Symbolism, Expressionism, Decadence

Frank Kermode

  • Romantic Roots in Modern Art by August Wiedmann
    Gresham, 328 pp, £8.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 905418 51 4
  • Symbolism by Robert Goldwater
    Allen Lane, 286 pp, £12.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1047 X
  • Decadence and the 1890s edited by Ian Fletcher
    Arnold, 216 pp, £9.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 7131 6208 2

Blasting the past has long been a habit of avant-garde artists and malcontent youth, but anti-passéisme has made small headway in the learned professions. They are keen on roots – for example, the roots of the modern in late 19th-century art, and its roots in romanticism; the cardinal assumption is that everything really starts earlier than you might think. Work proceeds at different rates in different disciplines, which rarely take much notice of each other; literary men long since decided that Modernism grew out of Symbolism and Symbolism out of Romanticism, and the art historians are now saying much the same thing.

When they do look over the fence, they tend to misunderstand or distort what they notice there, which adds to the already disgusting terminological confusion. For example, they have lit upon ‘dissociation of sensibility’, but given it senses wholly different from that attributed to it by its inventor, T.S. Eliot, though that was in turn wholly different from what Remy de Gourmont thought he meant by it. The Times obituary of Sonia Delaunay, who died on 5 December, says that she evolved with her husband a doctrine which Apollinaire, the great advertising copywriter of the New, labelled ‘Orphism’, which, says the obituarist, is ‘related to Futurism in its preoccupation with the artistic expression of such specifically 20th-century phenomena as speed and simultaneity of experience (very much what Eliot defined as dissociation of sensibility) …’ Apart from what I take to be the general daftness of this, one notes the total lack of connection between the two isms mentioned and ‘what Eliot defined’. Mr Wiedmann, whose ‘study in comparative aesthetics’ has a whole section on ‘dissociation of sensibility’, doesn’t as much as mention Eliot, merely saying that the phrase is ‘currently in vogue’. The Expressionists, he argues, had ‘a touching faith in primary vision’, and this required of them ‘the intermission of ordinary vision, the “dissociation of sensibility” …’ Here the term refers to the attempts of poets and painters to liberate the senses from ‘the tyranny of the object and its unrelenting chain of visual associations’, and the credit, called dubious by Wiedmann, goes to the Romantics, who pioneered ‘that prodigious derangement of all the senses on which Rimbaud was to embark with such passion …’ This is Gourmont’s revenge, for Eliot’s notion is here totally subverted.

Such unwillingness to let existing concepts hold still for long enough to mean anything is characteristic of all attempts to elevate stylistic descriptions into something grander, the Weltanschauung rather than the style. The period under discussion by Wiedmann and Goldwater abounded in isms trying to make this leap: leaving aside the better-known, such as Futurism, Vorticism, Symbolism, Expressionism, De Stijl, Constructivism etc, we have still to contend with Activismus, Suprematism, Synthetism, Zenitism, Centrifugism, Catastrophism, Neo-Plasticism etc. And provided all these are in reaction against Naturalism and Realism they all belong to the same Weltanschauung, which is captured first for one and then for another. Wyndham Lewis, who loathed Kandinsky, has to be an Expressionist after all. Lorca, Rilke, Breton, and even Whitman, sit down together as Symbolists or whatever.

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