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Symbolists  
 
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The Pont-Aven School

Although Paul Gauguin defined himself as an Ideist or Synthetist artist rather than a Symbolist, he was adored by many Symbolist artists, some of whom influenced his own work. His followers formed the school of Pont-Aven in Brittany.

Among them was Charles Filiger, whose primitive, naïve style in the depiction of farm boys in Brittany and of Christ figures attests to his struggle with homosexuality and religion. His work also provides an example of Symbolist sacred or mystical art.

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Influence of Symbolism

Gauguin himself became Symbolism's chief disseminator and frequently evinced the influence of Symbolism in his own work. He achieved an astonishing subtlety and unity of feeling in The Vision after the Sermon (1884) and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897), which is at once exotic, symbolic, and philosophic.

After Gauguin left for Tahiti, a small group of artists gathered around Paul Sérusier and called themselves The Nabis (prophet in Hebrew). This group included Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Edward Vuillard.

Even Picasso flirted with Symbolism before moving on to Cubism. In this sense Symbolism is best seen as not so much a style as a thematic approach, a cult of self that led artists to produce their weirdest, most visionary paintings.

The English Aesthetic Movement

The Aesthetic movement in England paralleled many of the doctrines of French Symbolism. It too was a revolt against vulgarity and increasing industrialization. It also manifested the same longing for deeper meaning and the same idealistic temperament and drew heavily on Medieval and early Renaissance art.

Edward Burne-Jones

Edward Burne-Jones, whose outstanding body of work is radiant and harmoniously composed and reminiscent of Mantegna or Botticelli, did not subscribe to a decadent aesthetic and was happily married.

He did, however, produce many resonant images of anatomically indeterminate or androgynous figures. For example, his multiple female figures in The Golden Stairs (1880) have the musculature of beautiful adolescent boy clones. This androgynous image was considered a utopian ideal, a pre-sexual state or a union of the sexes into a kind of third sex. It was the idealized of its time.

Aubrey Beardsley

The supreme English decadent artist was Aubrey Beardsley, whose career was as brief as it was brilliant. His work is strikingly original: once seen, it is never forgotten. His illustrations of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1896), featuring ill-concealed phalli and stylized pubic hair, and of Wilde's Salome (1894), in which he caricatured Wilde's plump face in the moon, are benchmarks of witty provocation.

Beardsley's freeing of the Arabesque line almost certainly triggered the decorative excesses in Art Nouveau. His expert draftsman's skills perfectly suited the expanding medium of print.

Beardsley's personal motifs included erections and sexual fetishes for such objects as shoes, feathers, scissors, powder puffs, and curling locks of hair. He drew these objects with a frankness that seems the antithesis of realism and bourgeois Victorian values.

His nearest equivalent on the Continent was Belgian artist Félicien Rops, whom many regarded as the lowest, most vulgar of Symbolists, for his frank depiction of Satanic cults and demonic erections.

The Salon des la Rose+Croix and The Salon de XX

Among the most eccentric of French Symbolists was the self-styled Sâr ('magus' in ancient Persian) Joséphin Péladan, a man who believed hermaphroditism would save Europe from decline. He wore a dress, but kept his beard. Péladan is crucial more for the force of his public persona than for his writings or art. He was a kind of proto-hippie spin master.

In 1892 Péladan formed the Salon de la Rose+Croix, a quasi-Occult order, whose mission in art was "to ruin realism." These salons provided a public space for Symbolists, the Pont-Aven group, and the Nabis to exhibit. Péladan entrusted much of the running of the salons to Jean Delville, a neo-Platonist, whose Satan's Treasures (1895) is a typical expression of the Symbolist aesthetic: it depicts a swarm of violently enflamed naked bodies going to hell.

In Belgium, Symbolism found unique expression in the work of Fernand Khnopff, one of Péladan's favorite artists. Khnopff along with Carlos Schwabe formed a faction among Rose+Croix painters. They belonged to the Salons des XX (The Twenty).

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