It is now easy
to see why Symbolism was finally swept aside by the triumph of
Modernism. The Great War marked such a break with the past that young
people in the twenties might easily entertain the disquieting sense of
living in a completely different world. A modicum of critical sense was
sufficient for young people who had firsthand experience of the war to
be disgusted by the propaganda of either side. And this led them to
question the values that they were exhorted to defend. The First World
War was experienced by the leading intellectuals of the period as the
suicide of Europe. This suicide was first and foremost cultural, and it
is significant that the Surrealists sought to destroy the vestiges of
culture that had survived.
The first notion to be discarded was that of "decadence". It had
outlived its purpose. But what was to take its place? For some, the
answer was "primitivism", that putative ally of progress and modernity.
Like Decadence, Primitivism was a specious concept lacking serious
foundation, but it carried conviction; people felt that they understood
it. In 1926, when Alexander Calder first arrived in Paris, his friends
hastened to explain that it was better to be a primitive than a
decadent. Calder possessed a child's love of play and a thoroughly
American faith in "nature"; he consequently chose to be a primitive. In
practice, this meant that he did not trouble to acquire a demanding -
and perhaps stifling - technique; instead, he trusted his own impulses.
These were supposed to be ground-breaking, and in many cases, so it
Meanwhile, the theorization of the unconscious in terms of libidinal
economy had occurred, and it seemed likely that this was an ultimate
truth. The atom could not be split; there was nothing beyond or behind
the libido. The primary point of reference here was Freud. But there was
also Nietzsche and, further afield, the Marxist notion of ideology;
further afield again was the crudely articulated Darwinian concept of
the struggle for life, another of the fundamental "truths" which
moralising sentimentality had shielded from sight. This was one of the
conclusions drawn from the savagery of the war. It was therefore
necessary to unmask the contents of the unconscious and its hidden
drives. The Surrealists set about fulfilling this programme, discarding
Symbolist idealisation on the way.
The great political powerhouse of the time was the 1917 Revolution and
the extraordinary upheavals that it had initiated. No more talk of
"other worlds"; there was a new world to create. Art must henceforth
serve a social purpose (we remember
Odilon Redon's revulsion from
this idea). Without troubling themselves about the nature of artistic
creation, intellects argued at length over the form in which the artist
should serve society. Symbolism was tainted with the image of des Esseintes, of the solitary artist indulging in sterile and private
experiments. In the Soviet Union, Stalin imposed his own brutal,
elementary solution to the problem.
These were some of the reasons, good and bad, that led to the rejection
of all things Symbolist. Each generation makes its selection. Many
artists fell into oblivion, some of them deservedly; others were
Gauguin, for instance, one day ceased to be a Symbolist
and became something more acceptable: a "primitive". Had he not
proclaimed himself a savage? Why take the trouble to find out what he
meant by the word when it seemed so obvious that he sought the
substratum of authenticity in man? But was it so obvious? It seems
Gauguin was referring with painful nostalgia to the only
truly savage period in life, that of early childhood.
brought up in Peru, and when he left the country at the age of seven, he
experienced his departure as a tragic, irreversible exile.
Artists of more radical temper sought to bring an end to the
conventional discourse of art; they hailed the death of art.
Marcel Duchamp and
Francis Picabia ("Where is modern art going? To the shithouse!") were of
this tendency. Even before the First World War, the Futurists had
attempted to break with the past. These provocative and hyperbolic
procedures were necessary, particulary in Italy, if contemporary
mentalities were not to stand in their way. (Spain's turn came much
later, with Bufiuel and Dalf.) Machines were the Futurist theme par
excellence, but a fascination with machines and, above all, with the car
can also be found in the work of Picabia and Duchamp. Picabia painted
several works whose titles suggest that they are portraits, but which in
fact represent an engine or mechanism (Star Dancer on a Transatlantic
Steamer and Paroxysm of Pain).
The revolutionary brilliance of
Marcel Duchamp's work was widely hailed
as a complete break with the past. And it was, of course, a break with
facile pre-First World War aestheticism. But, pace modernist theory, one
can also detect a real continuity with the past in certain aspects of
his work. How could things be otherwise? Every rebellion bears the mark
of the oppression which gave rise to it.
Duchamp's The Bride Stripped
Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and his Given. both deal with the paradigmatic Symbolist subject: Woman. But
in these works she is no longer fatale, she is simply and utterly
inaccessible. A new predicament is presented. Symbolist Woman was a
source of anxiety because moral codes had been 'blurred'; in
sardonic perspective, Woman is inaccessible not because the codes are
uncertain, but because they have been completely rejected.
Young Man and Girl in Spring
Star Dancer on a
Paroxysm of Pain
Clothing of the Bride
States of Mind I:Those Who Leave
Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The
This becomes clear in relation to the cardboard box (la boite verte)
Duchamp inserted all the torn-up bits of paper on which he
had noted ideas relating to The Large Glass.
constituted a cynical and mechanistic presentation of the sexual act
("As if an alien had sought to imagine this kind of operation," as André
Breton put it); a sexual act of which The Large Glass, in its austerity,
offers no explicit narrative. By contrast, Given offers an illusionistic, three-dimensional representation of a recumbent naked
woman whose legs are spread open towards the spectator. Her
inaccessibility is signified by the fact that she can be seen only
through two holes pierced in a barn door - which cannot be opened.
The absence of all narrative content was one of the first rules of
modern art, as evinced in the works of
Matisse. But like the
religious or mythological art of the past, the works of
above do present the spectator with a complex narrative derived, in this
case, not from myth or scripture but from the artist himself. Perhaps,
Duchamp simply reversed the Symbolist values that had prevailed
during his youth, substituting irony for the ideal.
Picabia's first wife, Gabrielle Buffet, reports, in 1910
Picabia began "an extraordinary rivalry in destructive, paradoxical
statements, in blasphemy and inhumanity..." Even in the first decade of
this century, they were attracted by the kind of radical cynicism whose
consequences the impending war would so definitively and star-tlingly
reveal. Duchamp and Picabia exposed the cynicism beneath the fine
sentiments described by Thomas Mann as concealing the "individual's
immense loss of value", a loss that "the war simply brought to a head,
lending it concrete form and expression".
To understand the energies of Futurism and the need felt by its artists
to savage consecrated values, one must attempt to imagine the often
stifling context of the time.
Entry into the City
transformation of people's way of life,
ever faster means of communication, the development of the car ("An
automobile driven at a hundred miles an hour is more beautiful than the
Venus de Milo," proclaimed Marinetti, the theoretician of Futurism),
made the obligation to venerate the past unendurable. And then the
"Woman problem" that Symbolism so interminably ruminated on: what should
be done about that? The Futurists chose to ignore the issue and proclaim
their "scorn for Woman". In the same spirit they suggested filling up
Venice's Grand Canal with concrete.
In the early part of his career
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) painted
works whose mood was not far removed from Symbolism. Two such are the
semi-abstract paintings from States of Mind I: Those Who Leave
and Those Who Stay (1911). The transition toward Futurism is apparent
in the determination (present in
Previati's Eroica) to escape
the static model of eternal beauty and attempt to evoke movement by
means other than those used by Romantics such as Delacroix. The
photographic experiments of Muybridge and Marey had captured movement in
had already tried to portray it.
Surrealism, no less than Futurism, bears the unacknowledged imprint of
Symbolism. This is true not only of the "proto-surrealist" work of
Giorgio di Chirico but of certain works by
Clothing of the Bride (1940) has clear affinities with
Gustaves Moreau. Something similar may be said of
who, though he never used the painterly equivalent of "automatic
writing", is universally regarded as a Surrealist.
Yet the Symbolist filiations of his work are blindingly obvious. More
recent artists, whose works of obsessive eroticism and cruelty display an
unequivocally Symbolist heritage, are still classified, by force of
habit or by sheer negligence, as late Surrealists.
Finally, we should not forget that such paradigms of modernism as
at one time painted in an idiom close to Symbolism and that some of them came to abstraction by extrapolating from the
Symbolist tendency towards formal simplification. Abstraction may be
considered the most demanding and Neo-Platonic aspect of Symbolism. In
the course of the decades that have passed since the emergence of what
we term "Symbolism", new ways of perceiving and explaining the world
have emerged. The inadequacies of Symbolist theory are obvious enough;
the inadequacies of modernist theory have become increasingly apparent.
Underlying this opposition are divergent ways of viewing the world and
man's destiny in it. Each seeks to justify itself and demonstrate that
its hopes or despair have solid foundations. There can be no final