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.
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.
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.