Socialist Worker

Symbolist art transformed the landscape into a canvas for ideas

Helen Blair writes on how artists from Van Gogh to Kandinsky tried to move beyond the surface of capitalist modernity

Issue No. 2319

Sun over Southern Mountains, a 1902 Symbolist painting by Danish artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (Pic: Tord Lund)

Sun over Southern Mountains, a 1902 Symbolist painting by Danish artist Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (Pic: Tord Lund)

Anyone familiar with city life will associate it with human energy—crowds, noise, traffic, and industry. The 19th century saw European cities experience rapid growth.

An exhibition at Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery has a room full of powerful paintings of city life from this period. Yet humanity is completely absent. Dark, desolate and deeply sad, these monochromatic, twilight scenes are atmospheric and disturbing.

Belgian artist Leon Spilliaert transforms a popular tourist beach in Ostend into a haunting, nightmarish image, where the soaring perspective threatens to engulf the viewer.

Silent Cities is part of the exhibiton Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910. It’s an astonishing collection of paintings from 18 European countries—many have never been seen outside their own country.

Symbolism was a reaction against the naturalistic depiction of the surface of things, as well as against the effects of capitalist modernisation. It was an attempt to visually express the underlying tensions and anxieties that characterised the modern world.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote that in art “a protest against reality always forms part of a really creative piece of work”. By this measure, the paintings here are so creative they should have a room each.

Symbolist landscapes could evoke a world of dark shadows and menacing storm clouds, or produce nostalgic meditations on the transitory nature of things. They could conjure up visions of imagined earthly paradise.

In all cases landscapes were manipulated to evoke an emotive response. In Paul Gauguin’s attempt to escape modern life, he completely removed the town of St Pierre from Martinique Landscape (1887) to make it look more like a tropical paradise.


But Symbolism could also be a vehicle for struggles in countries fighting for independence. Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Broken Pine (1906) was painted a year after a general strike in Finland. A severed trunk surrounded by healthy saplings symbolises Finland’s resistance to Russian repression.

One artist declared the Symbolist aim was to “paint ideas, not things”. There was no shortage of big ideas around to stimulate visual expression—evolution, geological time, the energies of the cosmos. Symbolism could also echo developments in psychoanalysis.

In Man and Woman on the Beach (1907), Edvard Munch’s discordant colours and steep perspective portray a Norwegian beach as a soul in turmoil.

George Frederick Watts’s After the Deluge (1886) is dominated by a huge sun, an awe inspiring sphere of flaming gases and intense heat.

Joaquin Mir’s The Abyss (1904), shows a dramatic coastal ravine that seems still to be in formation. Lava-like reds, yellows, purples, and dark and light colour contrasts stretch the full height of the ravine inducing vertigo.

Colour was crucial. Van Gogh described The Sower (1888), as “an immense lemon yellow disc for the sun, the field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian blue”. Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky made use of bold colour and simplified form.

Kandinsky’s Cossacks (1910) shows recognisable elements of landscape. But it’s clear that Kandinsky edged his art towards abstraction, freeing it from what Gauguin called “the shackles of probability”.

Ironically, in its use of colour and form to explore states of mind, Symbolism—which began as a rejection of the modern world—ended by helping to create the aesthetic premises of modern art.

Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 is on at the Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL, until 14 October. Go to

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Tue 4 Sep 2012, 17:52 BST
Issue No. 2319
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