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On "Dreams of Nature: Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky” at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The New Criterion, June 2012 (read there)

Dreams of Nature surveys the symbolist movement as expressed in landscape painting across Europe from Mallorca to western Russia, and is likely the first exhibition ever to do so. The exhibition, organized by Richard Thomson and Rodolphe Rapetti, contains seventy canvases, with some implausible choices among them depending on where one might draw the line regarding what qualifies as Symbolist.

That turns out to be a complicated consideration. Jean Moréas, writing his Symbolist Manifesto in 1886, described it thus: Enemy of education, declamation, wrong feelings, objective description, symbolist poetry tries to dress the Idea in a sensitive form which, however, would not be its sole purpose, but furthermore that, while serving to express the Idea in itself, would remain subjective. The subjectivity was key. Symbolism was above all a defiance of literary naturalism, but there was an equivalent in visual art, the naturalism of the Impressionist landscape, which arguably had started to look a little threadbare by the late 1880s when the term symbolisme came into use.

In some respects, the movement was absurdly reactionary. The Impressionists wanted to capture the real appearance and effect of the landscape, and concentrate on subjects in the observed present. The Symbolists wanted to return to grand, timeless themes, even if they had to resort to pastiches of archaic sculpture in order to get there. Hence Puvis de Chavannes's toga-ed maidens holding court in the rocky, quasi-Greek seaside, and Alphonse Osbert's similarly clad women lounging at the dusky, indeterminately European pond edge. For unintentional comic relief, there is a Léon Bakst from 1908, over six feet square, in which a Koure holding a bluebird stands in front of an aerial view of an imagined Greek coastal stronghold while a cartoonish lightning bolt—presumably the withering opinion of Zeus—streaks overhead.

Early on, the catalogue laments that artists associated with Symbolism were unfairly shunted out of the canon, but it has to be said that some aspects of the project were hooey. One can draw a line from Baudelaire to Wassily Kandinsky's assertions, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, about inner harmonies and vibrations in the heart. Kandinsky's contributions to Dreams of Nature show the Symbolist attitude coming apart at the seams, his Cossacks (1910-11) looking earnest, frenetic, and clumsy. If history treated them with undue severity, they were still on the wrong side of it. Science, not spiritualism, won the century, which ended with the explosion in popularity of naturalism's logical conclusion: the reality show.

Still, something was in the air. Symbolism wasn't a cohesive style, but it did have an effect on a wide range of styles in play at the time. This theme potentially places a massive amount of material under consideration, so the focus of Dreams of Nature on the landscape is sensible and unifying. From there, it subdivides into six distinct grouping. Each clearly draws from the Symbolist zeitgeist in different ways. But all of them, in doing so, differentiated themselves from their plein air forbears. Some of them advanced in fruitful directions.

The first of these sub-themes is Old and New Paradises. Here we have the aforementioned Greece fetishists, but also Arnold Böcklin, whose The Island of the Dead (1886) looks astonishingly good here. A cluster of tall cypresses on a rocky island receives Death in white robes, his oarsman, and the coffin borne by his vessel. The shadowy cypresses seem capable of sucking all life out of the world.

Silent Cities features cityscapes painted between four and seven in the evening. It pairs better-known artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Odilon Redon, and Vilhelm Hammershøi with lesser-knowns like Jean-Charles Cazin and Henri Eugène Le Sidaner. In Cazin's pastel Village Street, Evening (c. 1890-1900), a patch of silvery light falls on a quiet row of houses under an aquamarine sky. Cazin grew so effective at painting the waning light of dusk that critics briefly took to calling the time of day l'heure Cazin. Redon was among Cazin's admirers, and his own atypically straightforward canvas in this part of the exhibition, A Street in Samois (1888), pays homage to him. In this tender scene, houses, the same color as the dusty, deserted avenue they face, are shut tight for the afternoon as the sunlight begins to leave. Redon, it seems, would have turned out well even if he had remained a Barbizon-inspired landscape painter.

Nature and Suggestion highlights the landscapes of a slew of underrated Scandinavians, whose temperament perhaps predisposed them to the Symbolist mindset. Hammershøi appears again with a subtle rendition of a copse of trees in a meadow from 1893. A striking 1905 seascape of blues and grays by the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela features a tree-choked island with its ominous reflection in the glassy water surrounding it, while limpid mountains haunt the distant background. There seemed to be an unspoken competition among these northerners to produce the darkest possible landscape, and its winner may have been Prince Eugen of Sweden, whose The Forest (1892) is so clotted and low-key as to recall later Milton Resnick.

The breadth of art objects all but burst the remaining three exhibition themes. Puvis de Chavannes leads to Gaugin's Tahitian arcadias, which is reasonable, but the influence does not convincingly extend to various divisionist treatments of the same. At one point a wall label suggests that a Monet is more than just an objective portrayal of the landscape, for with these haystacks the artist attempted to capture the whole of reality by lining up fragments of it. If that's Symbolist, then anything else could be. Redon was given his own couple of walls back in the main building, where his Buddha from 1904 would never upstage In the Dust Storm (1893-4) by Jacek Malczewski along with other minor, overwrought works.

But the exhibition's flirtation with the minor turned up more worthy painters than can be listed here. I fail to understand how Joaquín Mir y Trinxet has escaped my attention for so long—his five-foot-high painting The Abyss, Mallorca (1903-4) is a stunning composition in which a feathery touch meets bold design. Wojciech Weiss's Heatwave (1898), in which figures trudge forward on the verge of collapse in a landscape that melts with streaks of yellow and white, is comparable to better Edvard Munchs. Hans Thoma's Calm Before the Storm (1906) is a contender for the most genuinely terrifying depiction of incipient bad weather ever painted. Symbolism doesn't need hard categorical edges for us to feel grateful to it for bringing works like these into being.

Word count: 1080

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