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LOST PARADISE: Symbolist Europe

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LOST PARADISE: Symbolist Europe
LOST PARADISE: SYMBOLIST EUROPE
CLAIR, J. & P. THEBERGE,

1996, Cloth, 4to, 552 pp., illustrated in color and b/w, Montreal Museum of Art. An examination of the Symbolist movement from an international perspective. Apart from ill. and descriptions of the exhibited pieces, the book includes 18 essays by experts about such subjects as: the arabesque, the Swedish symbolists, symbolism in Belgium, Poland and Finland, images of insanity, illustrated books in the symbolist era. English text. MINT in protective mylar.

The team of international scholars and curators responsible for this project has succeeded in giving us a thoroughly postmodern Symbolism. Remarkably inclusive, they refuse to resurrect the master narratives of individual genius or the closed hermetic art for art's sake passing of the torch. The catalogue furthers this approach, going so far as to omit the requisite "bios" of individual artists, and excluding detailed catalogue entries in favor of an occasional brief discussion of a chosen work. If the curators appear a bit eager in their inclusiveness, the show nonetheless goes a long way in dethroning the Franco-centric and modernist bias through which the period has traditionally been presented.

Spanning several decades and countries, the exhibit encompasses nearly six hundred works by over two hundred artists. Displayed in nineteen sections are paintings, photographs, sculpture, prints, and decorative arts. With images as simultaneously terrifying and enrapturing as Leon Spilliaert's Self-Portrait in a Mirror (1908), Harald Sohlberg's Night (1904), or Frantisek Drtikol's Salome (1912-13), even the most seasoned Symbolist aficionado was undoubtedly stirred. Complementing the many old favorites and canonical pieces were the lugubrious fantasies of less familiar artists such as C. H. Schmidt-Helmsbrechts, Josef Vachal, and Theodor Kittelsen.

Rather than erecting false barriers between artists of varying nationalities, the works are exhibited within a number of thematic divisions: "The Waning of Culture," "The Self beyond Recovery," "The Cycles of Life and Toward Regeneration." These major themes serve to underscore and bring to focus the only thing that really provides the common ground of Symbolism: its fundamental rejection of the modern industrial world. Indeed, it is only in their resolute withdrawal and rejection of modernity that artists as diverse as Gustav Klimt, Gaetano Previati, and Paul Serusier, for example, can possibly be linked. The thematic divisions that structure the exhibition are testimony to this overarching withdrawal. While allowing for broad inclusion of material, such themes also serve to link Symbolism to the specific intellectual and social crises of the fin de siecle. The collective dreams of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie are explored in a dialectic relation to its particular nightmares.

Moreover the thematic treatment encourages an amorphous and fluid reading of Symbolism. The categories themselves are permeable and inherently interrelated.(5) Many could be reconstituted and largely subsumed into one another. The Golden Age (encompassed in the fourth category) and primitivism (grouped in the first) are both at heart a search for origins, whether sought at the Mediterranean shore or in the African jungle. Clair suggests ways in which the claustrophobic domestic interiors of such artists as James Ensor, Leon Spilliaert, and Edouard Vuillard could be mapped onto the psychic interiors explored under the domain of "the self". The categories make no pretension of artificial completeness or airtight boundaries: instead, they provide a convenient and stimulating exploration of works that share common thematic ground.

The catalogue accompanying the show includes essays by eighteen scholars and carries forward the best achievements of the exhibition. It provides ample space in which to discuss Symbolism. Moreover, it ties the thematic preoccupations of the Symbolists to the wider currents of the period. Essays by leading scholars focus on specific Symbolist practices, or alternately explore themes that express larger cultural anxieties. Anti-industrialism and disintegration of the self in the face of a transformed Europe are leitmotifs throughout the exhibition and catalogue. Symbolist works inspired by Christian devotion are linked to the religious climate fostered by Pope Leo XIII and to the desperate search for a collective community. Social phenomena are counterbalanced by an exploration of subjectivity and psychic life as understood in the fin de siecle. Hysteria, psychoanalysis, and Schopenhauerian despair, the "fragmented representation of the subject," are equally credited with the nightmarish and claustrophobic imagery emerging in the period.



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