New York

Symbolist Art

Samuels Gallery

The circuit of “The Sacred and Profane in Symbolist Art” began in Turin in 1969. From there, altered slightly, it arrived in Toronto (Artforum, January, 1970). These exhibitions were followed by a companion survey, “Symbolist Art,” held at the Piccadilly Gallery in London this spring, the same gallery which had sponsored the First Retrospective of the Salon de la Rose+Croix, 1892–97 (Artforum, September 1968). It is largely the Piccadilly “Symbolist Art” which is now at Spencer Samuels.

As is always the case with broad surveys, few works stand out by themselves—the drawings of Fernand Khnopff fall outside this injunction, as do the fine King David by Moreau and the precursor Fuselis as well—but, by contrast, the great Symbolist themes are illuminated clearly, particularly as the theme is trivialized into the grist of a multitude of lesser efforts which make their effect through sheer insistence of numbers. Above all, the theme of decapitation stands apart. Doubtless it was Symbolism’s exteriorization of a spectrum of castration-based fears. This is obsessively revealed in a carnival of Salomés, Salammbôs, Judiths and other tortuous ladies of this ilk. The male counterpart is the poet-hero concocted in the manner of Moreau. Emile Fabry’s Le poet et les chimères is characteristic. The poet-hero—at times epicene (see Sidney Metcyard), at times Orphic (see Sidney March)—like the mythical hero Perseus who slew the Medusa, lops off the cancer of materialism from the corrupt body politic of 19th-century Europe in the name of Idealism.

A striking example, a masterpiece in fact, is the 1906 Head of Medusa by Henri Cros, who initiated the use of pâte de verre in the 1880s, thereby inspiring numerous glass-masters of the École de Nancy such as Daum, and Gallé—as well as Rodin, who on occasion had recourse to this highly delicate technique. Cros’ Head of Medusa, resting on its cheek, is the chief Symbolist motif employed by Brancusi in the early heads of sleeping children from 1908 and the Sleeping Muses of 1909–10.

The Belgian School, profoundly marked by the theories of Peladanvia lean Delville, is equally well represented with Delville’s Oracle à Dodoen of 1896 and his Idole de la perversité, of 1891, a highly finished drawing of Eastern sexuality. The English Pre-Raphaelite taste is present not only in fine work by the late academician Waterhouse but in the irksomely androgynous poet-heroes of Sascha Schneider who plumbs the ephebism of Simeon Solomon to new depths of apocalyptic campdom.

Robert Pincus-Witten