Symbolism was a movement in art and literature that can trace its roots to the mid-1800s, though its real maturation doesn’t occur until the end of that century. It begins with the French writer, Charles Baudelaire and his publication of a volume of poetry called, Les Fleur du mal.
Interestingly, there is some American influence here. Baudelaire was much affected by, and even translated, the work of the Maryland based Edgar Allen Poe. Besides showing the literary background of Symbolism, this fact points out an early instance of American literature starting to prove its power in the middle of the century when America comes into its own.
The major players of Symbolism include some of the most well-known names in French literature: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé. The influence of these writers would extend to T. S. Eliot and James Joyce among many others. The visual artists are less well known: Victor Vasnetsov, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edvard Munch.
There’s insight to be gained through seeing the transitional nature of the Symbolist movement. One could look at this movement in a few ways, but it seems important to see it is as a movement from 19th century Romanticism to 20th century Modernism.
We should, of course, be careful to hold on too tightly to labels like Romanticism, Symbolism, etc. It’s best to describe these, thinking of them as moods, feelings—or if we must as zeitgeists. They don’t describe strict doctrine so much as a dominant outlook. The early 20th century literary critic, Edmund Wilson, warns us of all of this, yet he doesn’t shy away from using the labels.
Wilson goes on to explain Symbolism as a movement that continues the Romantic revolt. As he explains, science and math were developing so as to draw everything, humans included, into a mechanistic worldview. There seemed no room for human freedom or emotion. Romanticism enters the scene, a revolutionary ready to fight against the determinisms of society and science in favor of the individual and her emotions. This movement occurs during the late 1700s into the early 1800s and deeply affects culture, giving it the air of freedom. But many begin to understand Darwin’s discovery in science, rightly or not, as yielding a deterministic frame, so human freedom and emotion are again in need of recovery.
Symbolism was deeply concerned with the depth of reality. It was a movement that attracted a religious element of society. As was typical in 19th century Europe, the majority of that religious element was Christian. Nevertheless, there was also a notable Jewish representation.
There was a group, attached to the Symbolist movement, known as Les Nabis. This name is a French term derived from the Hebrew word for prophet. This group comprised Jewish and Christian artists who associated closely with one another in a common artistic and spiritual temperament.
While the great nemesis of 18th century Romanticism was the Rationalism of the same century, Symbolism’s great opponent was the Naturalism and Realism of the 19th century, largely set in motion by the developments in Biology, the greatest achievement being Darwin’s. This does not imply that Symbolism was anti-science or even anti-Darwin.
Symbolism seems more concerned that we avoid reductionism. Math and science are excellent tools, but the Symbolists were asking questions about purpose. Math and science reveal aspects of the structure of the world, but they are mostly descriptive. The Symbolists were looking for something more prescriptive. They wanted a message from eternity, values that were timeless.
When you look at Victor Vasnetsov’s The Knight at the Crossroads, you want to come alongside the knight and say, “No, don’t give up. Look beyond the grave stone to the light in the distance. It may be setting…But it will rise!”
When you view Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Young Girls on the Edge of the Sea, you behold a beautiful, if mundane, scene of French women by the water. But you notice that it’s three women…that, oh, it’s the three sisters of Fate; it’s the Trinity—it’s all of these at the same time. You see one woman beholding her belly, another looking out at the sea while fixing her hair, another sitting in repose, perhaps sadly, next to a hill which you begin to look up until it goes out of the frame.
You look at all of this until you realize that you’ve been looking at Eve, Mary Magdelene, and Mary the Mother of Christ. Christ is assumed as you look up that hill and you’ve just viewed the entire symbolic tradition of Western art in one scan of one painting. This is the value of Symbolism.
The goal of Symbolism is to take the eternal and bring it into the present. I take this straight from the Symbolist manifesto, which says, “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”
Here, I think, is a way to view all of this: Rationalism knew well how to go for the structure of things, but its structure remained in the form of bones, and mostly dry ones at that. Romanticism had to put flesh and marrow to these. Naturalism and Realism focused on the particular and the surface of things. They could see these bipedal forms walking about and even dancing on occasion. But they missed something. Symbolism had to come along and breathe the spirit into them, to move past the surface and find life itself.
Romanticism privileged Nature and the genius individual. And it privileges the past, particularly the Middle Ages. While you need these to get things started, you can’t stop there. Symbolism could see the beyond while looking at the things among us. It hints at the future, even while it privileges the present.
The future of Symbolism is in some ways past for us and some ways present.
Modernism took the stage after Symbolism exited. There were many factors involved, but World War I was perhaps the greatest. For all the shellshock of war, Western culture could not get much beyond the present, nor could individuals break from the trauma and the absurdity of life, remaining stuck in their own heads. The balance of eternity and present broke, with our attention turned to our own injured minds. Fracture is the pervading metaphor of Modernism. This is how you get T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mark Rothko’s as well as Joan Mitchell’s color fields.
Postmodernism, I believe, is only the inevitable extension of the Modernist outlook. And this fragmented view ruled the 20th century. What will the 21st century bring? What will our counterpoise be? Where is our spirit?
 Wilson, E. (1931). Symbolism. In Axel’s Castle: A Study In The Imaginative Literature of 1870 To 1930 (pp. 10-11). New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
 Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (p. 6).
 Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (pp. 7-8).