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Symbolism was a late nineteenth century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts.

Precursors and origins

French Symbolism was in large part a reaction against Naturalism and Realism, movements which attempted to capture reality in its particularity. These movements invited a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams; the path to Symbolism begins with that reaction. Some writers, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, began as naturalists before moving in the direction of Symbolism; for Huysmans, this change reflected his awakening interest in religion and spirituality. Symbolist movement in literature has its roots in Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire. The esthetic was developed by Stephane Mallarm? and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 70s. During the 1880s, the esthetic was articulated through a series of manifestoes and attracted a generation of writers. Distinct from the Symbolist movement in literature, Symbolism in art represents an outgrowth of the more gothic and darker sides of Romanticism; but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, Symbolist art was static and hieratic. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images.

Symbolism as a movement

The Symbolist Manifesto

Symbolists believed that art should aim to capture more absolute truths which could only be accessed by indirect methods. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. The Symbolist manifesto (‘Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, 18 Sept 1886) was published in 1886 by Jean Mor?as. Mor?as announced that Symbolism was hostile to "plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description," and that its goal instead was to "clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form" whose "goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal": In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.

Symbolist techniques

The Symbolist poets wished to liberate techniques of versification in order to allow greater room for "fluidity", and as such were aligned with the movement towards free verse, a direction very much in evidence in the poems of Jules Laforgue. Symbolist poems sought to evoke, rather than to describe; symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet's soul. Synaesthesia was a prized experience; poets sought to identify and confound the separate senses of scent, sound, and colour. In Baudelaire's poem Correspondences which also speaks tellingly of for?ts de symboles — forests of symbols — Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants, Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies, — Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants, Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies, Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens, Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens. (There are perfumes that are fresh like the colour of babies' skins, sweet like oboes, green like meadows — And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant, having the expansiveness of infinite things, like amber, musc, benjamin, and incense, which sing of the raptures of the mind and senses.) and Rimbaud's poem Voyelles: A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles. . . (A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels. . .) — both poets seek to identify one sense experience with another. Paul Verlaine and the po?tes maudits But perhaps of the several attempts at defining the essence of Symbolism, none was more influential than Paul Verlaine's 1884 publication of a series of essays on Tristan Corbi?re, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarm?, each of whom Verlaine numbered among the po?tes maudits, "accursed poets." Verlaine argued that in their individual and very different ways, each of these hitherto neglected poets found genius a curse; it isolated them from their contemporaries, and as a result these poets were not at all concerned to avoid hermeticism and idiosyncratic writing styles. In this conception of genius and the role of the poet, Verlaine referred obliquely to the aesthetics of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, who held that the purpose of art was to provide a temporary refuge from the world of blind strife of the will.

Symbolism and philosophy

Schopenhauer's aesthetics reflected shared concerns with the Symbolist programme; they both tended to look to Art as a contemplative refuge from the world of strife and Will. From this desire for an artistic refuge from the world, the Symbolists took characteristic themes of mysticism and otherworldliness, a keen sense of mortality, and a sense of the malign power of sexuality. Mallarm?'s poem Les fen?tres ([1]) expresses all of these themes clearly. A dying man in a hospital bed, seeking escape from the pain and dreariness of his physical surroundings, turns toward his window; turns away in disgust from: . . . . l'homme ? l'?me dure Vautr? dans le bonheur, o? ses seuls app?tits Mangent, et qui s'ent?te ? chercher cette ordure Pour l'offrir ? la femme allaitant ses petits, ("the hard-souled man, wallowing in happiness, where only his appetites feed, and who insists on seeking out this filth to offer to the wife suckling his children") and in contrast, he "turns his back on life" (tourne l’?paule ? la vie) and he exclaims: Je me mire et me vois ange! Et je meurs, et j'aime — Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticit? — A rena?tre, portant mon r?ve en diad?me, Au ciel ant?rieur o? fleurit la Beaut?! ("I marvel at myself, I seem an angel! and I die, and I love --- whether the glass might be art, or mysticism --- to be reborn, bearing my dream as a diadem, under that former sky where Beauty once flourished.") The Symbolist movement has frequently been confused with Decadence. Several young writers were derisively referred to in the press as "decadent" in the mid 1880s. Jean Mor?as' manifesto was largely a response to this polemic. A few of these writers embraced the term while most avoided it. Although the esthetics of Symbolism and Decadence can be seen as overlapping in some areas, the two remain distinct.

The Symbolist literary world

A number of important literary publications were founded by Symbolists or became associated with the movement; the most important of these was Le Mercure de France, edited by Alfred Vallette, which succeeded La Pl?iade; founded in 1890, this periodical lasted until 1965. Pierre Lou?s founded La conque, a periodical whose Symbolist leanings were alluded to by Jorge Luis Borges in his story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Other Symbolist literary magazines included La Revue blanche, La Revue wagn?rienne, and La Wallonie. R?my de Gourmont and Marcel Schwob were literary critics associated with the Symbolist movement. Drama by Symbolist authors formed an important part of the repertoire of the Th??tre de l'?uvre and the Th??tre des Arts. The Symbolist and Decadent literary movements were satirized in a book of poetry called Les D?liquescences d'Ador? Floupette, published in 1885 by Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire. [2]

In other media

Symbolism in the visual arts

Symbolism in literature is distinct from Symbolism in art although the two overlapped on a number of points. There were several, rather dissimilar, groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, among whom Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Fantin-Latour, Edvard Munch, F?licien Rops, and Jan Toorop were numbered. Symbolism in painting had an even larger geographical reach than Symbolism in poetry, reaching several Russian artists, as well as figures such as Elihu Vedder in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a Symbolist in sculpture.

Symbolist influence in music

Symbolism had some influence in music as well. Many Symbolist writers and critics were early enthusiasts for the music of Richard Wagner, a fellow student of Schopenhauer. The Symbolist aesthetic had a deep impact on the works of Claude Debussy. His choices of libretti, texts, and themes come almost exclusively from the Symbolist canon: in particular, compositions such as his settings of Cinq po?mes de Baudelaire, various art songs on poems by Verlaine, the opera Pell?as et M?lisande with a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, and his unfinished sketches that illustrate two Poe stories, The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher, all indicate that Debussy was profoundly influenced by Symbolist themes and tastes. His best known work, the Pr?lude ? L'apr?s-midi d'un faune, was inspired by a poem by Mallarm?, L'apr?s-midi d'un faune. Aleksandr Scriabin's compositions are also influenced by the Symbolist aesthetic. Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire takes its text from German translations of the Symbolist poems by Albert Giraud, showing a link between German expressionism and Symbolism.

Symbolist prose fiction

Je veux boire des poisons, me perdre dans les vapeurs, dans les r?ves! "I want to drink poisons, to lose myself in mists, in dreams!" Diana, in The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert. Symbolism's cult of the static and hieratic adapted less well to narrative fiction than it did to poetry. Joris-Karl Huysmans' 1884 novel ? rebours (English title: Against the Grain) contained many themes which became associated with the Symbolist esthetic. This novel in which very little happens is a catalogue of the tastes and inner life of Des Esseintes, an eccentric, reclusive antihero. The novel was imitated by Oscar Wilde in several passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Paul Adam was the most prolific and most representative author of Symbolist novels. Les Demoiselles Goubert co-written with Jean Mor?as in 1886 is an important transitional work between Naturalism and Symbolism. Few Symbolists used this form. One exception is Gustave Kahn who published Le Roi fou in 1896. Other fiction that is sometimes considered Symbolist is the cynical misanthropic (and especially, misogynistic) tales of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly. Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote his first novels in the Symbolist vein.

Symbolist theatre

The same emphasis on an internal life of dreams and fantasies have made Symbolist theatre difficult to reconcile with more recent tastes and trends. Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's drama Axel (rev. ed. 1890) is a definitive Symbolist play; in it, two Rosicrucian aristocrats fall in love while trying to kill each other, only to agree to mutually commit suicide because nothing in life could equal their fantasies. From this play, Edmund Wilson took the title Axel's Castle for his influential study of the Symbolist aftermath in literature. Maurice Maeterlinck was another Symbolist playwright; his theatrical output includes both Pell?as and Melisande, and L'Oiseau Bleu ("The Blue Bird"), another theatrical fantasy. The later works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov have been identified as being deeply influenced by Symbolist pessimism. Under Symbolist influence, the Russian actor and director Vsevolod Meyerhold developed a balletic theory of acting in contrast to Konstantin Stanislavski's system, which focused on learning gestures and movements as a way of expressing outward emotion. Meyerhold's method was influential in early motion pictures, and especially on the works of Sergei Eisenstein.


In the English speaking world, the closest counterpart to Symbolism was Aestheticism; the Pre-Raphaelites, also, were contemporaries of the earlier Symbolists, and have much in common with them. Symbolism had a significant influence on Modernism and its traces can be seen in a number of modernist artists, including T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Hart Crane, and William Butler Yeats in the anglophone tradition and Rub?n Dar?o in Hispanic letters. The early poems of Guillaume Apollinaire have strong affinities with Symbolism. Edmund Wilson's 1931 study Axel's Castle focuses on the continuity with Symbolism and a number of important writers of the early twentieth century, with a particular focus on Yeats, Eliot, Paul Val?ry, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. Wilson concluded that the Symbolists represented a dreaming retreat into: . . .things that are dying—the whole belle-lettristic tradition of Renaissance culture perhaps, compelled to specialize more and more, more and more driven in on itself, as industrialism and democratic education have come to press it closer and closer. As the movement was losing its forward movement in France, after the turn of the twentieth century it became a major force in Russian poetry. The Russian Symbolist movement, steeped in the Eastern Orthodoxy and the religious docrines of Vladimir Solovyov, had little in common with the French movement of the same name. It was the starting point of the careers of several major poets such as Alexander Blok, Andrei Bely, and Marina Tsvetaeva. Bely's novel Petersburg (1912) is considered the greatest monument of Russian symbolist prose. The Symbolist painters were an important influence on expressionism and surrealism in painting, two movements which descend directly from Symbolism proper. The harlequins, paupers, and clowns of Pablo Picasso's "blue period" show the influence of Symbolism, and especially of Puvis de Chavannes. In Belgium, where Symbolism had penetrated deeply, so much so that it came to be thought of as a national style, the static strangeness of painters like Ren? Magritte can be seen as a direct continuation of Symbolism; Bernard Delvaille has described Magritte's surrealism as "Symbolism plus Freud". The work of some Symbolist visual artists directly impacted the curvilinear forms of art nouveau. Many early motion pictures, also, contain a good deal of Symbolist visual imagery and themes in their staging, set designs, and imagery. The films of German Expressionism owe a great deal to Symbolist imagery. The virginal "good girls" seen in the films of D. W. Griffith, and the silent movie "bad girls" portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of Symbolist imagery, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith's Intolerance. Symbolist imagery lived on longest in the horror film; as late as 1932, a horror film such as Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr shows the obvious influence of Symbolist imagery; parts of the film resemble tableau vivant re-creations of the early paintings of Edvard Munch.

Russian Symbolism

Russian Symbolism is an intellectual and artistic movement that was predominant in the Russian Empire at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Russian Symbolists represented an Eastern Orthodox branch of the 19th-century Symbolist movement in European art.

Russian Symbolist poetry


Primary influences on the movement were irrationalistic and mystical poetry and philosophy of Fyodor Tyutchev and Vladimir Solovyov, with the latter's conceipts of Godmanhood and feminine world soul. Among foreign influences the most important were German philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, French poetes maudits, Scandinavian theatre of Henrik Ibsen and Richard Wagner's operas. The movement was inaugurated by Nikolay Minsky's article The Ancient Debate (1884) and Dmitry Merezhkovsky's book On the Causes of the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature (1892). Both writers promoted extreme individualism and deified the act of creation. Merezhkovsky published a series of novels on the god-men, among whom he counted Christ, Joan of Arc, Dante, Michelangelo, Napoleon, and (later) Hitler. His wife Zinaida Gippius, now considered a second-rate poet, opened a salon in St Petersburg, which came to be known as the "headquarters of Russian decadence".

Second wave of Symbolism

By the mid-1890s, Russian Symbolism was a hollow theory without any notable practitioners. Alexander Dobrolyubov published a book of verse in 1895, just before renouncing lay poetry in favour of wanderings from one monastery to another. Another talented author, Ivan Konevskoy, died at the age of 24. It is the poet Valery Bryusov who claimed to have created, almost single-handedly, the Russian Symbolist poetry. In order to represent Symbolism as a movement of formidable following, Bryusov adopted numerous pen-names and published three volumes of his own verse entitled Russian Symbolists. Anthology (1894-95). Bryusov's mystification proved successful, for several young poets were attracted to Symbolism as the latest fashion in Russian letters. Especially popular were Konstantin Balmont, who believed in first inspiration and sometimes intentionally left his verse unrevised, and the hopelessly pessimistic Fyodor Sologub, who referred to himself as the bard of death. Although Balmont, Bryusov and other Russian Symbolists were avidly read in the capitals and provincial towns alike, by the mid-20th century their reputations faded enormously. Quite different is the case of their sire, Innokenty Annensky, at that time known primarily for his masterful translations of French Symbolists and Euripides. His definitive collection of verse, Cypress Box, was published posthumously (1909). Sometimes cited as a Slavic counterpart to the accursed poets, Annensky managed to render into Russian the essential intonations of Baudelaire and Verlaine, while the subtle music, ominous allusions, orcane vocabulary, the spell of minutely changing colours and odours were all his own. His influence on the first post-Symbolist generation of poets (Akhmatova, Gumilyov, Mandelshtam) was paramount.

Third wave of Symbolism

The first decade of the 20th century was the time when Russian Symbolism really flourished. Apart from Annensky, other elder poets started to publish their verse written in Symbolist vein. The scholar Vyacheslav Ivanov, whose interests lay in ancient poetry, returned from Italy to establish his Dyonisian club in St Petersburg. His self-proclaimed principle was to engraft "archaic Miltonic diction" to the Russian poetry. Maximilian Voloshin, also interested in ancient history, opened a poetic salon at his villa in the Crimea. Jurgis Baltru?aitis was active in Lithuania. As Symbolism gradually spread across the Empire, Moscow asserted itself as its principal centre. It was a younger generation of "professor's sons" that imparted to the imported movement its distinct national flavour. Three representatives of these Muscovite poets - Alexander Blok, Andrey Bely, and Sergey Solovyov - were all indebted to the latter's uncle, Vladimir Solovyov, who was the most famous Russian philosopher at that time. In their recondite poems, redolent of religious hymns, they worshiped Solovyov's conceipt of Eternal Womanhood under the names of Sophia/Wisdom, Pharaoh's Daughter, or the Beautiful Stranger. Most famously, Blok transformed his down-to-earth bride into a mystic image of the Fair Lady (which to the English-language reader may recall La Belle Dame sans Merci of John Keats). The city of St Petersburg, being construed as a major symbol itself, fascinated the younger Symbolists like no other. Blok's verses on the imperial capital bring to life an impressionistic picture of the city of thousand illusions, of the dark world of merchants and bourgeois which is sentenced to die. Sunrise and sunset, lightning and fire are construed by Blok and his fellow poets as metaphysical symbols of apocalyptic meaning. The Scythians and Mongols are often mentioned as symbols of future catastrophic wars. Given the eschatological layer of the Russian Symbolists, it is little wonder that some of them - including Blok, Bely, and Bryusov - accepted the Revolution as an evolutional end to the imperial period of the Russian history. Russian Symbolism essentially lost its momentum by 1910. The major poets frequently conflicted in the pages of the journals Vesy, Zolotoe runo and Pereval. Others wrestled for control of key printing houses. Although everyone admired Blok's effortless craft of melody and Bely's gift of theoretical speculation, younger poets were drawn primarily to the Guild of Poets, which distanced itself from excesses of Symbolism.

Symbolism of Alexander Blok

Alexander Blok, on all accounts one of the most important poets of the century, envisioned his poetical output as composed of three volumes. The first volume contains his early poems about the Fair Lady; its dominant colour is white. The second volume, dominated by the blue colour, comments upon impossibility to rich the ideal he craved for. The third volume, featuring his poems from pre-revolutionary years, is steeped in fiery or bloody red. In Blok's poetry, colours are essential, for they convey mystical intimations of things beyond human experience. Blue or violet is the colour of frustration, when the poet understands that his hope to see the Lady is delusive. The yellow colour of street lanterns, windows and sunsets is the colour of treason and triviality. Black hints at something terrible, dangerous but potentially capable of esoteric revelation. Russian words for yellow and black are spelled by the poet with a long O instead of YO, in order to underline "a hole inside the word". Following on the footsteps of Fyodor Tyutchev, Blok developed a complicated system of poetic symbols. In his early work, for instance, wind stands for the Fair Lady's approach, whereas morning or spring is the time when their meeting is most likely to happen. Winter and night are the evil times when the poet and his lady are far away from each other. Bog and mire stand for everyday life with no spiritual light from above.

Russian Symbolist prose

Fyodor Sologub was the first Symbolist to introduce into the Russian prose a morbid, pessimistic outlook characteristic of Fin de si?cle. His most famous novel, Petty Devil (1906), is an attempt to work out a polysemantic symbol of Evil, by turns attractive and repulsive, elusive and blatant. Later he wrote several books about an ideal world, wherein a river called Ligoy flows through a land called Oyle under a star called Mair, etc. Another Symbolist writer to comment on the life in provincial Russia was Aleksey Mikhailovich Remizov, who, drawing on the medieval Russian literature, grotesquely combined in his works dreams, reality, and pure whimsy. Andrey Bely's influence proved much more enduring. His very pen-name is a symbol, for bely is the Russian for white. In his early works, Bely strived to merge prose, poetry, and music in the so-called Symphonies in Prose. In 1910 he published a bulky volume of theoretical papers entitled Symbolism. While elaborating different aspects of the Symbolist doctrine, Bely maintained that rhythm was the most essential category for prose writer. Bely's fame rests primarily on the large novel Petersburg, first part of which having been written within 2 weeks in 1912. The novel nicely illustrates Bely's obessession with Buddhism, Symbolism, Impressionism, unorthodox narrative structures, and rhythmic polyphony. By the sheer complexity of rhythms, allusions, and plot patterns, the novel should be regarded as the most complicated in the Russian literature. Vladimir Nabokov placed it the second in his list of the greatest 20th-century novels, after Joyce's Ulysses. Each chapter is crafted to a particular rhythm and colour, with cryptic codes inserted in the text, making a translation virtually impossible. Bely's meticulous study of the prose meters was continued by the Russian Formalists and had a revolutionary impact on philology. In 1922, he published an anthroposophic novel Kotik Letayev, which attempts to trace the first glimpses of consciousness in a new-born baby. His striking reminiscences, most of them written without further revision, were published posthumously.

Symbolism in fine arts

Probably the most important Russian Symbolist painter was Mikhail Vrubel, who achieved fame with a large mosaic-like canvas Seated Demon (1890) and went mad while working on the dynamic and sinister Demon Downcast (1902). Other Symbolist painters associated with the World of Art magazine were Victor Borisov-Musatov, a follower of Puvis de Chavannes; Mikhail Nesterov, who painted religious subjects from medieval Russian history; Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, with his urbanistic phantasms, and Nicholas Roerich, whose paintings have been described as hermetic, or esoteric.

Symbolism in music and theatre

The foremost Symbolist composer was Aleksandr Scriabin who in his First Symphony praised art as a kind of religion. Le Devin Poem (1905) sought to express the evolution of the human spirit from pantheism to unity with the universe. Po?me de l'extase, first given in 1908 in New York, was accompanied by the elaborately selected colour projections on a screen. In Scriabin's synthetic performances music, poetry, dancing, colours, and scents were used so as to bring about supreme, final ecstasy. Similar ideas on the stage fusion of all arts were elaborated by Andrey Bely and Wassily Kandinsky. In the field of more traditional theatre, The Cherry Orchard and some other later Chekhov's plays, have been described as steeped in Symbolism. Nevertheless, their first production by Konstantin Stanislavsky was as realistic as possible. It is Meyerhold's production of Blok's Puppet Show (1906) that is usually cited as a high point of Symbolist theatre. Two years later, Stanislavsky himself won international acclaim when he staged in the Moscow Art Theatre L'Oiseau Bleu, the latest of Meterlinck's plays. Theory-wise, we should mention the writings of Nikolay Evreinov, who insisted that theatre is everything around us and that nature is full of theatrical conventions: e.g., desert flowers mimicking the stones; mouse feigning death in order to escape cat's claws; complicated dances of birds, etc. Theatre, per Evreinov, is a universal symbol of existence. On the other hand, the actor Mikhail Chekhov (the author's nephew), developed a particular system of Symbolist acting which still rivals the Stanislavsky system in popularity.

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