est eng 2024/1 international special pages! See: Nils Ohlsen "Konrad Mägi and Die Brücke at the Baltic Sea – just a coincidence or a phenomenon?"


Baltic Symbolism in Paris

Jaak Kangilaski (3/2018)

Jaak Kangilaski writes about "Symbolism in the Art of the Baltic States", an exhibition that celebrated the centennial of the Baltic States at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in spring and will be displayed at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn in the second half of this year.


10. IV–15. VII 2018
Musée d'Orsay

12. X 2018–3. II 2019
Great Hall at Kumu Art Museum

Artists: Kristjan Raud, Konrad Mägi, Nikolai Triik, Oskar Kallis, Janis Rozentāls, Vilhelms Purvītis, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis et al.
Curators: Rodolphe Rapetti, Liis Pählapuu.

One of the most important art events of this spring in Paris was the exhibition "Symbolism of the Baltic States" at the Musée d'Orsay (with more than 236,000 visitors – Ed.). Art historians have attempted to represent and explain the Western pluralist and contradictory art of the fin de siècle using a variety of terms that, in part, overlap. Estonian audiences are most familiar with the national romantic style and jugendstil. These terms are used in the chapter titles in the 5th volume of the "Eesti kunsti ajalugu" (History of Estonian Art) published in 2010 where symbolism is only discussed as an indistinct tendency in the art of the Young Estonia group. Which is why it might have been surprising or even strange to see the Orsay exhibition bring together under the umbrella of symbolism artworks that have previously been marked with other labels.


Symbolism in Western Europe

An analysis of European art makes the justification of the broad, albeit delimited, use of the term symbolism possible. In order to do so we need to recognise neo-romanticism as one of the more wide-ranging terms in the cultural life of the fin de siècle. Neo-romanticism was not a movement in art, but an independent discourse, a compilation or a system of ideas and attitudes of romantic type. Just like the representatives of the first wave, neo-romantics positioned themselves against the quotidian experience and were seeking to escape it through dreams and fantasies with no temporal or spatial limits. Alongside reason, emotions and intuition were also valued – the miraculous and extravagant instead of the normal.

Neo-romantics thought it pointless to depict only life that can be seen. It was natural for them to oppose the scientific worldview that had been so significant to many realists and impressionists. One of the reasons they were disappointed in science could be that its promises of improvements to society, which the previous generation had believed, actually never materialised. Secondly, the specialisation and narrowing of fields of scientific research left a lot less room to answer the general and existential questions people were so fascinated by. Neo-romantics also did not believe in the workers' movement and were mostly uninterested in politics, or if they were, tended to veer towards anarchism. Instead of sciences, many artists once again began to seek answers from religion; however, idealism (Platonism, Neo-Platonism) and eclecticism (e.g theosophy) were also popular alongside traditional Christianity, partly because of their use of scientific vocabulary. Charles Baudelaire's (1821–1867) legacy was especially significant, as he had mediated Emanuel Swedenborg's (1688–1772) ideas, the works of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) and Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and, based on their correspondence theory (of truth), developed teachings of the correspondence between the heavenly and earthly and the material and spiritual.

Neo-romantic ideas were embodied in two art movements: a new style, combining many fields of art (the style has numerous names, all carrying a similar sentiment – art nouveau or jugendstil, etc) and symbolism with its imagery alluding to supernatural or mystical meanings. According to Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), symbolism encapsulated a mystery, Jean Moréas (1856–1910) ideas were at the core of symbolism, although, they were to remain undefined. Consequently, it can be concluded that artworks can be labelled as representatives of art nouveau based on their formal characteristics, symbolist works, however, exhibit neo-romantic, anti-realist content that is at the same time stylistically unbound. Some works, symbolist in terms of their content, were novel (synthetist) in terms of style, although most preferred neo-classicism ‒ stylised or realistic details.

The most important centre of symbolist art in 1890s Paris was the Salon de la Rose + Croix with Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918) as its spiritual leader. He forbade exhibiting realist and impressionist portraits, landscapes, flowers and other objects, as well as depictions of actual history. Symbolists were expected to create deep subjective interpretations of religion, myths, legends and universal, generally humanist themes. The Salon was dominated by a pluralism of styles; however, early renaissance art was seen as the preferred ideal, just as it had been for the pre-Raphaelites. The work of the synthetists (the Pont-Aven school) was not recognised.

For French symbolists, who saw the world from the position of either the individual or the universe, patriotic themes remained distant. (Supported mainly by state funding, nationally-minded works that were, however, valued in official salons.) Neo-romantic artists that belonged to the group of stateless Central and Eastern European nations might have had a different kind of attitude towards nationalism. They stood out because of their romantic interpretations of their nations' histories and folklore, in form inspired by both folk art and the international jugendstil.


The national romantic style as part of symbolism

This kind of art, mostly referred to as the national romantic style, can be considered close to symbolism, as they are both inspired by the discourse of neo-romanticism. The main difference being that symbolism was concerned with humanist or individualist themes, and the national romantic style with local and collectivist themes. The distinction between the two is not that strict and Estonian artists at the time also worked with national and broader, sometimes even cosmopolitan themes. Since the national romantic style created its own means of stylistic expression, it was different from the kind of symbolism that was neo-romantic only in terms of content and followed a traditional style in form (like the symbolism which dominated the Salon de la Rose + Croix). This is why the national romantic style is close to symbolism and creates an independent style, like synthetism. This conclusion is also supported by Albert Aurier's (1865–1892) definition of symbolism from 1891 in which he states that symbolist art is idea-based, synthetic, subjective and decorative. All these characteristics also apply to the national romantic style. Therefore, it follows that the neo-romantic style can be considered a distinctive part of the pan-European symbolism.

When Estonian artists started to arrive in Paris around 1905, the heyday of symbolism had already passed. The rising modernist discourse stood in opposition not only to realism and academic art but also to symbolism. The latter was blamed for being overtly literal, dependent on complicated or mysterious illustrative content. Now only the visual quality of art was considered; it was no longer important what was painted, but how it was painted, and how "colours were arranged on surfaces". For modernists (fauvists, cubists, etc) it made little difference what was depicted. The renewing and individualist way of painting could also be made visible by painting simple motifs. The modernist thinking that emphasis on the content is cheap or even kitsch, prevailed for at least half a century.

Modernists were primarily inspired by post-impressionists whose retrospectives took place in the Salon d'Automne. The only ones recognised from the symbolist generation were the synthetists. Neo-impressionism contributed to liberating colours from reproducing those found in nature (Henri Matisse, "Luxe, Calme et Volupté", 1904) and neo-impressionism had a similar influence on the work of Konrad Mägi. Still, Estonian artists did not follow a consistent and radical streak of modernism. Most likely their ties to the nationally-minded attitudes and art of their own country and neighbouring nations (Norwegians, Finns), but also to "young" large nations (Russia, Germany) remained intact. This is the reason many of them carried the influence of symbolism in their work for a long time.

Estonian artists of the early 20th century would probably have had difficulty imagining their works being displayed in one of the most prominent museums in Paris. However, the postmodern discourse has given up recognising only one central narrative and one metropolis, and Parisians too may find it fascinating to discover art that is particular, yet somehow familiar to them.


Jaak Kangilaski is an art historian, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tartu and the Estonian Academy of Arts and author of numerous foundational texts on Estonian art history.



Kristjan Raud
Death of Kalevipoeg
Charcoal, paper
Art Museum of Estonia

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