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What is symbolism (art)?


Abstract painting symbolizing the cycle of things, the cycle of life.

Definition of Symbolism


Symbolism is an artistic movement that emerged in the late 19th century as a reaction to realism and impressionism. It is characterized by the use of symbols, metaphors, and suggestions rather than direct representation of observable reality. Symbolist artists sought to express abstract ideas, deep emotions, states of mind, and spiritual concepts through images and symbols laden with multiple meanings.


Symbolist art explores the realms of the unconscious, dreams, spirituality, mythology, and imagination. Artists employ symbolic elements such as allegorical figures, esoteric motifs, symbolic colors, and complex compositions to create works that invite personal interpretation and intense emotional experience.


Symbolism is often associated with themes such as death, love, nature, mystery, and transcendence. Symbolist artists aimed to evoke mysterious atmospheres, inner states of mind, and symbolic dimensions of reality that elude ordinary senses.


This artistic movement had a significant influence on later modern art, including surrealism, expressionism, and abstract art. It also influenced other cultural domains such as literature, music, and poetry. Symbolism contributed to expanding the horizons of art by exploring profound concepts and emotions that go beyond mere visual representation.


The origin of symbolism


The origins of symbolism can be traced through various influences and historical events. Among the factors that contributed to its emergence are:


  1. Decline of religious faith: In the 19th century, traditional religious faith was waning in Europe, partly due to scientific advancements and social changes. Symbolist artists turned to artistic expressions that transcended observable reality and sought to explore spiritual and metaphysical dimensions.

  2. Literary movements: Symbolism has its roots in literary movements such as Romanticism and Parnassianism. Symbolist poets like Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Arthur Rimbaud played a crucial role in shaping the artistic movement by introducing symbolic ideas and concepts in their writings.

  3. Philosophical and esoteric influences: Philosophical and esoteric ideas, championed by thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, greatly influenced symbolist artists. These thinkers challenged the certainties of reason and sought to explore deeper and more mysterious aspects of human existence.

  4. Decorative arts and craftsmanship: Symbolist artists drew inspiration from traditional art forms, including decorative arts, craftsmanship, and folk traditions. They sought to incorporate symbolic and decorative elements into their works, creating a unique and refined aesthetic.

The origin and birth of symbolism are thus the result of an artistic and intellectual reaction to the social, philosophical, and cultural changes of the 19th century. Symbolist artists sought to explore symbolic, spiritual, and metaphysical dimensions of human existence through artistic expressions imbued with multiple meanings.

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