Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology / Edition 1

Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology / Edition 1

by Henri Dorra
ISBN-10:
0520077687
ISBN-13:
9780520077683
Pub. Date:
09/08/1995
Publisher:
University of California Press

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Overview

Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology / Edition 1


Henri Dorra, in his comprehensive new book, presents the development and the aesthetic theories of the symbolist movement in art and literature. Included are writings (many never before translated or reprinted) by artists, designers, architects, and critics, along with Dorra's learned commentary. Fifty photographs of symbolist works complement his encyclopedic coverage.

Dorra traces symbolism and its roots from artist to artist and critic to critic from the 1860s to the early twentieth century. The decorative arts and architecture are examined as well as painting and sculpture. The Arts and Crafts movement, art nouveau, the work of Eiffel in France and Sullivan in the United States are all well represented.

The close relations between symbolist poets and artists are reflected in the chapter on literary developments. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé are here, but so, too, are writers less well-known. A section on the Post-Impressionists and the "Artists of the Soul" rounds out Dorra's rich and varied text, and his epilogue lays the groundwork for what was to follow symbolism.

Dorra beautifully integrates the different aesthetic branches of symbolism, the different media and national variations, without ever losing sight of the whole. The historical context provided makes this a particularly appealing collection for students and scholars of art history and literature, as well as for anyone interested in the evolution of symbolism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520077683
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/08/1995
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 396
Sales rank: 963,918
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Henri Dorra is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of numerous books and articles on art and art criticism.

Read an Excerpt

Symbolist Art Theories

A Critical Anthology
By Henri Dorra

University of California Press

Copyright © 1995 Henri Dorra
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07768-7


Chapter One

Hand and Soul (1850) On His Beata Beatrix (1871)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The British painter-poet Rossetti (1828-1882), along with the artists William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, was one of the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in September 1848. (Ford Madox Brown shared their ideals but did not officially join them.) According to Hunt, Rossetti at one point proposed Early Christians as a name for the brethren, one that would have been appropriate, given their dedication to ideals like those of the Nazarenes, young German artists who had studied together at the Vienna Art Academy and had moved to Rome in 1810. The leading artists among the Nazarenes were Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, and, eventually, Peter Cornelius. Devout Catholics and Protestants, they were set on reviving the abstraction-the stress on pure line, simplified surface, and intense color-as well as the iconography and the mysticism of what was then loosely called primitive, or early Christian, or pre-Raphaelite art, whose principal luminaries, in their eyes, were Dürer, Fra Angelico, and even Raphael. They also rightly claimed that their careful linear rendering of detail, reminiscent of Dürer, brought their art closer to nature than that of their academic instructors.

The influence of the Nazarenes on the British Pre-Raphaelites is well established; the early work of the British artists was, in many cases, similarly devout and characterized by roughly similar stylistic and iconographic interests. Ironically, John Ruskin stressed the "naturalism" of the young men's work, praising its "perfect truth, power and finish"; he added that "as studies both of drapery and of every minor detail, there has been nothing so earnest and so complete as these pictures since the days of Albert Dürer." The young artists themselves took up the "naturalist" label with some alacrity, as evinced by the subtitle of the short-lived periodical they launched in 1850: The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art.

Ruskin himself had become fully attuned to the aesthetics of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. He had been influenced by works on Christian art from the earliest times that reflected Nazarene attitudes, as well as by the fourteenth-century frescoes of the Campo Santo in Pisa and by much of the medieval art he saw in Florence. Ruskin, however, was so smitten by the cult of direct observation that he acknowledged the Pre- Raphaelites' fondness for apparition-like imagery only in 1878: "One of the most curious, yet the most common deficiency in the modern contemplative mind [is] that these phenomena of true imagination are yet no less real, and often more vivid than the phenomena of matter." He nevertheless required that "such objects from imagination must not be prettified."

Delayed though it was, Ruskin's admission appeared to justify the religious tone of both early and later Pre-Raphaelite work and the Neoplatonic awareness that became increasingly pronounced in Rossetti's work-it was to affect the work of the other Pre-Raphaelites too-that the soul alone is real.

Hand and Soul

By December 21, 1849, when Rossetti wrote "Hand and Soul," which was published in the first issue of the Germ, in January 1850, he had already produced the paintings that adhered most faithfully to Nazarene ideals. The manuscript, with its unmistakable Neoplatonic overtones, presages a major development in his work and that of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites in the 1850s.

In the tale, the artistic and religious fervor of the imaginary young medieval painter Chiaro dell'Erma of Arezzo is symbolized by a Beatrice-like "mistress-his mystical lady, now hardly in her ninth year." The situation is reminiscent of Dante's first sight of his own elusive Beatrice and suggests an acceptance of Dante's Neoplatonic belief in the parallelism between the highest spiritual ideals and the purest love that transcends all material contingencies, even death.

Chiaro undergoes a spiritual crisis, wondering whether he has not mistaken "the worship of beauty" for "faith" in the course of his short yet successful artistic career. Henceforth he would "put his hand to no works but only to such as had for their end the presentment of some moral greatness that should impress the beholder; and, in doing this, he did not choose for his medium the action and passion of human life, but cold symbolism and abstract impersonation." The reference was unquestionably to the Nazarene moral, religious, and even stylistic ideals.

The results of Chiaro's new endeavors are disappointing and he becomes despondent. He is awed by the visit of a mystic lady, none other than "the fair woman, that was his soul.... [H]er hair [was] the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams." His soul urges him: "Paint me thus, as I am, to know me: weak, as I am, and in the weeds of this time." The text thus reasserts romantic individualism and subjectivity.

The soul also reminds Chiaro that art does not necessarily have to be a "presentment of some moral greatness that should impress the beholder," a conduit, that is, for religious and moral intimations. The statement is tantamount to a rejection of strictly Nazarene ideals and a tilt toward the romantics' notion of art for art's sake.

Perhaps even more important, the artist's soul urges him in humility to partake of the communal soul she refers to as "man" and so to accomplish his task as an artist: "Serve man with God," achieving meaningful communication at the soul-to-soul level, the physical envelope being relegated to the role of a symbol.

In his artistic program Rossetti endeavored to perceive other souls through his own, so to speak-projecting his own temperament and aspirations onto his models, becoming in the process a paragon of subjectivity. He was also indulging in an elaborate play of associations, for at diverse times in his career, and sometimes simultaneously, he was "communing" with the souls of a variety of feminine types-from those of seductive sinners and beguiling witches to those of beatific Beatrices.

Whatever their individual psychology, Rossetti's figures are always impassive and detached in their expressions and attitudes; their angelic mien verges on the hermaphroditic, echoing a Neoplatonic spirituality. His propensity, furthermore, for seeing his own soul through the souls of others and his ability to capture the variety of resulting effects show an aptitude for dédoublement.

Rossetti renders his figures in evocative, graceful linear patterns and arrangements of fairly intense hues that hark back to the Florentine quattrocento and at the same time reveal an understanding of musicality. These remained attributes of Pre-Raphaelitism and affected later developments throughout Europe and the United States.

"I am an image, Chiaro, of thine own soul within thee. See me, and know me as I am. Thou sayest that fame failed thee, and faith failed thee; but because at least thou hast not laid thy life unto riches, therefore though thus late, I am suffered to come into thy knowledge. Fame sufficed not, for that thou didst seek fame: seek thine own conscience (not thy mind's conscience, but thine heart's), and all shall approve and suffice....

"Thou hast said... that faith failed thee. This cannot be. Either thou hadst it not, or thou hast it. But who bade thee strike the point betwixt love and faith? Wouldst thou sift the warm breeze from the sun that quickens it? Who bade thee turn upon God and say: 'Behold, my offering is of earth, and not worthy: Thy fire comes not upon it; therefore, though I slay not my brother whom Thou acceptest, I will depart before Thou smite me.' Why shouldst thou rise up and tell God He is not content? Had He, of His warrant, certified so to thee? Be not nice to seek out division; but possess thy love in sufficiency: assuredly this is faith, for the heart must believe first. What He hath set in thine heart to do, that do thou; and even though thou do it without thought of Him, it shall be well done; it is this sacrifice that He asketh of thee, and His flame is upon it for a sign. Think not of Him; but of His love and thy love. For God is no morbid exactor: He hath no hand to bow beneath, nor a foot, that thou shouldst kiss it."

And Chiaro held silence, and wept into her hair which covered his face; and the salt tears that he shed ran through her hair upon his lips; and he tasted the bitterness of shame.

Then the fair woman, that was his soul, spoke again to him, saying:

"And for this thy last purpose, and for those unprofitable truths of thy teaching,-thine heart hath already put them away, and it needs not that I lay my bidding upon thee. How is it that thou, a man, wouldst say coldly to the mind what God hath said to the heart warmly? Thy will was honest and wholesome; but look well lest this also be folly,-to say, 'I, in doing this, do strengthen God among men.' When at any time hath He cried unto thee, saying, 'My son lend Me thy shoulder, for I fall'? Deemest thou that the men who enter God's temple in malice, to the provoking of blood, and neither for His love nor for His wrath will abate their purpose,-shall afterwards stand, with thee in the porch midway between Him and themselves, to give ear unto thy thin voice, which merely the fall of their visors can drown, and to see thy hands, stretched feebly, tremble among their swords? Give thou to God no more than he asketh of thee; but to man also, that which is man's. In all that thou doest, work from thine own heart, simply; for his heart is as thine, when thine is wise and humble; and he shall have understanding of thee. One drop of rain is as another, and the sun's prism in all: and shalt thou not be as he, whose lives are the breath of One? Only by making thyself his equal can he learn to hold communion with thee, and at last own thee above him. Not till thou lean over the water shalt thou see thine image therein: stand erect, and it shall slope from thy feet and be lost. Know that there is but this means whereby thou mayst serve God with man:-Set thine hand and thy soul to serve man with God."

And when she that spoke had said these words within Chiaro's spirit, she left his side quietly, and stood up as he had first seen her: with her fingers laid together, and her eyes steadfast, and with the breadth of her long dress covering her feet on the floor. And, speaking again, she said:

"Chiaro, servant of God, take now thine Art unto thee, and paint me thus, as I am, to know me: weak, as I am, and in the weeds of this time; only with eyes which seek out labour, and with a faith, not learned, yet jealous of prayer. Do this; so shall thy soul stand before thee always, and perplex thee no more...."

On His Beata Beatrix

In few of Rossetti's works is the Neoplatonic interaction between souls more complex or more effectively presented than in Beata Beatrix, "Blessed Beatrice" (Fig. 3); Rossetti began preparations for it before the suicide in 1862 of Elizabeth Siddal, whose portrait it is. Originally a milliner's assistant, she became his model and mistress and later developed slight talents as a poet and painter. Besides being prone to fits of deep depression and anger, she was tubercular and increasingly addicted to pain-killing drugs. Only when her health took a serious turn for the worse, in 1862, did Rossetti marry her. He worked on the portrait in earnest from 1864 through 1870.

Rossetti's text, in combination with the picture, confronts us with complex associations. The morbid-looking Beatrice-Elizabeth Siddal is caught "under the resemblance of a trance," already absorbed in the "consciousness of a new world" she is about to enter as she sheds material ties to become pure spirit. The figures of Dante-Rossetti and Love in the background, for their part, are even less substantial, although still in the streets of Florence and therefore of this world. Conscious as they are of Beatrice's presence, they are nonetheless visions having a vision.

The relationship becomes even more complex when one realizes that, following the advice received by Chiaro dell'Erma, Beatrice-Elizabeth is, in part at least, Rossetti's soul.25 As his sister Christina put it in her sonnet of December 1856, "In an Artist's Studio," he repeated some of his models' features with monomaniacal insistence, as if each embodied some aspects of his inner life-a highly subjective approach, and one implying an element of dédoublement:

One face looks out from all his canvases,.................................... Not as she is, but as when hope shone bright Not as she is, but as she fills his dream. Not all of Rossetti's mature compositions are as complex, but most consist of an elaborate counterpoint of material and spiritual, real and imaginary, wholesome and morbid, conscious and oneiric. What is more, Rossetti seemed to take much greater delight in the sheer play of associations, and all the emotions they evoke, than in any moral or religious consideration.

Touches of abstraction remain in graceful linear patterns and an arrangement of fairly intense hues. The precise graceful outlines of lips, nostrils, and hands no less than the folds of the drapery and its definite, contrasting hues bring to mind the Florentine quattrocento. But on the whole, the painting is characterized by the looser, more vaporous painting technique of Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelites after the 1860s. With its spectral figures and Beatrice-Elizabeth's somnambulistic attitude, it seems intended to elicit dream-like associations.

The excerpt that follows is from Rossetti's letter to the picture's first owner, the Hon. Mrs. Cowper-Temple, on March 26, 1871. It is reproduced from the original in The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (MA 1650[3]).

You are well acquainted with Dante's Vita Nuova which [the picture] illustrates, embodying symbolically the death of Beatrice as treated in that work. It must of course be remembered, in looking at the picture, that it is not intended at all to represent Death, but to render it under the semblance of a trance, in which Beatrice, seated at the balcony overlooking the city, is suddenly rapt from Earth to Heaven. You will remember how much Dante dwells on the desolation of the city in connection with the incident of her death, and for this reason I have introduced it as my background, and made the figures of Dante and love passing through the street, and gazing ominously on one another, conscious of the event; whilst the bird, a messenger of death, drops the poppy between the hands of Beatrice. She, through her shut lids, is conscious of a new world, as expressed in the last words of the Vita Nuova.

Continues...


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