About Symbolism

Symbolism was a major movement in European culture between about 1880 and 1910. Major creative figures of that period – from the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch and the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck – can be considered under the Symbolist rubric, in their endeavours to create new forms which were suggestive rather than descriptive.

Symbolism, one might say, responded to a more fluid and fragmented understanding of the modern world, reacting against the materialist assumptions and positivist thinking of contemporary naturalism. Above all, Symbolism was a current – ‘movement’ is too coherent a word – which was both pan-European and ran across the creative disciplines.

That very multi-faceted quality is central to Symbolism’s fascination, but has also led to its being misunderstood and undervalued. In the determinedly progressive culture of the twentieth century, Symbolism could easily be regarded as a backwater, a marginal and temporary diversion in post-Enlightenment culture flowing strongly from scientific naturalism into progressive modernism. It has been dismissed as escapist and reactionary, and in the visual arts as illustrative and too literary.

This Network is intended to stimulate and co-ordinate a vibrant new phase in the reassessment of Symbolism.