Word 'symbolism' is complex: it raised a controversy that found different solutions:
Word 'Symbolism' comes from literary field. Jean Moreas used it for the first time in November 1886. It was at the next decade when the word was applied to arts. Paul Nurier used it to painting for the first time. He made the assert that painting should be idealist, symbolist, synthetic, subjective and ornamental.
Symbolist painters are: Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odilon Redon, who share vital and ideological attitudes inhereted from romantic tradition. Topics as subjectivism, irrationalism and antipositivism are taken from it. Artists fight for "clothing idea in a sensible form". They have access to a different world through objects and do not remain in its external appearance, but they come to supernatural.
About 1885 Europe is suffering a big change: a state of disappointment towards official positivism and scientifism is growing, and new fields -until now rejected- are going to be appreciated. A new reality beyond empirism will be discovered. Philosophers and scientists will collaborate in its birth:
He valuated painting not in order to show objects in themselves, but only in order to get access to other fields through intuition and contemplation. Schopenhauer states that smells and objects can help us to remember moments belonging to a prior age of our existence. That is why artists try to get them.
The aim to create an art independent of their moment is related to all artists in this age. They reject daily life and what it implies: mass of people, pollution, industrial activity... They hate degeneracy and feel frustration. They find in their childhood those things they cannot find in their daily present. It generates nostalgia for an idyllic world full of primitive emotions, unconscious states, irrationality...
They also share a millenarist feeling and a recovery of religious life (against positivism that glorified scientism, and also atheism). There is a new interest for christianism and different traditions: oriental religions, hermetism, exoterism...
Fateful woman is fashionable. A new union comes between Eros and Thanatos and a new link is valid for sex.
In a general way, symbolists are closer to academic tradition, though they can reject many of its ideas. A new sense of autonomy is seen in masterworks. Symbolists see themselves like poets who succeeded in approaching to literature and music liberating words from their trivial meaning.
This is not the first time that symbol is a key for painting. It is important from Renaissance and Barroque, but then they got an allegorical component that pointed to a static world of meanings stated from Antiquity. In 19th century symbol can designate traditional meanings, but it also gets an independent spirit: each symbol is understood in a particular way in subjective conciousness of public and painter. Ther is no unique meaning but a plural and individual mental image.
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