Saturday, January 12, 2013

52 Souls - Symbolist Landscape 1880-1910 (an exhibition)

52 sielua - symbolismin maisema 1880–1910. Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, 16.11.2012 - 17.2.2013. Viewed on 12 Jan 2013.

The Finnish edition of the catalogue: Symbolismin maisema 1880-1910. By Rodolphe Rapetti, Richard Thomson, Frances Fowle, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, and Nienke Bakker. National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh) / Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) / Ateneumin taidemuseo (Helsinki) / Mercatorfonds (Brussels), 2012. - The editor of the Finnish edition: Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff. - Publisher: Mercatorfonds.

A touring show, different editions of which have been:
Dreams of Nature. Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 2012)
Van Gogh to Kandinsky. Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1920 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh)

The official presentation: "Ateneum Art Museum’s year 2012 culminates in an international exhibition devoted to Symbolist landscape painting. The exhibition 52 souls presents a wide selection of poetic, mystical and sensual interpretations of nature, painted between 1880 and 1910, including landscapes by such masters as Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler. Finnish Symbolist art will be represented by Väinö Blomstedt, Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Hugo Simberg and Ellen Thesleff. In all, the exhibition will show works by 52 artists."

"The exhibition has been made possible thanks to Ateneum's close cooperation with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the National Galleries of Scotland. The curators of the exhibition are two internationally renowned art experts, Rodolphe Rapetti and Richard Thomson. Ateneum’s team in charge of the exhibition has been led by Curator Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff. The exhibition architecture is by Osmo Leppälä."

"The paintings in the exhibition are being lent by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, Tate in London, MoMA in New York, the Munch Museum in Norway, and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, to name but a few. In addition, paintings have been made available by major private collections in New York, Paris and Italy."

"A richly illustrated exhibition catalogue with articles by art experts was published by Mercatorfonds of Belgium in spring 2012. The catalogue is available in six languages – English, French, Flemish, German, Finnish and Swedish – and can be purchased for 34,50 euros."


"Symbolism was one of the most influential trends in European art in the period 1880-1910. It was characterised by the desire to describe feelings and moods, a passionate pursuit of spirituality and a strong interest in mythologies. Symbolism was not a style, but rather an attitude and vision. It was in part a reaction to industrialisation and materialism that made artists focus on the richness within ourselves rather than on external realities. Visual artists, poets and composers inspired each other, and the interaction between the arts flourished."

"Landscapes were an ideal subject for symbolists. The pulsating vitality of the sun, the rage of storms and the mystical twilight are familiar and recognisable experiences for everyone. Nature and its elements served as the raw materials that were shaped by the artists to express a certain state of mind."

"From the Finnish perspective, 52 Souls – Symbolist Landscape 1880-1910  is a continuation of the exhibition Illusions of Reality, which presented international naturalism at the Ateneum Art Museum in the first half of 2011. 52 Souls also links Finnish art history with international trends."


"Symbolist artists were interested in ancient mythologies, but also depicted paradises that they found in the modern world. Many escaped from the materialism of the present into the mystical Arcadia of antiquity, where they found peace and harmony with the nature around. The temple ruins and legendary human characters they portrayed looked back to lost civilizations and express their longing for an age of innocence. The wild and dramatic scenery found in their paintings underlined the smallness of man when faced by the magnificence of nature."


"Night-time and dusk were popular subjects among these artists. They portrayed darkness as a kind of frontier zone which turned the day-to-day world into something mysterious and even frightening.  The softness of dusk wraps the world in a soft blanket and generates a sense of mystery. This is expressed equally in a piano Nocturne by Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin, a poem by Finnish poet Eino Leino, and many late 19th century landscapes.  The Midnight Sun of the far north was felt to be particularly magical."


"We have all experienced powerful emotions in the face of nature. We tend to link certain emotional states with different kinds of landscape, natural phenomena and times of year. To the Symbolists, landscape offered a wonderful opportunity for the expression of powerful feelings and states of mind. One of their favourite subjects was forest, the magical spell it casts, its primeval wildness or its impenetrable darkness. Many Nordic artists, specifically, painted trackless wilds, mountains and lakes, often to underline their own national identity and personal feeling for nature."


"Rapid developments in the sciences at this period had a powerful impact on artists, too. In 1859 Charles Darwin had shaken the scientific world with his Origin of Species, while Louis Pasteur’s experiments with bacteria opened up amazing insights into the world of micro-organisms. This new knowledge about man’s origins and evolution, and that of the universe itself, showed that man was just a tiny part of an enormous cosmos. Artists depicted the world as a process of constant movement and life-flow, a process of endless change and renewal. One crucial element in all this was the sun, which represented cosmic energy, a higher power or the unity of all living things."

"Psychology was another challenging science in the 1890s, expanding human knowledge about man’s mind and subconscious. In particular, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the meaning of dreams, sexuality and death inspired many artists. The Symbolists depicted inner visions and dreams, as both nightmare-like horrors and poetic manifestations of the spirit world."


"Migration from rural to urban areas accelerated throughout Europe in the late 19th century. Industrialization changed the face of ancient cities, turning them into bold new metropoli of the modern world, buzzing with life. The response of Symbolist authors was to write about abandoned and rejected towns. Artists painted dreamlike, nostalgic, even ghostly, visions of cities such as Bruges and Venice, their misty streets empty of people: here time seemed to have stopped."


"Interaction between different spheres of the arts was important to the Symbolists. Works often contained references to music, and compositions underlined harmony between form and colour. In the early 20th century many artists grew interested in theosophy and search for the spiritual, leading partly to more simplified and abstract expression. In his major manifesto Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) Wassily Kandinsky wrote of the unity of colour, feeling and music: ”Colour is the keyboard. The artist is the hand playing, falling variously on the keys and causing the soul to vibrate.”"

A powerful exhibition, and a perfect pedagogic exercise to see next to the Expressionist retrospective at the Sara Hildén Museum - these two great exhibitions share one remarkable artist. Wassily Kandinsky is the final artist in this Symbolist show, and the earliest artist in the Expressionist exhibition.

Reading the excellent catalogue I realize that key works (The Shout by Munch, Isle of the Dead by Böcklin) are missing from the Helsinki selection. It does not matter, because there is "too much" to see anyway. I needed to rest two hours afterwards. On the other hand, there are works included in the Helsinki selection which are not even mentioned in the catalogue's list of artworks.

Amongst the most memorable paintings on display: Vision antique by Puvis de Chavanne, In the Dust Storm by Jacek Malczewski, Nocturne: Grey and Silver by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Alpine Landscape I by August Strindberg, The Sower by van Gogh, and Landscape with Red Spots (Landscape with Church) by Wassily Kandinsky.

All of it is film-relevant. The cinema was born during the age of Symbolism, and the great masters like Lang and Murnau knew these works and were influenced by them.

To begin with, there are direct links such as The Shout > Scream, and Isle of the Dead as the inspiration to the eponymous Val Lewton horror film.

Symbolism directly influenced the cinema in Italy (Febo Mari: Fauno), Russia (Yevgeni Bauer's Vertigo-like Daydreams / Gryozy was based on Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, as was Korngold's opera Die tote Stadt / The Dead City), and America (Maurice Tourneur: The Blue Bird).

The concept of the landscape as soulscape started in the U.S. (the early Westerns, Ince, Griffith) and was grasped even more consciously by the great Swedes (Sjöström, Stiller).

The discovery of dreams and nightmares became essential in Symbolism as well as in the cinema. Fin-de-siècle decadence was displayed in both. The great powers of Eros and Thanatos became prominent. In commercial exploitation cinema they still run rampant as the mighty twin powers called sex and violence.

The grey nightscapes of Sidaner have affinities with Dreyer's Vampyr. The eerie, abandoned cities of Symbolists were echoed in Clair's Paris qui dort. The chain of influences goes to Chirico and Antonioni and the urban modernism and poetry of alienation in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The isms are of course inventions of critics, gallerists, and historians, and artists don't take them seriously. But this symbolistic survey is exciting in the way it takes us to the foundations of the huge transformation from naturalism to abstraction which took place within a few decades.

The artworks are well lit and the unreflecting glass is so unobtrusive that it is almost unnoticeable. In the Silent Cities section I had the feeling of missing the black levels, but the "low contrast" is obviously a concept of the works themselves. The reproduction of the artworks in the catalogue is pretty good.

Inspired by the show I revisited a favourite book of mine:
Edmund Wilson: Axel's Castle. A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930, published in 1931. It is a series of studies about Symbolism in literature, the chapters titled - Symbolism - W.B. Yeats - Paul Valéry - T.S. Eliot - Marcel Proust - James Joyce - Gertrude Stein - and Axel and Rimbaud. Axel is a novel or prose poem by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam; there is also a discussion on Axel's soul brother Des Esseintes in À rebours by J.K. Huysmans. Because all these writers are still so relevant, the book is also a reminder of the continuing relevance of the Symbolist interconnections. 

Artists in 52 souls exhibition:

Léon Bakst
Emile Bernard
Väinö Blomstedt
Eugène Carrière
Jean-Charles Cazin
Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis
Maurice Denis
Albert Edelfelt
James Ensor
Prince Eugen
Charles Filiger
Alfred William Finch
Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Paul Gauguin
Vincent van Gogh
Vilhelm Hammershøi
Ferdinand Hodler
Eugène Jansson
Wassily Kandinsky
Ferdinand Keller
Fernand Khnopff
Georges Lacombe
Charles Lacoste
Frederic Leighton
Georges Lemmen
Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer
Jacek Malczewski
Emile-René Ménard
John Everett Millais
Joaquim Mir
Piet Mondrian
Claude Monet
Gustave Moreau
Edvard Munch
Alphonse Osbert
Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
Odilon Redon
Laurits Andersen Ring
Henri Eugène Le Sidaner
Paul Signac
Hugo Simberg
Harald Oskar Sohlberg
August Strindberg
Franz von Stuck
Ellen Thesleff
Hans Thoma
Albert Trachsel
George Frederic Watts
Wojciech Weiss
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Jens Ferdinand Willumsen

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