Emerging in the 1880s, Symbolism began as a response to the technological changes happening in the XIX century and the increasing materialism of the people. With an emphasis on a romantic view of the imagination, Symbolists would intuitively search an interior view, so to represent feelings and ideas, as opposed to representing the material world. These artists discard objectivity, as well as natural and realistic representations in their art, making this movement more than just a change of style, but a change of artistic concept.
The painters developed an idea, first given by Eugene Delacroix, of using color as an element for expression, not just for description. This means that Symbolists would use strong colors, not necessarily literal colors of things, to symbolize emotions and thoughts. The term was given by the French poet and art critic Jean Moréas in 1886. He writes the Symbolism Manifest for the journal Le Figaro, explaining how these artists express their most profound emotions in a sensorial way.
This group of artists was drawn to the folklore of the peasants and their religious devotion. They would experiment different representations of their memories and dreams, mixing the real world with the imagination. The most vital artists of this period were: Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Paul Serusier. The painting The Buckwheat Harvest by Bernard shows his interest in the rural lifestyle that was detached from the consumerism of the city life. He was able to give a supernatural vibe by using red and orange tonalities.
Gauguin has a more abstract vision in his paintings, as he believed art is a summary of nature, interpreted by the artist and his experiences. After participating in the last six Impressionist exhibitions, in 1886 he decides to work on a more individual style, leading him to work with color in an entirely different way than his colleagues. Like many other Symbolists, Gauguin despised materialism and decided to leave the now corrupted Paris, going to a small village of Pont-Aveu. He would advocate that an artists’ work should come more from the imagination than just observation, and gave more significance to the emotional reaction than the intellectual.
This new interest in the single country and religious life was shown in Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, a symbolic and spiritual painting showing women and their vision after listening to the speech. Gauguin uses pure and flat colors with black outlines, a dramatic composition to create a painting that stood out from the rest of its time. There is a clear separation in this picture, the women on the bottom left, representing the real world, and the top right with intense colors representing their imagination. The use of an unusual composition and vast areas of pure color are partly influenced by the Japanese prints, something that Gauguin learned about on his visit to Vincent van Gogh.
The Symbolists would vary in style in the sense that some artists would paint with delicate brush strokes and bright tonalities, while others would incorporate significant areas of pure color. Just as some worked with more detail, opposed to crudely simple and almost childlike representations. What these artists did have in common was the feeling of impotence, melancholy, and despair being portrayed. The images were intense and sometimes spiritual, and the themes usually had to do with dreams, nightmares, death, and religion. These ideas can be seen in Odilon Redon’s painting of a green creature emerging from a giant snake, called The Green Death, a depiction of subconscious illusions – an anticipation of what was later part of the Surrealism movement.
Pablo Picasso adopts Symbolism during his training, in a phase called Picasso’s Blue Period, influenced by the suicide of a friend. A famous artwork from this period is the dream-like, Old Guitarist. His guitar is the only element that does not represent tonalities of blue. Picasso uses unnatural colors to transmit emotion. In 1893, Edvard Munch started a series of works created to explore the different mental and psychological states, called The Frieze of Life, which includes the painting The Scream. This same piece was repeated many times by Munch but in different media, such as lithography and pastels. Another artist to dwell in the Symbolist movement was Gustav Klimt, as he shocked the community with Nuda Veritas and its sexual symbolism. He also paints The Tree of Life, a more spiritual piece that has many interpretations, like the connection between heaven and earth. Klimt is also part of the Art Nouveau movement.