It is in some ways a bit funny that when many of us think of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, we often first recall the works of the latter Pre-Raphaelites and the artists associated with them, rather than the actual Brotherhood that began the movement in the early second half of the 19th Century. Many of the latter-day artists, such as Burne-Jones and Waterhouse, have become as synonymous with the movement as its founders like Rossetti or Millais, and to me that is all the more impressive a testament to their work. Edward Coley Burne-Jones‘ works were more heavily influenced by Medieval legends and ancient myth, and he was not confined to just the medium of paint on canvas, as he explored other venues of expression in painted and stained glass, chintzes and tapestries, and set design and decoration for the stage. As his work matured and he grew artistically, he showed a deep and abiding affinity for narrative art, creating entire series inspired by Sleeping Beauty, Perseus and the Gorgon, and Pygmalion. The darkly sensuous imagery he conjured from his imagination has become as immortal as the myths and legends that he idolized in his youth.
Philosopher. Poet. Artist. William Blake was all of these things. A central figure of the Romantic movement, and a precursor to Symbolism, Blake utilized Judeo-Christian concepts in his artwork and poetry, all the while exploring the ideas of classical philosophy as embodied by the pagan cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and mining their mythological pantheon for creative metaphors. Throughout all of his work, the same themes resurface time and time again, suggesting a deep and ever-evolving commitment to his convictions of faith and social equality. Rebelling against the dogmas and rigidity of organized religion, Blake confounded his contemporaries who failed to understand why someone with such clear faith in God would reject the church and its doctrines. The Biblical imagery found in his poetry and art is as complex as Blake himself was and shows him often being at odds with himself and the world in which he lived. He was woefully misunderstood in his time, but as Western culture progressed, his work was reevaluated and he has become praised for his genius, if not fully understood. The iconoclast has become an icon to intellectuals, romantics, and rebel spirits, who find within his work an all-encompassing passion and gleaming gems of intelligence.
With precise execution and an accentuation of detail, Gustave Moreau was for a time one of the most prestigious painters in the world of symbolism, though today his work is largely overlooked. His style was partly illustrative, but its roots in symbolism are deep, and much of his work looks forward and prophetically hints at the Art Nouveau movement that would become ascendent well over a decade later. In his oeuvre, mythological figures are displayed in all their ornate glory, as fantastic centerpieces in understated environments, and as symbols of our complex human nature stripped down to its most fundamental form. Desire, temptation, innocence, beauty, yearning – these are the themes that run through Moreau’s paintings. They’re not particularly unique themes (they are of course the central themes that are found in most of the great artwork in the 18th and 19th Centuries), but Moreau’s work rises above the commonplace. It is lavished the kind of attention and appreciation by his skilled hand that makes each painting a masterpiece. His style is singular, iconic, innovative, and entirely the result of his genius.
As far as symbolism goes, and especially where mythological themes and figures are concerned, Franz von Stuck is one of the premier artists of the turn of the century and into the first couple decades of the 20th Century. Stuck, who was heavily influenced and inspired by fellow symbolist Böcklin, succeeded in bridging the more classical symbolist style of the late 19th Century with the more modern aesthetic approaches of the Art Nouveau era. His use of gold adornments in his paintings, his simple yet bold color palette, and his focus on elaborate details and embellishments endow his work with a distinctive style. Like many symbolist painters, his work is steeped in the erotic and the morbid, the two are often combined in his dark mythological and Biblical scenes, wherein a beauteous and often morally unscrupulous femme fatale put hers feminine charms to corruptive and destructive use. Stuck remains a favorite of mine for his willingness, and indeed his innate ability, to depict transgressions and horrors so seductively.
Arnold Böcklin is for me one of the great Symbolist painters of the latter part of the 19th Century. In a few short years between the 1880s and his death in 1901, he produced a body of work that was simultaneously beautiful and grotesque to behold. Blending Gothic romanticism, symbolism, and academicism. His latter works, in particular, took his mythological subject matter into darker, more ominous, and more overtly erotic territories, all the while showcasing his considerable talent for creating dynamic compositions and atmospheric landscapes. His attention to detail and his bold brush strokes combined to create a unique method (especially at a time where most artists were prone to focus on either technique or expression), giving Böcklin a mastery over both. While he may not be as celebrated today – a real crime, in my opinion – the legacy of incredibly vivid and morbid paintings he produced speaks for itself: Böcklin was a master.
Gustav Klimt is probably the singular artist I think of as embodying the Vienna Secession and the Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, movements. Utilizing eroticism, romance, youth, and other classical elements, Klimt touched upon all the usual human themes that permeate art and culture, but he did so in an aesthetically unique way. Klimt drew from symbolism, aestheticism, and ancient Egyptian and Byzantine art, giving his work an entirely unique style, especially during his golden phase. As he progressed creatively, he placed an increasing emphasis on femininity and female sexuality, at first represented within the context of mythological figures and then later more directly and controversially in his more graphic drawings. Like Munch and Redon, Klimt’s work has grown on me over the years, as I’ve identified more and more with his subject matter and approach, and today I can easily call him one of my favorite artists.
Some artists have created such indelible and iconic images that one work comes to encompass their whole legacy. While it takes a great genius to create such a work, what is unfortunate is that he or she may have created many more masterpieces that go unappreciated or are overshadowed by the artist’s previous success. In the case of Edvard Munch, he became so renowned and so famous for two or three pieces (namely The Scream, Puberty, and Madonna), that the rest of his extraordinary oeuvre has remained relatively obscure to the public. Most who know of Munch have one, two, or three images emblazoned in their mind’s eye and know little or nothing else of the Norwegian artist. They probably associate his work with Post-Impressionism and Proto-Expressionism during the fin-de-siècle. Few are aware that Munch continued to produce haunting and emotionally evocative well into the early 1940s before his death at the age of 80 in 1944. Though the Nazis deemed his work “degenerate art” and had him banned, he has continued to inspire artists and aesthetes who see his work for its true value with all of its innovative technique, melancholy subject matter, and always relevant human themes. Munch deserves not only wider recognition of his works, but also a deeper understanding of his social importance within the art world, and this warrants another look, or perhaps a first look for many, of his genius.