Sunday, October 13, 2013

Symbolist Landscape

'Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880 -1910' was an exhibition that I sadly missed (in 2011) and have been contenting myself with the catalogue that is good of its kind, though dwells, as usual, more deeply on describing the paintings and their technique and their place in the artificial categories of art historians than on describing their meaning, origin and reception. When this balance is reversed in art history, I will be truly delighted.

However, be that as it may, it was informative and the reproductions well made.

Three things struck me, in particular, as with the first wave of industrialisation (and its attendant materialism) gave rise to Romanticism as response, here too, at the end of the nineteenth century, was a reaffirmation of the subjective, of the life of inner consciousness and its ability to transform what is seen. But unlike Romanticism, it was a more fragmented, less philosophical, more impressionistic response that could be allied with many varied forms of thinking from anarchism to devout Catholicism, from Charcot and Freud to Theosophy.

Second was the very real presence of esoteric tradition (or invention), most especially Theosophy, as a key well-spring with its polymorphic patterns of thinking and its sense of spiritual evolution that paradoxically chimed with, yet as it sought to correct Darwin (and Madame Blavatsky was Darwin's Russian translator - she needed the money). Piet Mondrian, Kandinsky and the Czech painter, Frantisek Kupka, to name but three, fed from its table, developing theories of colour that moved them through landscape to deeper abstraction (and purer spirituality).

Third was how strikingly beautiful was the art that was made, as here with Jens Ferdinand Wilhumsen's 'Sun Shining on the Southern Mountains', which though it was influenced by a particular place, in this case the mountains falling into Lake Geneva, was re-created in imagination (and the studio) to take on a universalism of theme.

Of the sun that creates life for all and is the engine of the cosmos, gathering all into a unity. A unity that embraces human beings whilst recognising that their position in the scheme of things is humble. Of a world that is both held in eternity, the transcendent light, but yet is always changing. The light plays across the waters and the mountains were once yet something other. In one image it both wishes to affirm a magisterial ordering sacred otherness and pay its debts to an emerging, evolutionary account of the world. A putting together what wider forces in society and in culture were attempting to sunder. Symbolism both expresses and seeks to heal a gathering anxiety. 

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