Dreaming of a symbolic world

As far as epochs in human history go, the Industrial Revolution was especially dramatic in the way it physically changed the architecture of the planet and irrevocably severed man’s bond with nature.
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century in Western Europe, this immense transformation revolutionised human society beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. An agrarian way of life morphed into one orientated around industry and everything that has come since has done so at unthinkable speed. And we haven’t looked back since.
A new exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland looks at how a generation of artists responded to these phenomenal changes through the development of the Symbolist movement, seeking recourse in creativity, and thus, with it, rejecting the strange reality unfolding in front of them.
From Van Gogh to Kandinsky, Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 is a sweeping show that articulates the breathtaking pursuit of spiritual enlightenment in an age of materialism.
Life was shifting from an economy of survival – based on farming, livestock breeding, consumption and use of mineral resources – to one that was predicated on the creation of artificial and superfluous things. It was characterised by an age of giant structures, forged my men wielding a seemingly omnipotent power. However, this was not the Promised Land.
As such, most artists at the time felt somewhat lacking, unable to be inspired by the world they used to know because it no longer existed. Man was carving up a new planet. Industry wasn’t meant to be pretty; it simply did its job.
Faced by the challenge of no longer being able to paint a world they were incapable of loving, they sought to rebuild it, to immerse themselves in the physicality of their paintings.
To achieve this, they harnessed their imagination and tapped into the very fibres of their emotional being and created the very worlds they would dream about. It was almost unthinkable to have painted in such a way, but Impressionism had paved the way for art to journey into the unknown.
This world was Arcadia, a mythological and heavenly untouched landscape. Although it could never become a reality – like Eden it is lost, whereas Utopia is where we’re looking to end up – the fact that we can see this world, as imagined by artists like Jens Ferdinand Willumsen, Paul Gauguin and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, well, it’s escape enough.
The real world still existed though, and though the artists wished to create paradise, some of them were unable to escape an impending sense of doom. Consequently, even in Arcadia, the nightmare they sought to avoid stormed into the compositions.
We see it in Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele, which although splendid and tranquil, is nevertheless imperfect. The still surface of the lake is disturbed either by the natural currents that cross the water or by something else, a brooding force, hidden from sight in the darkness of the water below.
It is also evident in Van Gogh’s sharp and utterly macabre Wheatfield With Reaper. Here we have the clever literal juxtaposition of a man reaping – harvesting– against a vivid and energetic landscape, while the sky above looks to be turning green, a metaphorical nod towards illness. And so death looms, the very calm before the storm. This is made even more uneasy because of how alive the painting is.
For the most part though, it is an uplifting experience, of hope, suggestive of the cyclical nature of things. Like the optimistic rays breaking out from the thick and oppressive clouds in Willumsen’s Sun Shining on the Southern Mountains, hope endures.
Life is ultimately cyclical, and thus, one day, man will be able his rekindle his relationship with the physical world. And when that day comes, we can romantically imagine that it will be something like Paul Signac’s Setting Sun: a harmonious balance of nature and man.
This exhibition, which is a collaborative effort between the National Galleries of Scotland, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki, is a marvellous conception. It’s also very novel, the first known show to be conceived solely around symbolist landscapes.
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