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.

Mr Wiedmann’s catch-all is Expressionism, and his book is a heavy and heavily documented account, often graceless and blemished by many errors, of the manner in which the arts subsumed under that title, and the thinking behind them (which he much dislikes), derive in considerable detail from Romanticism. His villain-hero is Kandinsky, whom he quotes copiously; nor is this surprising, since Kandinsky said almost everything Wiedmann needed to have said to make his points. What he does is to take a ‘characteristic Romantic theme’, expound it, and then show how it turns up later, usually in Kandinsky though also in Klee and others. Such themes are: Aspiration to Wholeness, Vitalism, Anti-Intellectualism, the Unconscious, Synaesthesia, the Gesamtkunstwerk, Primitivism, Anti-Positivism, Estrangement (of the Artist) and Messianism. Kandinsky can be relied upon to have uttered them all in a sufficiently bold and offensive way, adding a little here and there, but a very little, to his Romantic forbears.

The method of the book means that we have to attend to a great deal we may have heard before, such as brief expositions of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Schiller: but it is true enough that the ideology, the pathology and the eschatology of the period under discussion have connections with those thinkers and many others roughly their contemporaries, and there is some point in setting down an account of those connections. What Wiedmann wishes to add to the documentation is an announcement that he finds them all, especially at the modern end, deeply distasteful. The Romantic subsumption of subjectivity under some higher metaphysical objectivity is dismissed as ‘wholly illegitimate’, and the Expressionist who ‘merrily identifies’ the dark murmurs of his unconscious with the music of the spheres merely earns ridicule. You have only to look at Kandinsky’s paintings. Are they honestly ‘in touch with the spirit’? Of course not. We have been conned into accepting scrawls and flourishes as images of the world soul.

Wiedmann is entitled to his taste, but in two respects he seems seriously wrong. First, he thinks it a point against these artists that we have to approach them in a ‘prepared frame of mind’ instead of with what he thinks of as Kantian disinterest. This is true enough, but it is also true of Velasquez. We may dislike the manner of the dosage instructions on the wrapper, but there always have to be instructions. The other mistake is worse. Kandinsky was certainly a fin-de-siècle type of apocalyptic thinker; he was even a Joachimite, believing in a tripartite history of the world, with epochs of Father (Law), Son (Love) and Spirit (Synthesis). As always, the Third Age was just beginning. Wiedmann oddly says all this will sound strange to western ears, though it was gospel to Blake and D.H. Lawrence and a lot of other people. Somebody should find out why is was so fashionable in those days – for it was also important to the ideologues of the Third Reich. And this is what angers Wiedmann, who hates Expressionist art, not only because he thinks it pretentious and even fraudulent, but also because of the resemblance between some of the artists’ ideas and those of Nazism. He even says they ‘helped to create conditions favourable to’ Nazism by going in for apocalyptics, primitivism and anti-intellectualism. Because he sees that having ancestors in common is not a mode of influence, he qualifies this assertion, but this forces him into the manifestly false position that all primitivism is evil and barbaric.

Goldwater’s book is calmer, less engaged than Wiedmann’s, though not less heavy in the hand. Here a great many isms are carefully assembled under the banner of Symbolism. Gone are the days when ‘Symbolist painting’ connoted a few relatively minor figures historically associated with the Symbolist poets: Moreau, Redon (‘our Mallarmé,’ the painters claimed) and Puvis de Chavannes. This book has Van Gogh endpapers, and Gauguin is the dominant figure in the text. Synthetism came within the ambience of poetic Symbolism; Mallarmé attended Gauguin’s farewell party; but with no Gauguin around, and Seurat dying, the first Symbolism rapidly faded out, and was replaced by another, much more mystical and occult, as one sees from the Salon de la Rose + Croix. Goldwater makes some fine distinctions between Symbolism and Art Nouveau: there are similarities of line, but Symbolism alone has the characteristic tension between the idea and its embodiment. ‘Every object is finally only an Idea signified.’ But the Symbolists inherited the Prazian pathological repertoire, especially the terrible woman and a major obsession with hair, and this kind of thing, a sort of Salome-complex, made them prone to allegory, though allegory was against their theoretical principles.

Munch is particularly important to Goldwater’s conception of Symbolism, and he surveys the Movement in various countries, but his emphasis is mainly French. There is an overlap with Wiedmann’s Expressionism, obviously, but Kandinsky hardly matters to Goldwater, or Gauguin to Wiedmann. I suppose any term that fully deserved to win the struggle for the Weltanschauung title would need to get them both in. A rival contender is Decadence, lately the subject of a small row of books that try to say what the term meant and means. To this shelf one is happy to add Ian Fletcher’s collection of essays. It is London-based, so I hope it will not sound parochial to call it much the best of the books under review. Fletcher, by now I suppose the doyen of Nineties studies, contributes a valuable essay on the important magazines of the time. R.K.R. Thornton, in another good essay, points out that the term was less available after the trial of Oscar Wilde: Symons planned a book called The Decadent Movement in Literature, but when it appeared in 1899 it was called The Symbolist Movement instead, and it expressly condemned Decadence, though Symons also liked to argue that it referred to a merely stylistic deliquescence, like that of the Silver Latin poets.

The confusion between the stylistic and ethical senses of the word goes back, as Thornton says, to 1834, when Désiré Nisard wrote an attack on contemporary poets under the guise of a study of those Latin writers. Later the Wilde case, and Nordau’s Degeneration and the row over Jude the Obscure made it impossible ever to separate literary from moral decadence. ‘To fix the last fine shade, the quintessence of things, to fix it fleetingly’ is Lionel Johnson’s idea of a Symbolist programme, but you might need to be a Decadent to bring it off. The little magazines were often associated with proponents, necessarily somewhat furtive, of what they called ‘Uranian’ love, lacking the word ‘homoerotism’, invented by Ernest Jones in 1916. In more ways than one, women were allocated a special, rather numinous, perhaps terrible place in the Decadent scheme. As Johnson remarked, these people wanted thought to think upon itself, and such subtlety might well invade their life-styles: a normal existence, according to the inherited social and sexual conventions, would not have seemed a proper vehicle for thinking of that kind. Hence the cult of the positively unnatural: cosmetics, dancers lost in their own mirrors or their own performances, behind footlights or from Java; hence the cult of Eleanora Duse, on which John Stokes here contributes a very good paper. Shaw admired her extraordinary professional skills, but others saw her as a Prazian Fatal Woman, wishing to be scared or exalted out of their wits by her. ‘Her great discovery was probably to have found that hysteria, paradoxically, is best rendered by keeping unnaturally still.’

A dread of women may sometimes seem more dominant than any other feature of the Weltanschauung. The British had their own way of dealing with it: as Goldwater explains, there were others. He is very good on Munch, and on Toorop, whose remarkable ‘Three Brides’ (nun, devil-woman, and in between a topless bride) must be one of the key Symbolist-Decadent pictures. The accessible wife stands between the dangerous harlot and the blessed damozel, in a significant transformation of the sexual mauvaise foi artists had to reject. The woman, occupying her ambiguous space, out of the ordinary flow of life, became an image of the dangerous work of art itself.

In the most ambitious of these essays John Goode asks why Modernism, a descendant of this incipiently revolutionary Decadence, rejoined the capitalist ideology. The ‘break’ with hegemony was repaired by assimilation, and the modern intellectual ‘organises himself on behalf of monopoly capitalism, becoming the guardian of an abstract spirituality duplicating the corporation of the imperial state’. Goode has some interesting pages on the formulation of ideas relating to art as a form of property; most strikingly, he speaks of the shift from Decadence to Symbolism as a capitulation, a substitution of vague continuity for revolt. So the ‘tragic generation’ missed its revolutionary mark, and Modernism (which certainly had very little to do with Marxism) is by so much a failure.

If Modernism is the consequence of a failed revolution (though, like the other period descriptions I’ve been talking about, it is a collection of isms, some of which don’t fit the generalisation), we should perhaps add that it was let down not only by its progenitors’ failure to deal sensibly with women, but also by the failure of apocalypse. The veil trembled, perhaps, but that wasn’t enough, and the millennialism leaked away into more proletarian sects. But the ends of centuries are the time for this sort of thing, and we are now heading for a very special ending: may we expect more of the same, the female image split between the woman clothed with the sun, and the great harlot? A revival of the mythology of transition, of the Decadence necessary to Renovation, a New Age? Perhaps our revived interest in the arts of the late 19th century, and their relations with those of the late 18th, is merely a critical preparation for some alarming new revolutionary endeavour not far ahead. Will it be a break with the hegemony, or merely another matter for scholars who like to struggle with a new, yet never really new, collection of isms?