While symbols have long been used in the visual arts to intensify meaning, transmit messages and bring subjectivity to a work, Symbolism flourished as an art movement between 1885 and 1910.
Emerging in France, Symbolist art rejected both Realism and Impressionism and served to extend the private movement of Decadence and Romantic tradition of mysticism and intense emotion.
Through the effective use of line, colour and contour, the Symbolists were driven by a desire to create evocative images rather than works that were directly descriptive.
According to the movement, the connotations and concept of a work was more important than its artistic style and form. Thus, Symbolism can be regarded as an international ideological trend as a well as an art style.
Symbolism, by definition, means the systematic use of symbols or pictorial conventions to express an allegorical meaning. With Symbolism playing an important role in religious art and psychoanalysis, it can be said that Symbolist painters used mythological symbols and dream imagery to create a visual language of the soul. The symbols used are not familiar emblems from popular iconography but intensely personal, private, esoteric and ambiguous references.
Advocating the darker sides of Romanticism and Abstraction, the Symbolists showed an interest in the macabre, the mysterious and the morbid which was considered to be a phenomenon of the fin de siecle.
As they believed art should capture absolute truths that could only be accessed indirectly, Symbolists painted obscure images of nature, human activities and other elements of the real world in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner.
Noteworthy Symbolist Artists
As a trend that reached far geographically, there were several groups of Symbolist artists from all over the world.
Some of the leading figures of the movement include the French artists Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Odilon Redon, Arnold Bocklin from Switzerland, the British Edward Burne-Jones, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch and Jan Thodoor Toorop from the Netherlands.
Symbolism reached several Russian and American artists such as Mikhail Vrubel and Elihu Vedder, and the Pre-Raphaelites were also regarded as contemporaries of the early Symbolists.
The Influence of Symbolism on Other Art Movements
The work of the Symbolists directly impacted on the curvilinear forms of the contemporary Art Nouveau and Les Nabis movements and their exploration of dreamlike subjects is also seen to have acted as a precursor of the Surrealists.
Other Art Movements
- Abstract Expressionism
- Academic Art
- Art Deco
- Art Nouveau
- Conceptual Art
- Figurative Art
- Naive Art
- Pop Art
- Surrealism / Surrealist Art