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The Symbolist movement in painting and literature flourished from 1886 to 1905. It was the first self-consciously movement in Western art history. Characterized by strange mythological or mystical themes, it evinced a preoccupation with (and sometimes even celebration of) death, dreams, evil, decadence, femmes fatales, , perversity, and the occult.

The roots of the Symbolist movement were in Romanticism and it shared some features of Mannerism, while anticipating such later movements as Art Nouveau, Expressionism, and Surrealism.

The Cult of the Diva, however, with its attendant impulse, was central to the ethos of the Symbolists, who were also called Decadents--a term more or less interchangeable with homosexuality in the public mind at the end of the nineteenth-century.

Symbolism is hard to define since it embraced different media and its practitioners were highly idiosyncratic. Strictly speaking, unlike the Impressionists, Symbolists leaned more to darkness than light, judging by the recurrence of perverse, morbid, or supernatural themes.

The movement was a reaction against an increasingly industrial society and against the perceived limits of Impressionism. Symbolists differed from Academic painters in their more experimental use of paint, tone, and color and their lack of regard for socially acceptable themes.

In their work, animals were often fantasy hybrids: unicorns, chimeras, griffins, and sphinxes, with the occasional peacock or swan; and figures tended to be androgynous, cruel, or erotic.

Gustave Moreau

Symbolism's finest exemplar is French painter Gustave Moreau. His work attempted to reach beyond the real, to depict emotionally charged states that he thematically elaborated with leitmotifs as in Wagnerian operas. He continually retouched his paintings, never regarding them as finished. For example, he worked on The Suitors intermittently from 1852 to 1872.

Moreau's paintings are suffused with eroticism. They feature languid, jewelled, or figures in ceremonial poses. His male figures are usually passive, frail, and semi-naked. He wanted these figures to be emblematic of what he termed "ideal somnambulism," neither active nor inactive. He believed only in what he did not see and drew on a system of almost Cabbalistic correspondences and personal allusions to make vivid his feverish inner world.

The use of symbols did not originate with the Symbolist movement. Indeed, symbols are prevalent in the work of old masters, yet Moreau pioneered by fusing symbol with technique. He experimented with watercolor and with thickly applied paint in the manner of Delacroix, and thereby foreshadowed Abstract Expressionism.

Moreau lived with his mother for most of his adult life. He was an intensely private person, and from this distance his sexual orientation is impossible to determine with certainty. His work, however, profoundly influenced other painters and writers who were homosexual or bisexual.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

In addition to Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was also a prominent member of the French Symbolist movement. Chavanne's work echoes the frescoes of Piero Della Francesca and Odilon Redon. He was a fine illustrator of macabre subjects, some inspired by Edgar Allen Poe.

Chavannes liked to think of himself as more traditional than Moreau and the other Symbolists, yet the influence of his restrained, disconcertingly static compositions on painters matched that of Moreau's.

J.-K. Huysmans

Symbolist artists were particularly enamored of the poètes maudits (accursed poets), especially as exemplified by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud. But novelist J.-K. Huysmans wrote the bible of the decadents in À Rebours (Against Nature, 1884), a work much admired by Oscar Wilde.

The protagonist of Against Nature is Des Esseintes, a man so disillusioned with the normal that he retreats into a hermetic world and becomes an obsessive collector--of all sorts of objects, including clothes, rare works in Latin, décor, spangled jewels, paintings, liturgical music, and sins. Eventually Des Esseintes has a homosexual encounter. Interestingly, the novel includes a gushing, ecstatic description of a painting of Salome by Moreau.

Cult of the Diva

Salome was vital to Moreau and all Symbolists because she represented to them the ultimate castrating female. Moreover, her story has clear hints of male Oedipal anxieties, and even sadomasochism. Salome became a metaphor for the new man troubled by his gender role.

Symbolist artists tended to be fastidious aesthetes, dandies, reclusive hermits, or mystics, and they were frequently attracted to the priesthood. Most were what we would now classify as homosexual or bisexual; they were certainly not traditionally heterosexual.

They were, however, obsessed with the female muse in her various guises. Figures such as Eve, Lilith, Judith, Medusa, Pandora, and Jezebel recur in their works, usually as wicked divas. Whereas in Baroque art, female figures tend to be the victims of male cruelty and sexual assault, in Symbolist art men are more often sexual victims.

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Top: Salomé (1871) by Gustav Moreau.
Above: The Silver Crown, Tondo (1900) by Fernand Khnopff.

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