Friday, December 16, 2016

Symbolism, 1880 - 1910

The artworks and discussion in this post 
will help you consider the significant/symbolic use of color.

Gustav Klimt
Death and Life
Oil on canvas, 1908-16

In this updating of the seventeenth-century theme of vanitas (the vanity of earthly life), Death stares across the negative space as Life reveals itself in the figures who come into being, exist, and pass out of existence; they are born, live, and die as part of the great stream of life. 

There is in this painting an emphasis on the voluptuous in both the modeling of the figures and richness of the patterns. In regard to these patterns, Klimt had been influenced by Japanese art, Minoan art, and the Byzantine mosaics he had seen at Ravenna. 

There is tension between the flat, elegant, glittering pattern and the more academic treatment of the bodies - between abstraction and representation. The decorative schema locks the figures in place and counteracts their existence as physical beings. Rather, they serve as symbols for states of being. 

It has been pointed out that Klimt offers a note of hope; instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, his human beings seem to disregard it. Klimt himself was approaching death, and perhaps the passive quality of this work is emblematic of his being resigned to that fact. 

The painting also reflects the time and ideas of Sigmund Freud who was also from Vienna, and who identified the main motivating actors of the human psyche to be eros (the sexual instinct for the purpose of the continuation of life) and thanatos (the death instinct for the purpose of ending the anxieties of life). Thus, not only did Klimt help advance Symbolism from its more traditional style, as evidenced in the work of Moreau, but he also pushed the boundaries of subject matter by incorporating such controversial and avant-garde themes as were circulating in the work of Freud.

Edvard Munch
The Dance of Life
Oil on canvas, 1899-1900

Munch presents the three stages of woman (all portraits of his lover Tulla Larsen): the virgin symbolized by white, the carnal woman of experience in red, and the aged, satanic woman in black. 

The sea is the beyond, eternity, the edge of life into the vast unknown, and finally, death. The dance is therefore the playing out of earthly life and the life of the senses before death, and for the time being, at least, keeps death at bay. 

In the background a lone, female figure stands in front of the Freudian male phallic symbol of the setting sun's reflection. Multiple male figures hover about another female figure in white (or perhaps the same one at a different moment). 

In the right middle ground, a male figure grabs lustily at his partner who leans away from him. This male figure has been identified as a caricature of the playwright Gunnar Heiberg, who had introduced Munch to Larsen and of whom he was jealous. In the foreground a couple - Larsen and Munch, himself - is physically proximate, in fact symbolically entwined through the shapes of the lower parts of their bodies. Their faces, however, indicate their separation from each other. The figures seem locked in the composition despite the fact that they are supposed to be participating in the movement of a dance. Munch was influenced by the pessimistic and fatalistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Indeed, the couple's fate is sealed: they never married, nor did they procreate. The Dance of Life is thus also a dance of death. In this, as well as his other works, Munch was amongst the first to iterate, and through such direct means, the modern theme of alienation and isolation that fascinated so many writers and artists of the ensuing century.

Odilon Redon
The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity 
Lithograph, 1882

Although Edgar Allan Poe had been dead for 33 years at the time of Redon's lithograph and both Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé had translated his writings between 1852 and 1872, this is not an illustrated narrative of Poe's work; instead, it is parallel to it in its evocation of the macabre world of the writer. 

The single eye - the all-seeing eye of God - is an old symbol, but is here transformed. The large scale of the eye is the symbol of the spirit rising up out of the dead matter of the swamp. It is a physical organ that looks upward toward the divine, taking with it the dead skull. 

The aura of light surrounding the main image helps express the idea of the supernatural, as does the nebulous space. The work evokes a sense of mystery within a dream world. However, Redon's works should not be confused with Surrealism, for they are meant to create a coherent, specific idea - the head as the origin of the imagination and the spirit lodged in matter.

Jan Toorop
The Three Brides
Drawing (black chalk, tinted), 1893

The artist sets up an allegory of the three states of the soul, consisting of the bride dedicated to Christ, the bride dedicated to earthly love, and the satanic bride who appears to be Egyptian - adorned with a necklace of small skulls and grasping a small snake. 

The group is surrounded by handmaidens and some additional obvious symbols: lilies, roses, and a bowl of blood symbolizing the purity of the Passion. The bed of thorns denotes the pains of existence. The bells hang from a nailed figure, and the flowing rhythms are symbolic of the sound of bells, with the artist attempting to depict another one of the senses. These linear rhythms proliferating in the background derive from the field of English book illustration. 

The whole effect is pale and monochrome.

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