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An attempt to paint the soul

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Symbolism (фр. Symbolisme) is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-80s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the XІX-XX centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if the author came to quiet despair, but was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.

The main idea of this art movement can be described as «dreams instead of reality.» 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 viewers an experience of truth, beauty, or the idea beyond the material realm.

Symbolism is a paradox: it relies on an emphasis on material form (decorative patterns in painting) as the vehicle for transcending the material or empirical world. The paintings of the Symbolists are completely made of such forms that appeal to the subconscious.

Symbols, symbols, symbols...

Paul Gauguin's painting «The Yellow Christ», considered to be one of the key works of Symbolism in painting, shows the crucifixion of Christ as Breton women are gathered in prayer. The three women under the cross are sad but rather purely ritualistically. And pay attention to Christ’s face — how quiet and pacified it is.
Even today this is a controversial canvas. Gauguin broke from the traditional historical views of Christ’s crucifixion to create this symbolic piece of art. This picture is filled with symbols. The allegorical and mysterious is inherent to it. Each symbol expresses ideas to which a person comes intuitively, unconsciously. Colors and technique only supplements and emphasizes the intended meaning.

Gauguin, trying to understand how the peasants perceive the exceptional phenomenon of Christ, represents him as the object of their perception — as a kind of a «yellow plant» or even fruit of life ready to be harvested like everything around him. In the spirit of the country life worldview is based on observation of the cycles of nature’s «dying» and «resurrecting» according to the circulation of seasons… Nature with its incredible fertility is also a kind of goddess sacrificing herself for the sake of us. We harvest Christ’s self-sacrifice as we harvest nature’s fertility and generosity. What nature does for our body, Christ does for our soul, and for the sake of the continuation of our life as specie."

Midway between the angel and the beast, between Synthetism and Primitivism, Gauguin anticipates the importance and gravity of the great human and artistic adventure he is preparing to experience.

For example, «Wounded angel», painted by the Finnish artist Hugo Simberg, speaks to us in many ways — there are as many interpretations as there are viewers. Simberg himself declined to offer any deconstruction, suggesting that the viewers draw their own conclusions. This painting is one of the most beloved works of Finnish art and northern symbolism.

It is important not to mistake

Symbolism intersects with Art Nouveau in many ways. The principal difference is that Art Nouveau is a decorative and applied style with clear rules and features, symbolism is a much broader concept. If in Art Nouveau the main thing is to see, in symbolism — to feel. It has more metaphors, allegory.
And basically, the style was formed throughout the history of mankind, because the symbols were always there. For example, a halo on icons is a symbol of holiness, a dove is an international symbol of peace.
Symbolism is always a mystery, a desire to answer eternal questions. As Leon Trotsky said, it is «the desire to forget yourself, to be on the other side of good and evil.»

Famous Symbolists

Paul Gauguin, Mikhail Vrubel, Fernand Khnopff, Jean Delville, Hugo Simberg.
Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel. The Swan Princess

Famous paintings of symbolism

— Mikhail Vrubel — «The Swan Princess» (1900) — based on the opera «The Tale of Tsar Sultan» by Rimsky-Korsakov, which was based on the fairytale of the same name by Pushkin. The part of the Swan Princess was performed by his wife, she also posed for the painting.

— Paul Gauguin «Yellow Christ» (1889). Together with The Green Christ, it is considered to be one of the key works of Symbolism in painting.

 — Hugo Simberg — «Wounded angel» (1903). This painting is one of the most beloved works of northern symbolism, and is often used to illustrate books, posters, and designs.

You are an expert, if:

you consider Vasnetsov’s painting «Ivan Tsarevich on the Grey Wolf» rather Art nouveau art than symbolism. It is ornate, decorative, but has no symbols that everyone understands.

You are a layman, if:

you do not see the difference between symbolism and surrealism. Surrealism distorts reality, there is no logic, the work of the Symbolists look quite realistic — they’re just from another, other-worldly reality. They look as if someone has opened the door between the world of dreams and everyday life.

Not symbolic money

— According to various experts, the «Yellow Christ» Paul Gauguin is estimated at 17−25 million dollars. The painting is kept in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, New York).
— The work of Sergei Sudeikin «Georgian cabaret, Tiflis» (1919), in 2005 was sold at Sotheby’s for almost 300 thousand dollars. Sudeikin is a member of the «Blue Rose»: a union of Russian Symbolists. Their first exhibition, «The Scarlet Rose», was held in 1904 in Saratov. Three years later they merged into the «Blue Rose». Choosing the name, the artists relied on the work «Blue Flower» — a symbol of an unattainable ideal, which was used by the German writer Novalis.

What’s the story!

There is a French board game «Dixit» on the imagination. Illustrations to her were created by the artist Mari Cardua, and they all are quite symbolic. This game is an excellent training for understanding this style.

Artists mentioned in the article
Paul Gauguin
Biography • Artworks
Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel
Biography • Artworks
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