Symbolism

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

In literature, the style originates with the 1857 publication of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images The aesthetic was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated by a series of manifestos and attracted a generation of writers The name “symbolist” itself was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the Symbolists from the related Decadents of literature and of art

Distinct from, but related to, the style of literature, symbolism in art is related to the gothic component of Romanticism and Impressionism

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Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic styles which were attempts to represent reality in its gritty particularity, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal Symbolism was a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams Some writers, such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, began as naturalists before becoming symbolists; for Huysmans, this change represented his increasing interest in religion and spirituality Certain of the characteristic subjects of the Decadents represent naturalist interest in sexuality and taboo topics, but in their case this was mixed with Byronic romanticism and the world-weariness characteristic of the fin de siècle period

Symbolists believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly Thus, they wrote in a very metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto (“Le Symbolisme”) in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886 (see 1886 in poetry) The Symbolist Manifesto names Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine as the three leading poets of the movement Moréas 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”

The symbolist poets wished to liberate techniques of versification in order to allow greater room for “fluidity”, and as such were sympathetic with the trend toward free verse, as evident in the poems of Gustave Kahn and Ezra Pound Symbolist poems were attempts to evoke, rather than primarily to describe; symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet’s soul T S Eliot was influenced by the poets Jules Laforgue, Paul Valéry and Arthur Rimbaud who used the techniques of the Symbolist school, though it has also been said[by whom?] that ‘Imagism’ was the style to which both Pound and Eliot subscribed (see Pound’s Des Imagistes) Synesthesia was a prized experience[citation needed]; poets sought to identify and confound the separate senses of scent, sound, and colour

Symbolism in literature is distinct from symbolism in art although the two were similar in many aspects In painting, symbolism can be seen as a revival of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition, and was close to the self-consciously morbid and private decadent movement

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, symbolism became so popular that it came to be thought of[by whom?] as a national style: the static strangeness of painters like René Magritte can be considered as a direct continuation of symbolism The work of some symbolist visual artists, such as Jan Toorop, directly affected the curvilinear forms of art nouveau

Many early motion pictures also employ 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 cinema of D W Griffith, and the silent film “bad girls” portrayed by Theda Bara, both show the continuing influence of symbolism, as do the Babylonian scenes from Griffith’s Intolerance Symbolist imagery lived on longest in horror film: as late as 1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr showed the obvious influence of symbolist imagery; parts of the film resemble tableau vivant re-creations of the early paintings of Edvard Munch