By Einspruch, Franklin
New Criterion , Vol. 30, No. 10
"Dreams of Nature: Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky"
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
February 24-June 17, 2012
"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 qualities as Symbolist.
That turns out to be a complicated consideration. Jean Moreas, 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 Leon 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 Bocklin, whose The Island of the Dead (1886) looks astonishingly good here. …