Art Styles: Symbolism

"The Dreamer" symbolistic painter by Puvis de ChavannesSymbolism was part of a 19th-century movement in which art became infused with mysticism. The term Symbolism means the systematic use of symbols or pictorial conventions to express an allegorical meaning. Symbolism is an important element of most religious arts and reading symbols plays a main role in psychoanalysis.

Thus, the Symbolist painters used these symbols from mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul. Symbolist painting emphasized fantasy and imagination in their depiction of objects. The artists of the movement often used metaphors and symbols to suggest a subject and favored mystical and occult themes. Influenced by Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the movement strived to depict the symbols of ideas.

The Symbolism movement originated in France and spread across Europe. Symbolists were opposed to the visual realism of the Impressionists and serious nature of the Industrial Age. Their aim was to portray mysterious and ambiguous interpretations of emotions and ideas by using unobvious symbols. Not so much a style of art, Symbolism was more an international ideological trend. Symbolists believed that art should apprehend more absolute truths which could only be accessed indirectly. Thus, they painted scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner. They provided particular images or objects with esoteric attractions.

Symbolism in literature is distinct from Symbolism in art although the two overlapped on a number of points. In painting, Symbolism was a continuation of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition, which included such artists as Caspar David Friedrich, Fernand Khnopff and John Henry Fuseli and it was even more closely aligned with the self-consciously dark and private Decadent Movement.

Gustav Klimt symbolist painter painted The Kiss"There were several, rather dissimilar, groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, among whom Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, Félicien Rops, and Jan Toorop were numbered. Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau movement. His major works include paintings, murals, sketches, and other art objects, many of which are on display in the Vienna Secession gallery. Klimt's primary subject was the female body, and his works are marked by a frank eroticism

Symbolism in painting had an even larger geographical reach than Symbolism in poetry, reaching artists like Leon Bakst in Russia, as well as Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and Elihu Vedder, and Elle Nicolai in the United States.

Some artists, including Puvis de Chavannes, whose painting the dream is shown above, and Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, borrowed their imagery from Symbolist writings. These works would often contain grotesque and fantastical imagery such as severed heads, monsters, and spirits. In addition, their works sometimes contained references to the Bible and ancient myths.

Other Symbolists took a more traditional approach, using lines and colors to produce emotional effects. Symbolism had a significant influence on Expressionism and Surrealism, two movements which descend directly from Symbolism proper. The work of some Symbolist visual artists directly impacted the curvilinear forms of the contemporary Art Nouveau movements in Europe and Les Nabis. In their exploration of dreamlike subjects, symbolist painters are found across centuries and cultures, as they are still today; Bernard Delvaille has described René Magritte's surrealism as "Symbolism plus Freud"

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