Reviewed by Shelley Cordulack (Department of Art History, Millikin University)
Published on H-Urban (December, 2005)
Symbolism and Second Cities
In her preface, author Sharon Hirsh emphasizes that her book considers the influence of urban culture on Symbolist artists, pointing out that previous studies have tended to address Symbolism's reliance upon the interior world. Hirsh is in fact expanding on links that writers like Max Nordau and Cesare Lombroso already made during the Symbolist period between the nervous degeneration attributed to artists and the increase in the number of large towns. The modern critic John Elderfield has pointed this out as well in regard to the artist Edvard Munch. Additionally, Hirsh mentions the importance of "late-nineteenth-century constructions of illness" and the technological environment of cities (p. xv).
Hirsh also reminds the reader that her study is not a survey--in fact, Symbolists from France, England, and Germany are only summoned for comparative purposes. Her focus is on Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, and Norway, and includes issues of nationalism and gender. Further, she makes a case for the more positive and ameliorative aspects of Symbolist artists' responses to city life--although, again, one can readily locate that idea within the nineteenth century itself as, for instance, in Friedrich Nietzsche's 1873 treatise, "The Philosopher As Cultural Doctor" or Nordau on art.
Hirsh's introduction explains that Symbolist artists expressed inner states (imagination and the dream world) by referring to the external, material world, including the city. They sought to escape or improve upon urban failings. The author defines Symbolism as a movement in the visual arts from 1885 until 1905, and provides brief discussions of the formal aspects of Symbolist art as well as its subject matter. Oddly, many of the examples she uses to illustrate these ideas--here and elsewhere in the book--are French and British and thus represent nations she states are not part of her study. Then she introduces the artists (and the cities they represent) that she pursues in the rest of the book: James Ensor (Ostend and Brussels), Ferdinand Hodler (Geneva), Edvard Munch (Oslo), Fernand Khnopff (Brussels). Hirsh examines briefly the growth of cities, particularly capital cities, as a context for the social backgrounds and audiences of these artists, noting that while most of the Symbolists traveled and exhibited in London, Paris, and Berlin, they did not remain there for extended periods; instead they chose to remain in their own countries and cities. Hirsh also introduces three contemporary novels, which she asserts, along with the art of the Symbolists, capture the degree of sickness and alienation felt upon experiencing the city.
Chapter 2, "Symbolist Society," "examine[s] the discomfort with and eventual move away from the city, so condensed in the short career of [Vincent] Van Gogh, as a social phenomenon in the life and work of Symbolist artists" (p. 27). The author explains, in the following section on decadence and malaise (which could benefit from increased clarity), that "decadence" began around 1882 as a literary reaction against naturalism; Jean MorÃ©as introduced the word "Symbolism" in 1885, and the term was applied generally to the visual arts by the early 1890s. By opposing naturalism and Symbolism, the author overlooks the importance of the late-nineteenth-century psychophysiology that fused the physiology of the naturalist writers with the inner soul of the Symbolists. The interesting analysis of Van Gogh's "Sower" that follows threatens to divert us from the main topic of the book, but eventually the painting's subject is seen as a possible antidote to the problems of the city: dehumanization, loss of individualism, prostitution, disease, and barbarism.
Chapter 3 addresses "The De-Structured City" of the nineteenth century, characterized by rapid growth, new means of transportation, technology, and anonymity--and how Symbolist artists reacted to this de-structuring. For example, Hirsh contrasts the influences of neurasthenia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, and hysteria with traditional landscape mapping methods in her discussion of Munch's "Evening on Karl Johan Street" (in the city of Christiana). Here, as elsewhere, one of the best aspects of Hirsh's book is her thorough analysis of the formal aspects of individual works; she does not ignore the art in favor of the theory. The reader is grateful for her degree of aesthetic sensitivity, although one would be interested to have her also comment on the scene of the city of Christiana that figures prominently at the top of Munch's "Metabolism," a painting that Munch himself saw as crucial to his Frieze of Life series.
Chapter 4, "The Sick City," delves further into imagery of illnesses that occur in densely populated areas. Perhaps because Hirsh focuses on several and admittedly secondary cities, the evidence she presents related to those locales is thin. While she considers Victorian London and its sanitation problems, she could have amplified that section with studies dealing more directly with her chosen sites. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to the visual signs that artists accorded to bodies of victims of tuberculosis, syphilis, and degeneracy, all three of which are convincingly related to urban issues, often through primary sources. She does a particularly admirable job of unraveling the complex iconography and reception of Hodler's "The Consecrated One," pointing out relevant influences from France and England in the section on tuberculosis. Her reading of Munch's "Dance of Life" is perhaps credible, although mention should be made of the more usual ways in which the symbols have been interpreted by others. The most interesting conclusions appear at the end of this chapter, where the author suggests some of the ways in which the Symbolist artists sought to remedy the sick city: Khnopff's idealized faces, a return to nature and the sun (precursor to German Expressionist interests and motifs), images of healthier bodies, and the depiction of the artist as genius/seer as evidenced in Hirsh's enlightening discussion of Ensor's "Self-portrait with Masks."
Chapter 5 concentrates attention on what Hirsh terms "The City Woman, or the Should-Be Mother." The chapter opens with a thorough and revisionist discussion of Dutch artist Jan Toorop's "The Three Brides" and its context. Discussion of this painting is deftly related to gender and urban issues as well as eugenics and nationalism. Additional topics of interest brought to bear upon the artwork and the urban context in this chapter are birth rate, infant mortality, contraception, class distinctions, and anarchism, with more examples from French sources, both written and artistic. The extent to which the women in Symbolist art were dominated by men is convincingly shown in Khnopff's "Portrait of Maguerite Khnopff" and Hirsh's discussion of it. Also new in this chapter is Hirsh's idea of relating Munch's famous "Madonna" to "the high rate of abortion, infanticide, or abandonment of children that had become a public issue in the late 1880s, even in Norway." (p. 178). In the section on "Fallen Women," the author understandably begins with the requisite Victorian treatments of this theme before taking up versions by Van Gogh and Khnopff. The end of the chapter brings back Toorop's "The Three Brides," continuing an already exhaustive discussion with even more material regarding the "perfect woman," and ends with the interesting architectural plate from Albert Trachsel's "Festival of Nature," which combines maternal and urban themes.
"City Interiors and Interiority" is the title of the penultimate chapter, focused particularly on the home and, by extension, interior design as evinced in the English Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau (whose relationship to Symbolism is not treated in the book.) It was in the home where Symbolist artists sought to escape the horrors of urban existence and regain their status as individuals. At the same time, these artists used interiors to express ideas of spirituality and physical health, and even male dominance. In addition to examples by the Belgian artist Xavier Mellery, Hirsh refers to the work of the "French Neo-Impressionist" artist Georges Seurat who in 1889 was exhibiting with the Belgian group Les Vingt. Although Hirsh points to Seurat's subjects as "modern public spaces of the metropolis" as opposed to Mellery's more "evocative, and nostalgic settings" (p. 227), the reader misses those aspects of Seurat's work and milieu that relate to Symbolism.
The final chapter, "The Ideal City, The Dead City," investigates the medieval city (as opposed to ancient ruins, for example) as the ideal Symbolist city, incorporating Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte. This chapter ultimately identifies Symbolist artists as not only anti-woman, but also anti-science and -technology, and thus ultimately anti-modern in their own way. As Hirsh concludes, for Khnopff (and by extension, Symbolist artists) "the perfect city â?¦ could exist only as an inducer of nostalgia and a site of memory â?¦ thrust forever into modernity" (p. 277).
. See for example, Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York: Appleton, 1895); and On Art and Artists (London: Unwin, 1907); Cesare Lombroso, The Man of Genius (London: Scott, 1891); John Elderfield, Masterworks of Edvard Munch (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1979): pp. 8-9.
. See Malcolm Pasley, "Nietzsche's Use of Medical Terms," in Nietzsche: Imagery and Thought, ed. Malcolm Pasley (London: Methuen, 1978), pp. 129-30; and Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York: Appleton, 1895), p. 36.
. Michael Zimmerman, Seurat and the Art Theory of his Time (Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 1991). Zimmerman also offers a detailed accounting of late nineteenth-century psychophysiology.
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Shelley Cordulack. Review of Hirsh, Sharon L., Symbolism and Modern Urban Society.
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