Symbolism in Europe: Burne-Jones, Khnopff, Mucha, and Gauguin

Edward Burne-Jones
TATE BRITAIN, LONDON | OCTOBER 24, 2018 – FEBRUARY 24, 2019

Fernand Khnopff: The Master of Enigma
PETIT PALAIS, PARIS | DECEMBER 11, 2018 – MARCH 17, 2019

Alphonse Mucha
MUSÉE DU LUXEMBOURG, PARIS | SEPTEMBER 12, 2018 – JANUARY 27, 2019

Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey
DE YOUNG MUSEUM, SAN FRANCISCO | NOVEMBER 17, 2018 – APRIL 7, 2019

Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), À Fosset. Le garde qui attend, 1883. Oil on canvas, 151 x 175.5 cm. Francfort-sur-le-Main, Stadel Museum.

At the very moment that the European Union appears on the verge of splintering, with Britain’s impending Brexit on March 29, four concurrent monographic and single venue exhibitions have celebrated artists central to fin-de-siècle Symbolism, the last truly unified movement in European art. Unfortunately, only one of these shows has reached the United States, a missed opportunity to introduce American audiences and critics to artists of this still undervalued movement.

History is instability; art reflects that tenuousness. The alienation and abstraction of Modernism has long cast Symbolism in shadow, inadvertently devaluing its essentially human mission—the understanding of both the inner self and the communal self in a time of historical upheaval. The evocative figuration and landscapes of mood of Pan-European symbolism evolved out of late-romantic reactions to mid-nineteenth-century revolutions across Europe. Symbolist styles subsequently became the bases for either less literary or more concrete nationalist imagery across Europe into the twentieth century. Simultaneously and relatedly, applied art took the advances and ethos of the English Pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic, and Arts and Crafts movements and evolved into Art Nouveau, which found figurative fecundity in the art of Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884. Oil on canvas, 293.4 x 135.9 cm. Tate, presented by subscribers 1900.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) is the critical character in this story for it was his vision which set the imagination aflame, of European artists resisting French Impressionism and the lure of plein air landscape painting, seeking instead an internalized art based on a correspondence between the body and nature. A second-generation Pre-Raphaelite, he and William Morris were the leading lights in the Art and Crafts Movement with Burne-Jones designing nearly every figure employed in Morris and Company’s stained glass windows, tapestries, publications, embroideries, and carpets. But it was his oil paintings, for instance, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884, Tate) on view at the Paris 1889 International Exposition, which proved an inspiration to young continental artists. It was Burne-Jones’s fervid imagination and originality—his potent blend of medieval settings and forms with modernized Renaissance bodies and faces—that elicited varied responses in the Belgian Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Czech Mucha.

The Burne-Jones show at Tate Britain was an opulent if straightforward survey of his oeuvre in all media. It was more concentrated than the sprawling survey of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, but less pointed. There was no presiding idea. It made no great claims about the deeper resonance of his work than to show it in all its glory⎯reiterating the familiar take on his art as a form of retreat from the teeming Victorian scene, such as the squalor of industrialized and working class Birmingham where the artist grew up. Though in more recent times Burne-Jones has been productively seen, with Morris, as engaged in a dialogue of directed rebuttal against his era, e.g., his art as a proleptic and socialist push against the ills of the present—medievalism not as wistful nostalgia but, as in Morris’s writings such as News from Nowhere, a guide to a better future.1 The intellectually uninspiring sequence of galleries devoted to early work, drawings, exhibition pictures, portraits, series and applied arts presented Burne-Jones‘s work in isolation, with almost no mention of international connections, and as a hermetic retreat. It veers too close to the misplaced isolationism and self-exceptionalism of the Brexit populists now supporting cutting Britain’s European ties.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898),The Beguiling of Merlin, 1872-77. Oil on canvas, 186 x 111 cm. National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Yet Burne-Jones’s art directly impacted that of Khnopff and Mucha: the former in the pursuit of a personal idealism, and the latter in his mission to produce a popular historical art. The spectacular Khnopff show at the Petit Palais in Paris combined exquisite exhibition design, thoughtful signage, and a wide selection of his work (around 138 objects). Curators Michel Draguet, Christophe Leribault, and Dominique Morel replicated the interiors and exterior of what they call the “temple to the self,“ Khnopff‘s grand residence in Brussels. The walls of the ten galleries mimicked its coloring and wainscotting and even referenced the artist‘s interest in synesthesia: he used atomisers to scent individual rooms with various aromas and installed hidden musical instruments for accompanying tunes. The designers reproduce this sensorium in four rooms enhanced by delightful “audio-olfactory panels“ where one could use a reproduction of an Edison-era listening device to hear period music or poetry, and sniff from the top of a parfum produced by the company IFF.

In Khnopff’s art, as in John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-52) and Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose series (1891) from Buscot Park, on view at the Tate, nature is not idyllic or romanticized, but exists in all its refulgent glory, simultaneously threatening and threatened by the Industrial Revolution. Early depictions of the Forest of Fosset derive their symbolist resonance not from meaningful variations of strident color as in Gauguin’s synthetist and cloissonist landscapes of the same period, but from their epic stillness, and the artist’s devotion to gradations of tone. But for a few frozen figures here and there, as in the large Jules Bastien-Lepage-inspired À Fosset. Le garde qui attend (1883), they are shadowless, depopulated scenes, bearing grim lowering skies and resisting narrative or psychology. The later, more well-known Bruges landscapes, such as Secret-Reflect (1902), are serene and timeless views of that medieval city where he had lived as a young boy, its canals and bridges unusually still and vacant, or paired as in the case of a bookplate he designed with a suggestive female face, which is a reworked version of Millais’s Ophelia. Deftly crafted with oil or crayon or pastels, their forms move in and out of focus, a lack of resolution often aided by his use of photography to design compositions or his application of color to photographic prints he had commissioned of his own works. The most novel element of his work is this dialogue with legibility where the resulting narrative ambuiguity approximates the ephemerality of memory.

Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Secret-Reflet, 1902. Pastel on canvas and colored crayon on paper, 49.5 cm. diameter and 27.8 x 49 cm. Bruges, Stedelijke Musea, Groeningemuseum.

The penultimate room of the Khnopff show was devoted to women and nudes. The artist’s mythologizing and slight androgynizing of contemporary female bodies and faces (especially of his sister, Marguerite) led him to conceive of works based on the writings of Flaubert and Péladan, but also a triptych from Edmund Spenser’s 16th century The Faerie Queene. The full-length heroines and personifications Acrasia, Britomart, and Solitude (1890-1897) firmly placed us in Burne-Jones territory. Such transformations of the female form are related to the long career of Khnopff’s contemporary Alphonse Mucha, whose heavily-attended exhibition at the Luxembourg was a revelation.

Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Solitude or L'IsolementTriptyque: Acrasia, 1897, and Britomart, 1892. Both oil on canvas, 150.8 x 45 cm. Brussels. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Région de Bruxelles-Capitale, dation Gillion-Crowet; Solitude, 1890-91, Pastel and wax on paper mounted to canvas, 150 x 43 cm. Collection Ferdinand W. Neess, musée de Wiesbaden.

Born under the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Moravia in 1860, Mucha found his way to Paris in 1888 after spending time in Vienna and Munich. The exhibition begins in the French capital, with the efflorescence of the “style Mucha”—posters for Sarah Bernhardt theatrical productions,2 commercial designs for exhibitions, champagne, rail lines, cigarettes, and perfume. Around 1900, Parisian style was synonymous with Mucha: seductive women in various stages of dress, backed by geometric designs that incorporated the Arts and Crafts vegetal imagery of Morris and Burne-Jones and an impossibly broad range of cultural ornament from throughout history transformed into a swirling, organic, yet tightly controlled whole. In short, l’Art nouveau. The finished products—largely lithographs, a medium over which Mucha evinced complete control—are refined and riotously colored. The drawings on display here of live plants, designs for objects d’art such as jewelry, cutlery, chocolate pots, interiors, and portraits are breathtakingly accomplished, and reveal the intellectual and aesthetic process by which natural forms were made to conform to the Mucha ideal. The synthesis of human and nature in Art Nouveau, a unity Burne-Jones had suggested in works such as The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-1877), was in Mucha’s hand and on his lithographic stones perfected in the pursuit of a signature style. And his greatest modern insight was fully on display in the early rooms: while not fine art, his commercial work, visible for free to the multitudes on the streets of Paris, led to an idea of the modern, quickly to be celebrated in film and photography and other media⎯that sex sells. As in his personification of La Musique of 1898, his saucy, game women, self-aware and slinky, soaking up the gaze and/or giving it right back, have never left capitalist culture, and it started here.

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), La Musique, 1898. Study for the series The Arts. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 56 x 34.8 cm. Fondation Mucha.

Mucha’s designs at the International Exhibition Universelle in Paris of 1900 for pavilions and posters for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria, not only established him as a cosmopolitan artist, but moved him to think deeply about individual and national identity in a capitalist world. In designing menus and posters and pageants incorporating ethnic costumes and native architectural forms he began to turn away from the generic female White caucasian physiognomies of his Parisian commercial work, to think about ethnic difference and expressions of Slavic nationalism. Multiple trips to the United States from 1904 to 1910 surely keyed him into the idea of evolving an identity freed from empire, and in the burgeoning figurative tradition in America, a route to constructing a new native history. When he secured funding for a grand cycle of images called The Slav Epic, he moved to Prague in 1910.

At this stage in the exhibition the art became less familiar and the ideas more potent. A room of mystical works from around 1900 showed Mucha the Symbolist, experimenting with automatic drawing and forms that allow him to be seen as a missing link between Burne-Jones and Surrealism. In other words, it presented a striking contrast to the conventional story of modern art represented by Gauguin and the Nabis that is largely intact in the Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey at the de Young.3 Both the Mucha and Gauguin exhibitions note that the painters were roommates for a time in the early 1890s and friends and collaborators. It is critical to consider the post-commercial angles of Mucha’s art in lieu of Gauguin’s spiritual, ethnic, and primitivist ideas, as well as Gauguin’s own market strategies in lieu of witnessing Mucha’s rampant commercial success. But Mucha’s mystical works such as the swirling, gorgeous pastel titled Vision (c. 1900), designs and states of mind inspired by Strindberg, Maeterlinck, Mallarmé, Swedenborg, his occultism and interest in theosophy, revealed the unleashing of his considerable draftsmanship skills in flights of imagination instead of considerations of commerce. His edition of the Lord’s Prayer, Le Pater (1899), began the process of transforming Aestheticism, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau into a universal aspirational aesthetic. Such imagery would evolve into, among other forms, his own Slav Epic (1912–1926), the Mexican Muralism of Rivera and Siquieros, Frank Brangwyn’s and Josep Maria Sert’s Rockefeller Center murals, and the decorative historical cycles of the WPA and those found across European public buildings. It would also be a spur to the representational art of fascism and Soviet Realism. This is a potent story of modern art’s inextricable relationship to historical instability, an unsteady legacy yet to be told, and it is gripping to see the formation of such ideas in Mucha’s maturity.

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), Vision, c. 1900. Pastel on paper, 30 x 55 cm. Fondation Mucha.

In the understandable absence of the twenty individual six-by-eight meter canvases comprising The Slav Epic (1912-26), the curators have installed a wraparound theater that shows a film documenting all of them in full and in details, along with a number of sketches and photographs related to this ambitious and imaginatively produced project. The series has yet to find a permanent home, and is seen as a well-intentioned attempt to unify the Slavs and present their history in a way that instead collapsed and misrepresented their various ethnic distinctions. Yet, the exhibition effectively shows how Mucha strove to translate the populist drive of his Paris works into a grand national narrative. He lived long enough to see Prague overrun by the Germans in March 1939 and to be arrested by the Gestapo, dying in July of that year, and it is in the final gallery that we witness his response to the rise of fascism in Europe: powerful, figurative, pacifist tableaux with subjects such as La Lumière de l’espérance (1933), and stained glass designs that promote a message of social harmony and justice commensurate to the stained glass of Burne-Jones and Morris so very long before.

In Europe the Nazis blew it all to hell, of course, and in doing so intensified Western high culture’s distrust of progressive and uplifting figurative fine art for two generations, such that critics still struggle to accept ambitious, universalizing representational art in our moment, whether it be by Jenny Saville and Dana Schutz, or the landscapes of Stephen Hannock and Tacita Dean. New histories are needed. The Khnopff and Mucha shows hint at how to begin to write them.



  1. The stimulating and novel ideas about Burne-Jones that Elizabeth Prettejohn puts forward in her two essays the catalogue are almost entirely absent in the exhibition wall text.
  2. Mucha, ably played by Matthew Saldivar, figured heavily in the excellent Roundabout Theatre production of Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, directed by Moritz von Steulpnagel and starring Janet McTeer. August 31-November 18, 2018 at the American Airlines Theatre. Mucha’s poster for Bernhardt’s Hamlet of 1899 also reprised Millais’s Ophelia.
  3. The exceptional element in the de Young show is the welcome inclusion of Polynesian, Māori, Marquesan and other art of the Pacific peoples from the permanent collection in an attempt to show what art impacted Gauguin.

Contributor

Jason Rosenfeld

JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail. 

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