin, complained of “false mysticism and facile symbols.” Yet a little more than a hundred years ago, all roads led to Symbolism. Today, Symbolism is the good art of bad ideas that people rarely know or otherwise choose to ignore. But I have come to wonder if Symbolism, an art of idealistic aspirations and impure thoughts, may lead us through the lost roads of our own fin-de-siècle. For me, against my own enlightened sensibilities of how modern art is supposed to look, Symbolism has taken on a power to inspire.

In our museums, Symbolism often occupies the last room of the stuffy nineteenth-century wing, while French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism bridge the divide to Cubism and the clean lines of the twentieth-century collection. So it came as a surprise when, at the Edvard Munch show at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, I felt an unexpected connection to Munch’s Symbolist work. I started my review in the March 2006 New Criterion this way: “Once upon a time modern art had a third dimension: a mood-axis. In 1890s Europe, Symbolism plumbed the depths of myth and the macabre in order to dive beneath the surfaces of Impressionism.”

In a street scene like the famous Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), Munch did not paint portraits. In the death-stares of the crowd, he painted a crisis. This crisis manifested itself both in the need to escape the realities of urban life through a mystical-pictorial ideal, and in the pessimism that this ideal might be attained. In its subject matter, the painting is an illustration of feeling. In its quivering surface, it is anxiety revealed. This double life is embodied in two figures. One is a dark shadow walking to the right against the human tide—perhaps a stand-in for the artist. The second is the viewer before the canvas, confronted by a stampede of figures. The perspective is such that the viewer gazes slightly over the masses. The next moments are frozen in uncertainty: Will the shadowy artist-figure reveal himself? Will the viewer rise above the reality of the street or be crushed down into it?

In his landmark study of Symbolism published posthumously in 1979, Robert Goldwater noted that Munch put “the meaning of his pictures into design and colour, and into the stance and gesture of the whole human body, whose pose and contour flowed and fused with a larger composition that gave direct expression to the mood and substance of the theme.” The Norwegian painter Christian Krohg similarly wrote: “Munch is the only one, the first one to turn to idealism, who dares to subordinate Nature, his model, to the mood.”

In the harmonic contours of his color and line, and the anxiety of his subject matter, Munch used the material of paint to depict an immaterial third dimension: an axis of heightened emotion that at MOMA spread out over the pressed, dried petals of the museum’s twentieth-century collection. As the Norwegian poet Sigbjorn Obstfelder wrote in 1892: “Munch sees … the branches of trees in waves, women’s hair and women’s bodies in waves … he feels colors and he feels in colors … he sees sorrow and cries and worry and decay. He does not see yellow and red and blue and violet.”

The feeling I found looking at Munch’s work brought me back half a decade to my graduate student days at Brown. Surrounded by the dreariness of academic life, here I fell under the brief advisement of an under-recognized professor of modern art named Kermit Champa. I wrote about Champa for The New Criterion in September 2004, at the time of his death. The year before I arrived at Brown, Champa held a graduate seminar that is still spoken about in hushed tones among the faithful. As part of his instruction on Theosophy and the occult, Champa hired a spiritual medium, a real-life soothsayer, to join the class. One day, with the lights dimmed, one by one, and twice around the room, he and his students made inquiries through her into the great beyond.

That a serious professor of art history would engage in questionable spiritual practices must reveal something about his understanding of the past. What could he have been channeling, I wondered, if not the same mystery he dedicated his career to uncovering: a secret history of modern art.

Professor Champa started a generation of students, myself included, down a path of art history that snakes through the more unseemly precincts of modern art. He led us not to politics or theory or even form alone, but to musicality and dreams, Satanism and the occult, “worry and decay.” In 1886, Gustave Kahn wrote that the purpose of Symbolism “is to objectify the subjective (the exteriorization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament).” For a brief moment, this anti-naturalistic, idealist notion with strange artistic results infected everything from poets to novelists to print-makers to critics, before dissipating into the ether—an art-world Andromeda Strain mutated into benign form, settling down into Surrealism, abstraction, popular culture, and even contemporary art.

The contagion tracks back to Charles Baudelaire, the poet and critic who “cultivated … hysteria with delight and terror.” In his Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, Henri Dorra identifies Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondences” of 1857, from Les Fleurs du mal, “as the preliminary manifesto of the French symbolist movement” for both its occult allusions and sensory cross-connections. Here is how Richard Wilbur translated the second stanza of that famous poem: “Like dwindling echoes gathered far away/ Into a deep and thronging unison/ Huge as the night or as the light of day,/ All scents and sounds and colors meet as one.” Baudelaire drew his occult associations from the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the poet Heinrich Heine, whom he quoted in his Salon review of 1846: “In artistic matters I am a supernaturalist. I believe that the artist cannot find in nature all his types, for the most remarkable are revealed to him in his soul, as is the innate symbolism of innate ideas, and at the same time.”

Rodolphe Rapetti, who published an excellent, illustrated survey of Symbolism just this year, takes note of Baudelaire’s importance to the movement: “In Symbolism, the sound-and-color theory that Baudelaire developed in ‘Correspondences’ became the basis for a quest for pictorial unity.” In 1888, Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin were the first Symbolist artists to exploit the Baudelairian connections of color and sound through the development of Cloisonism, a style of painting that divided the canvas into color-rich regions. The visual musicality in their Breton women became a cornerstone for formalist abstraction. As Goldwater notes in Symbolism: “Gauguin’s formally expressive Symbolism, because it maintains its distance from reality, lays the groundwork for even greater stylization and, eventually, abstraction.”

No contention there. But Goldwater’s statement, though brilliant, was still partial to materialist form and ignored Symbolism’s more mystical influences over early abstract art. It is easy to see why. Just as Cloisonist Symbolism was experimenting with correspondences of color and music, a spiritual movement of dubious origin was underway at the end of the nineteenth century to unite science and religion through mystical experiments into the occult.

Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and soon after wrote Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888). In Theosophy she sought a resolution to the conflict between science and religion, and was vastly influential. She was also an anti-Semite and a crank, bringing social Darwinism to the astral plane. Nevertheless, by tapping into occult and Symbolist currents, Blavatsky, along with her theosophist lieutenants Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, influenced post-Symbolist art—the art of the twentieth century—in unmistakable ways. Besant and Leadbeater’s little book, Thought-Forms (1901), which promised a “glimpse of forms natural to the astral or mental planes,” remains in print today through the Theosophical Publishing House. By imagining a Gounod chorus, for example, as an “oblate spheroid” of colors rising “six hundred feet” in the air, Thought-Forms brought Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” from the sublime to the ridiculous. Yet just compare Thought-Forms’s illustration of that “oblate spheroid” to one of Kandinsky’s “Compositions” of ten years later, or the writings of Leadbeater and Besant to Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art, and the influence of Theosophist ideals on abstraction is clear.

In his essay on Kandinsky published ten years ago in The New Criterion, reproduced in his new anthology The Triumph of Modernism, Hilton Kramer writes, Kandinsky’s “entire Weltanschauung, his worldview of life itself, was shaped by [Blavatsky, Besant, and Leadbeater’s] philosophy of the occult.”

In his latest book, Rapetti acknowledges this connection: “It is becoming easier to see today that abstraction as it emerged with Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, and Kupka was based on a spiritual background that draws its source from the Symbolist intellectual environment and the determination to produce an art detached from tangible reality. The heritage of Symbolism’s idealist foundations were still there, as was the link between art and spirituality.”

The late nineteenth century was soaked through with strange notions. For political, often Marxist, reasons—and out of just plain embarrassment—the twentieth century made great strides to dry them out. Roger Fry, Clive Bell, and Clement Greenberg—many of the century’s great art critics—lacked the willingness to take on modern art’s immaterial concerns. The same went for the School of Paris. “The Paris avant-garde,” writes Kramer, was “invincibly materialist in its outlook on life—still closely tied to observable sensation, and thus ineluctably earthbound in its basic character… . It was in advanced artistic circles outside of Paris—in Russia, Germany, and the Netherlands—that the new vision of the pioneer abstractionists met with the most combustible and consequential response.” Compare this statement to Greenberg’s criticism of Kandinsky from 1957 and you see the divide over abstraction’s mystical origins: “It was perhaps Kandinsky’s bad luck,” wrote Greenberg, “to have had to go through German modernism first… . He was never quite able to grasp the pictorial logic that guided the Cubist-Cézannian analysis of appearances.”

With an “analysis of appearances,” Greenberg once again located modern art along positivist lines. This is a far cry from what Gauguin wrote in 1899: “The essence of a work of [Symbolist] art, immaterial and superior, consists precisely of what is not expressed, from which lines arise implicitly, without colors or words.”

Twentieth-century art history left these “immaterial and superior” concerns for the scrap heap. Demystification was the order of the day. “Symbolism,” writes Rapetti, “appeared suspiciously passé from the politico-aesthetic perspective that many historians brought to bear on the late nineteenth century when they automatically associated the artistic avant-garde with social progress… . Its posterity was unable to offer a sufficiently powerful antidote to twentieth-century ideologies.” It also did not help that some Symbolist offshoots became dangerously intertwined with Nazism, for example through the cult of Stefan George. With its bad politics and suspicious content, the Symbolist legacy did not fare well in the new century. Even Munch, with his diabolical women, took a hit.

The anti-naturalist movement that spanned Europe at the end of the nineteenth century largely took shape in poetry, literature, criticism, and spirituality, and only later in the graphic arts. Richard Wagner’s doctrine of the “total work of art” provided a model for Symbolism’s “condensation” of artistic practices—painting, print-making, poetry, criticism—all put in the service of unlocking an artistic ideal, published in a diffuse number of small journals that could be internationally distributed. In other words, the best of them, like Odilon Redon, and I would even say Munch, were not always at their best in paint. One of the highlights of MOMA’s Munch show was not at MOMA at all. It was the offshoot exhibition of Munch prints at Scandinavia House, which was organized by the MOMA print department.

Against Gauguin’s better wishes, graphic Symbolism could never quite escape its connection to literary antecedents (including books like Thought-Forms). In its pictorial manifestation, Symbolism mainly found precursors in English Aestheticism and the mystical (again) literary practices of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—artists of the mid-nineteenth century such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. By drawing on the allegorical imagery of Gustave Moreau, Symbolism also gave history painting a means of reinvigoration. The Symbolist art that emerged under this influence, depicting a real unreality, can be found in the pagan demons of Arnold Böcklin, the “unreal ambience,” in the words of the Belgian poet Georges Rodenbach, of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the phantasmagoria of Odilon Redon, and a host of lesser artists and illustrators across Europe, all experimenting with different permutations of Symbolism, mysticism, and the styles of Art Nouveau (Goldwater’s book is unrivaled in its comparison of Symbolism to Art Nouveau).

It is worth stopping for a moment at one of the more colorful attractions of these “lesser” influences. Les Peintres de l’âme—The Painters of the Soul—derived from Puvis and Moreau a new, Continental understanding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. At the center of this group, which included Carlos Schwabe, Edmond Aman-Jean, Alexandre Séon, Alphonse Osbert, Armand Point, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Edgard Maxence, and Henri Martin, was a Parisian dandy named Joséphin Péladan—a novelist, a critic, a curator who dressed like an Assyrian king, and also something of a clown. In paintings and photographs, he stares into the great beyond with a forked beard and a bird’s nest of a haircut. He happily inhabited the boondocks of modern art. In his public pronouncements and his artistic activities, Péladan embodied the idealist, occult, Satanic, and reactionary tendencies of the Symbolist movement in the best and worse ways. He was a character out of a novel by J.-K. Huysmans.

In 1885, Péladan revived the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, a Masonic-like repository of ancient secrets. In 1890, he declared himself the Sâr, or King, and sent out a mandate, seeking to breathe “a theocratic essence into contemporary art and especially into aesthetic culture.” In 1892, Péladan established the Salon de la Rose-Croix. Carlos Schwabe designed the poster for the salon, which ran for the next six years in various incarnations. The object of the aesthetic Rose-Croix, wrote Péladan, was “to restore the cult of the IDEAL in all its splendor, with TRADITION as its base and BEAUTY as its means… . To Ruin realism, reform latin taste and create a school of idealist art.” Péladan encouraged submissions of art that dealt with “the Catholic Ideal and Mysticism. Next comes Legend, Myth, Allegory, Dream, and Paraphrase of the great poets, and finally Lyricism.” Two hundred artists, mainly international, exhibited.

Clearly, Les Peintres de l’âme did not enjoy a Gauguin-like influence over early twentieth-century art. Yet later art practices came to rely on their style of Symbolist illustration. Surrealists like Salvador Dalí updated the allegories of Moreau by supplementing mythology and religion with the unconscious. In Belgium, where Symbolism found deep roots, René Magritte followed a similar path.

Symbolism was always stronger in its literary rather than graphic forms, and poets like W. B. Yeats were drawn in by its more mystical connections. As graphic art rid itself of interest in the occult, however, popular culture took up the slack. With Wagnerian mythology, Symbolist lyrics, Pre-Raphaelite hair, and a mystical correspondence of color and sound, rock bands like Led Zeppelin brought Symbolism to the concert stage. Zeppelin’s LP cover for “Houses of the Holy,” which depicts a photo-collage of blond children climbing the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, finds antecedents in the Symbolists Hans Thoma, Léon Frédéric, and Charles Maurin.

Yet it is through the real unreality of video art, for better and often worse, that allegorical Symbolism has seen its day. Matthew Barney in particular mines the literary and specifically Rosicrucian legacy of Symbolism like a postmodern robber baron. With costumes that are directly borrowed from Rosicrucianism, and with a private mythology that even one-ups Péladan, Barney has long had this secret history of modern art all to himself. In researching the Rosicrucians, I found the visual connections between Barney’s iconography and the contemporary cult, which thrives today in many sectarian (albeit non-aesthetic) forms, to be uncanny.

Rapetti writes that “although numerous source texts … attest to the links between Symbolism and the artistic innovations that immediately followed it, mid-twentieth-century art historians, with only a few exceptions, remained strangely deaf to them, occasionally to the point of adopting an autistic silence… . The selective process behind the formalist criticism that initially sought … to insert abstract expressionism into a lineage going back to Manet, was obliged to eliminate all obstacles to the demonstration of that thesis.”

Until we come to terms with this oversight, the discussion of Symbolism will continue to be a secret history, ignored by everyone except for a few clever treasure hunters. But we don’t need another Sâr Péladan, reincarnated as the absurd Matthew Barney. What we need is another Kandinsky, or another Munch, or even another Schwabe or Fernand Khnopff (one of my favorite Symbolist artists), to take the ideas that Péladan embodied, without embarrassment, and to turn them into great art. Classical Realism, or Christian art, or re-spiritualized abstraction might play a part. One hundred twenty years ago, Péladan predicted a “new era is about to start, that of secularized … and compulsorily thoughtless art!” In this regard, Péladan was unfortunately a critic far ahead of his time.


Go to the top of the document.

  1. A version of this essay was first delivered as a slide lecture called “Painting with the Ouija Board: Symbolism Past and Present” at the New York Studio School on October 25, 2006. Go back to the text.
A new initiative for discerning readers—and our close friends. Join The New Criterion’s Supporters Circle.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 19
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now