There are moments in art history that are fascinating to contemplate but irredeemably minor. This pretty much sums up Australian Symbolism, which plays a supporting role to Impressionist landscape and those paintings of a broadly nationalist persuasion that dominated art in this country in the decades leading up to the First World War.
Symbolism in Australia is better described as a tendency rather than a movement. Many artists dabbled, but almost nobody might be credibly labelled a Symbolist. The lines of definition are blurred, with Symbolist art being almost indistinguishable from Art Nouveau, Aestheticism, Decadence, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. In this first-ever museum survey Pictorialist photography, and even Arts and Crafts make fleeting appearances.
Australian Symbolism: the art of dreams presents a comprehensive overview of a phenomenon that has often been ignored or misunderstood. Curator, Denise Mimmocchi, has included all the essential works and a few surprises. Her catalogue essay on this overheated subject is sober and scholarly, making no extravagant claims for the quality or importance of this art.
This would be difficult, because almost every artist in this exhibition is known for his or her work in another style. Of the Heidelberg painters, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder all experimented with Symbolism, but only the latter showed any long-term interest. Charles Douglas Richardson, who was one of the exhibitors in the 9 by 5 Impression show of 1889 that brought the Heidelberg School to prominence, comes closest to being a career Symbolist, but he is a secondary figure alongside the others.
Sydney Long, who created some of the most fanciful Australian pictures of that era, owes his limpid line to Art Nouveau, although his fauns, nymphs and flamingos might be seen as Symbolist in inspiration. In later life he repudiated this style and became a dogged realist.
Among Australian artists Symbolism was a passing phase that never put down roots. This is understandable when we try to understand what the term meant, and where it originated.
In essence Symbolism was a reaction to the accelerated progress of the Belle Époque. The rapid changes brought about by science and technology seemed to be sweeping away the traditions, beliefs and values of the past. The rationalism and materialism of the new era made many feel that the spiritual aspects of art and literature were also in danger of being eroded.
Realism or Naturalism, touted as the most radical innovation in the novels of Zola and the paintings of Courbet, was viewed as part and parcel of this new materialism. Even Impressionism, which concerned itself with capturing transient effects of light, was seen as a style wedded to surface appearances, with no concern for the inner world of the imagination.
Symbolism, which began as a literary movement, set itself in opposition to these currents. At the beginning of his career, the novelist, J-K.Huysmans, had been a disciple of Zola, but by 1884 when he published his most famous book, À rebours (AKA. Against Nature), he was an opponent of the Realists. In poetry, Symbolism took its impetus from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and found its major voices in Mallarmé, Verlaine and the teenaged Rimbaud.
In the visual arts Symbolism was never a concerted movement, but a set of shared concerns among individual artists. One thinks immediately of figures such as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, but a list might also include artists such as Klimt and Munch, while Russian artists embraced the idea enthusiastically.
The literary basis of Symbolism was reflected in the imagery pursued by these artists. Redon was preoccupied with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, while Moreau painted a gallery of femmes fatales, including Salomé, Delilah and Helen of Troy.
Mimmocchi quotes the critic Jean Moréas, who wrote that the aim of Symbolism was “to clothe the idea in sensuous form”. He was referring primarily to literature, and was concerned with distinguishing the Symbolists from the more lurid and sensational work of the Decadents. It was a way of linking Symbolism with the world of imagination and dreams, while playing down the sexual or blasphemous connotations.
In Australia the first reputed Symbolist images came from the Portuguese émigré, Arthur Loureiro, who had worked in Paris before arriving in Melbourne. His decorative panels, The spirit of the southern cross and The spirit of the new moon (both 1888), show two lightly veiled nymphs seated among the clouds. These images have no equivalent at this time, but they are very simple emblems that personify the natural world in the form of a woman. Add a packet of soap powder and they would be identical to the advertising posters of those days.
In the years that followed, Arthur Streeton would paint The Spirit of the drought (c.1896) as a nude woman in a blazing, sun-drenched landscape; while Sydney Long’s Spirit of the plains (1897), is a nude woman playing Pied Piper with a flock of brolgas.
While Streeton’s nymph has a vaguely malevolent presence, she is little more than an incident in a typical Australian Impressionist landscape. Long’s spirit seems entirely benign. One might speculate that more dramatic and sinister females did not come naturally to the Australians in such a warm climate, with few of the trappings of old Europe.
Conder made the attempt with Hot wind (1889), which shows a woman dressed in Egyptian or Babylonian style, lying prone on the ground to blow the flame in a brazier. Her serpentine nature is underlined by a real snake, which seems irresistibly drawn to this vision.
Conder had a high opinion of the work, professing himself unable to understand how people seemed to prefer his earlier painting, Departure of the S.S. Orient from Circular Quay (1888). There is a simple answer to this question: the S.S.Orient is a far superior picture, capturing a rainy day scene filled with colour and anecdote. Hot wind is a vapid pantomime – a period piece that testifies only to Conder’s taste in reading matter, which may have been H. Rider Haggard. Where the first picture reveals a remarkable maturity in a young artist, the second is an adolescent fantasy.
This is the case with a good deal of Australian Symbolist art: it struggles to take itself seriously. Even with a dedicated Spiritualist such as C.D.Richardson, the painting Casting the spell (1896), looks as if it has been borrowed from a comic book.
This pronounced theatricality is also a feature of the most impressive works in this show – Bertram Mackennal’s magnificent bronze, Circe (1892-93), which wowed audiences at the Paris Salon; and Aby Altson’s The Golden Age (1893), also painted in Paris, under the influence of Puvis de Chavannes.
It has been claimed that Altson’s picture reveals a homesickness for the sunny skies of Australia, but it could also be argued that it shows the artist’s exhilaration at being far away from his provincial roots. As a student at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, Altson painted dutiful, brown Victorian genre pictures; when he came to Paris he was free to please himself.
Aside from being one of the most camp images ever produced by an Australian artist, The Golden Age is an amazingly vibrant painting. One can feel that Alston had a lot of fun with this tableau of nudes in make-believe antique postures. However, the picture is completely at variance with the sepulchral atmosphere of so much European Symbolist art. While he might try on the style in this work, and in another brilliant jeu d’esprit – Fantasy – angel drawing the cloth of night (1897) – it’s obvious that Altson could not keep a straight face where Symbolism was concerned.
Rupert Bunny made a better attempt to mimic the sombre, local taste in Pastoral (c.1893), and similar paintings he created at this time. The time of day is twilight, and the mood is wistful. His satyrs and nymphs laze around like passengers waiting for a bus or a plane.
The two works that best capture the Symbolist mood, without a trace of self-parody, are the paintings Conder completed at a friend’s house in Algeria while convalescing from a bout of the venereal infection that would bring his career to a premature conclusion. Moonlight at Mustapha (1892) and The hot sands, Mustapha (1891) are soft, lyrical paintings that use the image of a ghostly figure walking between white pillars, and a vase of flowers shedding petals, as intimations of mortality. This time there was no make-believe. Conder could sense the angel of death hovering nearby, and found the appropriate symbols to give form to his melancholy feelings.
Australian Symbolism: The Art of Dreams, Art Gallery of NSW, May 12 – July 19, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 19, 2012