Looking for Simberg at Musée d’Orsay

Symbolism might just be the emo kid of late nineteenth-century painting. It was a reaction against Realism, I’m told, but I’m not sure how that works — let’s say she’s her little sister. It’s probably a thematic thing, not wanting to paint peasants toiling away in the fields under an unjust bourgeoisie or aristocracy. Realist painting is an odd animal in its manifestation as social criticism, because it’s not too difficult to see how it was just a bunch of rich folk pretending to care about social injustice by commissioning costly paintings from leading artists and thus making themselves feel better by speaking out against the very system that sustains them and enables them to voice their criticism in this manner. In an odd way Realism is anything but getting real. Symbolism simply says: “Screw real!”

It is also linked to Romanticism, and here the links are even more puzzling. To draw on the emo analogy, Symbolism borrows Romanticism’s eyeliner in order to look cool. In Finland, Symbolism and Romanticism are firmly attached to Finnish nationalism and, now, the Civil War. This went on yesterday at a Civil War event in Tampere: a poor girl was paraded around town as a tableau vivant version of Hugo Simberg‘s Symbolist masterpiece The Wounded Angel.

Source: Wikipedia

I’m not sure what the painting is about, but it’s fairly clear that things aren’t that rosy when mortals have to start taking care of angels and gods. There’s sorrow, death, pain, and all the things you’d find in the notebook of an angst-ridden teenager. Still, it manages to move people and it’s virtually a sacred piece of Finnish culture.

French people have Symbolists, too, but it is difficult for the uninitiated to see why something is classified Symbolism in a given case and not something else. All these Isms can be quite daunting and to realize that they must overlap can breed more confusion. They don’t have to be concepts like that, though. They can be descriptive terms, more focused on the style of the individual painting and not necessarily point to the entire school, the philosophy behind it, or the long story of Western art. For instance, Henri Martin has been called an Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, Pointillist, and probably other things as well. He’s also quite the Symbolist.

Source: Wikipedia

His Sérénité is a large work that seems to depict a Romantic subject, the Elysian Fields, and use Impressionist techniques. It sort of reminds me of Simberg’s painting, although the subject matter is not as dark. However, there seems to be a similar melancholy in Martin’s painting despite its happy subject. The figures don’t seem too happy with their happy lot.

I suppose it’s natural that Simberg’s painting evoked in the context of the Civil War would also bring to mind Fernand Cormon‘s terrifying Cain.

Source: Wikipedia

That’s Cain in front, doomed to wander for eternity for killing his brother. It’s also pretty big and commentators always note the fact that religious symbols are notably absent from the scene. It’s supposed to be a naturalistic depiction of this sad procession and religious symbols hadn’t been invented yet.

Simberg never explained his Symbolism in The Fallen Angel, so this little sketch isn’t really based on any information from him or anyone else in the know. Some of the Impressionist techniques like those of Martin seem to be present in Angel, the stretcher-idea can be seen in Cormon’s picture; put them together and you have something like what Simberg says. The French paintings are probably not sources, but we can use them to pour some explanations into Simberg’s painting which itself is full of empty meaning.

1 Response to “Looking for Simberg at Musée d’Orsay”

  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:39

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