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Symbolism – Context of the art movement

Symbolism is a movement that developed in France during the nineteenth century and then spread throughout the European continent, taking place in the literary, artistic and cultural fields. The Symbolist movement was therefore born in France and was founded thanks to the publication of the Manifesto of Symbolism by the French poet Jean Moréas on 18 September 1886.

Comparisons are made between symbolism, decadence and naturalism, also analyzing the similarities and basic differences in the themes that the three artistic-literary movements present. Among the major exponents of the symbolist artistic-literary current are Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé.

The symbolism

In the literary production of the second half of the nineteenth century, the artist’s unease with the society of the bourgeoisie that celebrated the triumph of science is manifested. The poet considers himself a stranger to the outside world that surrounds him and reacts either by isolating himself or protesting against progress. The poet lives in an exasperated individualism, seeking extreme and often destructive and provocative experiences, celebrating art as an absolute value. The artist’s conflict with society is felt by the cursed French poets, founders of modern lyric and innovators of the poetics of that era. Charles Baudelaire imposes a turning point in taste and poetics with the collection “I FIORI DEL MALE”. He accentuates the conflicting characteristics between poet and society. Thus opens the generation of cursed poets, characters of an unruly life, addicted to alcohol and drugs, rejecting bourgeois conformism. He is the master of Symbolism, a trend that developed in France in the last years of the nineteenth century. Symbolist poetry is also represented by other French cursed poets: Paul Verlaine; Stéphan Mallarmé; Arthur Rimbaud ;. According to them, the poet must become a seer in order to explore the unknown and grasp the absolute. The intuition of Symbolism is that underneath the apparent reality, another mysterious and profound reality is hidden. Thus, distrust of science is manifested, which is unable to penetrate the human soul, nor to explain the desires of the unconscious and the need for men to explore the unknown. The poet can therefore penetrate through intuition. Art is the only tool with which you can explore and make accessible what is unknown and irrational. The symbolists elaborate a new language, no longer logical, but analogical, allowing to bring to light the correspondences and the mysterious links between things. The word must therefore possess a magical virtue evoking a profound reality behind appearances, and must have the ability to communicate the poet’s emotions. Symbolist poets used rhetorical figures to express moods, feelings and images. The musical aspect of language was also accentuated, favoring sound over words. It is charged with a mysterious and evocative force. According to Baudelaire, nature is a “forest of symbols” made up of correspondences of scents, colors and sounds that the poet is able to decipher and reassemble into a single reality.
Mallarmé, on the other hand, feels the privilege of being the poet and of having access to the mysterious meanings of symbols and correspondences. The themes of his poetry are: the longing for elevation; escape from real life; a deep anguish; the aspiration to grasp things; the intangible essence.
Verlaine’s poetics, on the other hand, are characterized by a taste for the vague and melancholy; of restlessness; contrast between good and evil. He feels the subjective emotion and the symbolic power of language that becomes evocative and musical; it is devoid of any rhetoric; he presents short and fluid lines.
Arthur Rimbaud instead occupies a place in the panorama of French poetics. It is convinced that the poet must be a seer, who illuminates the unknown and knows how to penetrate the depths of things to understand their secrets. He gets to this thanks to the “derailment of the senses” that is the abandonment to visions that makes him feel free. The language must be renewed and must express scents, sounds and colors in an evocative suggestion out of semantics and eloquence. According to him, the poet is abandoned to himself, as Rimbaud was able to demonstrate in the project “The drunken boat”, misunderstood and cursed by ordinary men persecuted by loneliness, but a connoisseur of freedom cannot adapt to common life and social conventions.

French symbolism

Symbolism was born in France and affirmed itself above all in poetry between 1876 and 1890. The term refers to a poetics in which one proceeds through symbols: through intuition, the poet reveals the universal in detail, in the finite, the ‘Infinity. Symbolism rejects the scientific claims of an objective and rational explanation of the universe.
In the last years (1890-1905), the symbolism converges in the Decadentism. The latter was born as poetics, but today it is considered a form of artistic-literary culture and civilization.
Its essential components are aestheticism and irrationalism.
The term Decadentism implies an idea of ​​decadence, of consumption, of the decline of a civilization. It was initially used to indicate both the decline of romanticism and that of the healthy liberal and positivist bourgeoisie that had managed the economic and political power between 1848 and 1875. It was therefore originally a negative term that involved a moral judgment of condemns the irrationalism and moral corruption of the artistic and literary tendencies that have emerged in Europe since the 1980s.
Today this negative implication has disappeared and the term indicates only the literary and artistic civilization that established itself in Europe between the two centuries.

Decadentism makes aestheticism, that is the cult of beauty and art its main watchword, and irrationalism its privileged ideology.

On the political level, decadent writers support the nascent nationalist and imperialist ideologies; it is therefore deduced that decadence is a cultural phenomenon homogeneous with the new imperialist tendencies.

Characters of decadence:

  • Refusal of the scientific and rational method;
    -Subjectivism and Individualism that is: Art must express the sensations of the subject, his inner and sensual life;
  • The discovery of the unconscious that is: Art tends to express the deep associations of the ego, the complexity of pre-feelings and connect the mystery of the soul to that of the life of the universe itself;
  • The use of symbolism, the search for correspondences between the soul of the subject and the life of the universe, the use of metaphor and especially synaesthesia.
  • The aestheticism and religion of art: the decadents affirm not only the autonomy of art, but also its superiority. To support the cult of superiority, they promote the cult of art, understood as pure beauty, a reason for life and a true religion.
  • A conception of the poet as the supreme architect or as a prophet vate: since poetry is conceived and conceived as a revelation of the Absolute, the poet is imagined as the mediator and priest of this revelation. The artist is an inventor and a creator, he no longer has to imitate life as naturalist writers did, but to create it.

Decadentism: It is a literary current of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We speak of decadence in Italy.
This current was based on promoting an anti-naturalist art, not based on the “truth” of reality, but on the dark sides of the world and life, on what escapes reason (the unconscious, the enigma), decadence insists on irrational elements , such as sensation or intuition.

In the current of decadence there are two phases:

  • The first phase (around 1875-80) corresponds to irrational and rebellious decadence: characterized by aestheticism, from the cult of sensation, to the “decadence” of the world, a state of mind widespread among intellectuals of the late 19th century.
    Decadentism, as opposed to romanticism, does not put feelings and the heart in the first place but rather instincts, individual pulsations, the unconscious. The decadent poets use an alternative language, that of symbols, a phase marked in France by the symbolist poets (baudelaire) .. and in Italy by the writers of the Milanese scapigliatura: the avant-garde of anti-bourgeois and rebellious intellectuals. In decadence there was the lasting and qualitative participation of Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D’annunzio.
    At the end of this first phase there will be the experience of the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century (futurism, expressionism, surrealism …) which share different aspects with the first decadence: the attitude of rebellion, relying on the unconscious, instincts and also to the confidence that the protest of intellectuals can improve reality.
  • The second phase is that of the Decadentism of Italo Svevo and Luigi Pirandello. This more mature Decadentism is oriented not to remain stuck in the crisis, but to know it critically: literature must attest to the lack of certainties and perspectives, it must represent the weakness of individuals and their conscience. The man of letters cannot change the factual reality, but he reveals it without deluding himself that he can improve it. The artist separates himself from society, he is no longer rebellious (like the romantics) but more painfully an “inept” so the first decadence was oriented to “poetry”, the second privileged prose, the novel as the primary tool for knowing things mistakes of the world.

Symbolism and renewal of poetic language: A French symbolist poet was Charles Baudelaire. the author of the various crops in the Flowers of Evil. For him, the writer must announce the truth, but that of revealing the secret links that are established between things and nature, looking into the deepest and most mysterious areas of human life. poetry is a useful tool to discover the meaning of the symbols present.

In the sonnet the correspondences, Baudelaire describes the poet as one who knows how to move the world in the “forest of symbols”. While for the others everything is incomprehensible, and the poet is a “decipherer” a seer.

Symbolist poets have the goal of completely transforming poetic language, precisely to reach those hidden areas of nature and human life that scientific investigation cannot touch.

The poetics of symbolism is based on the value of the word “pure” which takes us back to a deeper reality. To achieve it, the symbolists value certain rhetorical figures, such as synaesthesia (consists in associating words or images referring to different sensory spheres in a single link) or analogy (the placing in relation of two or more distant things in reality). At the same time they renew the metrics and rhythm of the lines to achieve an unusual musicality

The language of the symbolists was a point of reference for poetry. In Europe, the French Paul Valery, Guillaume Apollinaire …

The decadent people give up on pursuing scientific and social progress and give importance to the “cult of beauty” understood as an end in itself, and so aestheticism is born, that is, the tendency to art for art.
One of the first popularizers of aestheticism was Walter Pater
What matters for aesthetics is what appears beautiful, so everything about aesthetics must be beautiful.


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