The Secret History of Modern Art

Article excerpt

Venture deep into the hinterlands of modern art history, and you come across the artistic movement of the 1880s and 1890s known as Symbolism. An international, diffuse, idealist, and mystical reaction to the naturalism of the 1860s and 1870s, Symbolism is usually presented as a detour or more likely a dead-end backwater for the losers and losing ideas of progressive modern art. "Whereas naturalism finds support in the French philosophy of Comte and Littre," wrote the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, "Symbolism finds it in the German philosophy of Kant and Fichte." Academics have long dismissed Symbolism as conservative. Even in the 1890s, Symbolism was criticized for its elitism and traditionalism. Julien Leclercq, a friend of Patti Gauguin, complained of "false mysticism and facile symbols." Yet a little more than a hundred years ago, all roads led to Symbolism. Today, Symbolism is the good art of bad ideas that people rarely know or otherwise choose to ignore. But I have come to wonder if Symbolism, an art of idealistic aspirations and impure thoughts, may lead us through the lost roads of our own fin-de-siecle. For me, against my own enlightened sensibilities of how modern art is supposed to look, Symbolism has taken on a power to inspire.

In our museums, Symbolism often occupies the last room of the stuffy nineteenth-century wing, while French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism bridge the divide to Cubism and the clean lines of the twentieth-century collection. So it came as a surprise when, at the Edvard Munch show at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year, I felt an unexpected connection to Munch's Symbolist work. I started my review in the March 2006 New Criterion this way: "Once upon a time modern art had a third dimension: a mood-axis. In 1890s Europe, Symbolism plumbed the depths of myth and the macabre in order to dive beneath the surfaces of Impressionism."

In a street scene like the famous Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), Munch did not paint portraits. In the death-stares of the crowd, he painted a crisis. This crisis manifested itself both in the need to escape the realities of urban life through a mystical-pictorial ideal, and in the pessimism that this ideal might be attained. In its subject matter, the painting is an illustration of feeling. In its quivering surface, it is anxiety revealed. This double life is embodied in two figures. One is a dark shadow walking to the right against the human tide--perhaps a stand-in for the artist. The second is the viewer before the canvas, confronted by a stampede of figures. The perspective is such that the viewer gazes slightly over the masses. The next moments are frozen in uncertainty: Will the shadowy artist-figure reveal himself? Will the viewer rise above the reality of the street or be crushed down into it?

In his landmark study of Symbolism published posthumously in 1979, Robert Goldwater noted that Munch put "the meaning of his pictures into design and colour, and into the stance and gesture of the whole human body, whose pose and contour flowed and fused with a larger composition that gave direct expression to the mood and substance of the theme." The Norwegian painter Christian Krohg similarly wrote: "Munch is the only one, the first one to turn to idealism, who dares to subordinate Nature, his model, to the mood."

In the harmonic contours of his color and line, and the anxiety of his subject matter, Munch used the material of paint to depict an immaterial third dimension: an axis of heightened emotion that at MOMA spread out over the pressed, dried petals of the museum's twentieth-century collection. As the Norwegian poet Sigbjorn Obstfelder wrote in 1892: "Munch sees ... the branches of trees in waves, women's hair and women's bodies in waves ... he feels colors and he feels in colors ... he sees sorrow and cries and worry and decay. He does not see yellow and red and blue and violet."

The feeling I found looking at Munch's work brought me back half a decade to my graduate student days at Brown. …