A Few Words About the Symbolism Art Movement 1886-1916

The Sphinx by Fernand Khnopff, 1896. The solitary artist with his muse imagination depicted as a female Sphinx. She caresses him. He looks troubled and melancholy. Beauty has not died. But modernity is creeping into art.

The Sphinx by Fernand Khnopff, 1896. The solitary artist with his muse imagination depicted as a female Sphinx. She caresses him. He looks troubled and melancholy. Beauty has not died. But modernity is creeping into art.

Symbolism is not a well-known movement in art history but one worth mentioning. I was thinking about it due to my current work in progress tentatively titled Passion for Life. My painting contains symbols, images full of deeper meaning. I have a book titled Symbolism by Michael Gibson that I browsed through again this morning. I was reminded that that actual Symbolist movement was rather melancholy, not what I’m depicting in my current painting. Symbolist paintings are full of images of women as evil temptresses, some supernatural imagery, and ideas about death and sexuality. Not a lot of happy stuff.

Symbolism, a state of mind, appeared toward the end of the 19th century as a reaction to increasing industrialism combined with a predominantly Catholic population. Modernism was creeping into art but ideals of beauty and realism still predominated. By the time the First World War began in 1917 many intellectuals and artists believed the ideal of beauty was dead.

War by Arnold Bocklin, 1896. A supernatural image inspired by biblical text. Death and destruction. Not uncommon in the history of Europe. Again, supernatural imagery is a hallmark of the Symbolist art movement 1886-1916.

War by Arnold Bocklin, 1896. A supernatural image inspired by biblical text. Death and destruction. Not uncommon in the history of Europe. Again, supernatural imagery is a hallmark of the Symbolist art movement 1886-1916.

Symbols communicate feelings. In Fernand Khnopff’s painting known by three different names: Art, or The Sphinx, or the The Caresses, created in 1896, the artist shows the idea of a solitary artist combined with his imagination depicted as the Sphinx. In Arnold Bocklin’s painting War, created in 1896, the image is inspired by St. John’s vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Both paintings create an image of supernaturalism.

In my painting I am going for a feeling of something supernatural occurring. I’m not finished yet so I don’t know how it’s going to look really. But I wanted to convey a feeling of God, man, animal and world connected in relationship somehow, even magically, or metaphysically. Rabbit and rooster are symbolic for religious ideas, not just as creatures. Roosters stand for vigilance against evil. Rabbits stand for fertility, spring, rebirth. The hand in the sky holding the egg—that a great maker, God, a higher power, has created us to be stewards of the Earth and the animal kingdom.

This work in progress by Dede Farrar is tentatively titled Passion for Life. Metaphysical happenings and symbolic meaning of egg, human hand, rabbit and rooster can be interpreted as God's hand in creation, life, hope, and rebirth. Or maybe its just a pretty picture.

This work in progress by Dede Farrar is tentatively titled Passion for Life. Metaphysical happenings and symbolic meaning of egg, human hand, rabbit and rooster can be interpreted as God’s hand in creation, life, hope, and rebirth. Or maybe its just a pretty picture.

Really, every piece of art can be thought of as a symbol. When a human makes a piece of art, the art is a symbol of his thought process. The end work of art conveys thoughts originating in the brain and then flowing out through the eyes and hands—or whatever body part—to create the symbol—conveying more meaning than just simply an artifact or image.

Advertisements

Rabbits Split Hares Both Positive and Negative

Rabbits have been symbolically hopping around with humans for thousands of years. In the past two thousand years of Christian art, rabbits have flip flopped as both negative and positive symbols. Today we see the rabbit as more positive. During medieval times, the rabbit was associated with witchcraft and shape shifting. Rabbits were seen as symbols of wanton, unbridled sexuality which used to be considered a no no. Rabbits do very weird things under the moonlight during their spring mating rituals and humans want to explain everything, so what else but the devil could have been involved during the Dark Ages? Demonic rabbit gargoyles carrying off virtuous maidens exist on some Christian cathedrals prior to 1500.

Demon Rabbit of Chartres Cathedral created c. 1200 (Dark Ages). This sculpture is part of one of the most famous Christian churches still in existence today located in France. The demon rabbit reminds people to be fearful and to follow Gods teachings, or else!

Demon Rabbit of Chartres Cathedral created c. 1200 (Dark Ages). This sculpture is part of one of the most famous Christian churches still in existence today located in France. The demon rabbit reminds people to be fearful and to follow Gods teachings, or else!

Strangely, or maybe predictably, the rabbit then became more positive during the Renaissance (1500s and onward) as the rabbit was viewed as a symbol of virtue and rebirth. How? It was believed that the female rabbit could conceive and give birth without contact with a male rabbit. I guess someone wasn’t paying very close attention! White rabbits as symbols of virginal birth of Christ appeared in paintings. Even the name Renaissance means “rebirth.” The Renaissance brought a more positive world view as the Dark Ages waned into history.

Today we think of rabbits as the Easter bunny. Today’s Easter bunny evolved from the pagan, medieval, and Christian ideas of the past. Nothing we do today appears out of a vacuum. It is all descended of past ideas. Past ideas get blended with current ideas. Rabbits today still have connotations of sexuality and good luck. But now it seems rabbits are more loved for the superficial facts that they are cute, furry, and playful. Don’t let that stop you from looking deeper into the meaning of the hare.

Madonna with Rabbit created by Titian c. 1530. Here the rabbit is a symbol of purity, and virgin birth. The time of the Renaissance was a positive rebirth for the Western world, a time of new knowledge and discovery. A rabbit as a symbol of immaculate conception was stretching it though!

Madonna with Rabbit created by Titian c. 1530. Here the rabbit is a symbol of purity, and virgin birth. The time of the Renaissance was a positive rebirth for the Western world, a time of new knowledge and discovery. A rabbit as a symbol of immaculate conception was stretching it though!

Roosters Have Symbolic Meaning in Art History

 

Roman mosaic of rooster created around 200-400 A.D.

Roman mosaic of rooster created around 200-400 A.D.

Roosters have a place in art history. We don’t think too much about the cocky bird being something to crow about when it comes to a historical perspective in art but the fact remains that roosters actually have a great deal of symbolic meaning. Mostly I’m going to write about roosters and what they mean in the Christian history of art. I’ve chosen three pieces in art history just to show that artists have been depicting the showy and noisy bird for a couple of thousand years—at least.

Roosters announce danger. We can look out for things that might get in the way of a virtuous life. “In Christian symbolism, the rooster is a familiar Passion symbol. Prior to being arrested by the soldiers, Jesus correctly predicted that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed on the following morning. At the rooster’s crowing, Peter remembered Jesus’ words and went out and wept bitterly. The rooster represents Peter’s denial of Christ and also stands for his remorse and repentance upon hearing the rooster’s crow. Because Peter later became the leader of the early Church, the rooster represents papal vigilance.” (http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/rooster.htm)

The oldest image I’ve chosen to show you (above left) is a Roman mosaic of a rooster dating back to 200-400 A.D. This was dangerous time for Christians, a time of persecution and hiding. And, of course, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet so visual symbols were important to convey meaning.

In the next painting (middle right) by Melchior de Hondecoater created sometime in the 1600s, the art is complicated and dramatic, a hallmark element of the Baroque style. Baroque art dates from about 1590-1725 and features intense emotions, sensationalism and is closely tied to the Catholic church glorifying the church and its power at that time. The painting I’ve chosen features a dramatic use of roosters full of energy and action. Its symbolic meaning was more clearly evident at that time than it is for us today. But you can rest assured that the use of roosters does have religious meaning, warning viewers to be vigilant against sin.

Religious symbolism was common in Baroque painting of the 1600s.  By Melchior de Hondecoater, 1600s. Dramatic and full of action.

Religious symbolism was common in Baroque painting of the 1600s. By Melchior de Hondecoater, 1600s. Dramatic and full of action.

Finally, how could I resist showing off another Theophile Steinlen image of the Art Nouveau era, my favorite (bottom left). Here the rooster announces an art show and seems to have lost its religious significance, just as the Catholic church lost much of it dominating power by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here the rooster looks to be more of announcer, his colors and shape more important that the symbolism of previous eras in history. Many prominent artists of the day are written on the bill including Steinlen, and Alphonse Mucha, who I will be showing more of in the future.

Poster by Theophile Steinlen of Art Nouveau era (1890-1915) advertising an art show.

Poster by Theophile Steinlen of Art Nouveau era (1890-1915) advertising an art show.

 

 

Roosters crow. They announce the sunrise. The sunrise brings the promise of a clean fresh day, a day full promise. We can choose to do good things with the dawning of a new day. And be vigilant against the force of evil. Now days we see roosters more for their visual appeal, the colors, the strength and vitality of roosters. The fact remains that there is more to roosters in art than immediately meets the eye.