Wondering: Symbolism & Pop culture

The reasons why Symbolism should inspired more people today are obvious. What you can read about this artistic movement is disturbing because it seems to fit so well in our current state of mind.


Edgar Maxence

Symbolism initially developed as a French literary movement in the 1880s, and was in many ways a reaction against the moralism, rationalism, and materialism of the 1880s that had come to dominate Western European culture, and proclaimed the validity of pure subjectivity and the expression of an idea over a realistic description of the natural world. This fin-de-siècle period was a period of malaise – a sickness of dissatisfaction. Symbolism served as a means of escape.

Moralism, rationalism, materialism and, shall we add to that, consumerism. Besides, aren’t we in a “period of malaise”? Do I need to say more?


Odilon Redon

As opposed to Impressionism, in which the emphasis was on the reality of the created paint surface itself, Symbolism was both an artistic and a literary movement that suggested ideas through symbols and emphasized the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colors. The works of some its proponents exemplify the ending of the tradition of representational art coming from Classical times. Symbolism can also be seen as being at the forefront of modernism, in that it developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists could take the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and give it form.

Symbolism successfully did what Pop art tried to do a few centuries later, but with talent. Yes, for me, there is no debate: the most controversial art movements of the 20th century, the so-called Pop art (and his scammer leader Andy Warhol) is just a big fraud. I never felt any spiritual values or connexion with any work I have seen. Art is subjective, of course, but art should also have a non-profit-making basis, which was obviously not the purpose of Pop art. It also said Symbolism opened a door to modernism: with the creation of new technologies, internet, blogs, online communities, we obviously need a new pair of eyes to understand our world. 


Odilon Redon

Wanting to imbue their works with spiritual value, these progenitors of Symbolism produced imaginary dream worlds populated with mysterious figures from biblical stories and Greek mythology as well as fantastical, often monstrous, creatures. Their suggestive imagery established what would become the most pervasive themes in Symbolist art: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire. Woman became the favored symbol for the expression of these universal emotions, appearing alternately as wistful virgins and menacing femmes fatales.

These recent Peplum films, from Gladiator to Alexander, Troy, 300, Alexander, Noah or even the very bad Kingdom of Heaven, walk in the footsteps of Symbolism inspirations. Super-heroes movies follow the same pattern, I believe. It seems that the film industry find a big inspiration in myths and Biblical sources and that a regain of interest for these subjects in the past 15 years can not be ignored. Cinema gives us an overview of a déjà-vu ambition and try to make people escape from the boring and depressing reality, in the manner of the symbolists but through another material. As for “wistful virgins” and “femmes fatales”, it seems that nothing changed or am I wrong?


Gustav Klimt

In terms of specific subject matter, the Symbolists combined religious mysticism, the perverse, the erotic, and the decadent. Symbolist subject matter is typically characterized by an interest in the occult, the morbid, the dream world, melancholy, evil, and death.

Vampires, zombies and others creatures, new forms of utopia or sexuality: does it ring a bell? Books or movies, these subjects are everywhere. Although in our pop culture, the world “decadent” does not totally apply because everything is often too polished. 


Gustave Moreau

This was just an initial idea, I am not trying to say that “before was better” (there is no such a thing, except maybe if you are referring to The Garden of Eden), only that the spiritual values  that governed and guided our symbolists usually are, in our current pop culture, forgotten for the benefit of visual performances, false polemics, naive love stories or general interests and I find it a bit sad because there is a lot more to be inspired about. Indeed, what is left?


Gaetano Previati

Sources : http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm  and http://www.theartstory.org/movement-symbolism.htm