Published  15/01/2013

Van Gogh To Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape In Europe 1880–1910

Van Gogh To Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape In Europe 1880–1910

National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
14 July–14 October 2012

Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland
16 November 2012–17 February 2013


This exhibition is well conceived in principle and excellently hung; landscape here, is the clear unifying thread that sustains a plethora of styles. The authors of the catalogue are emphatic that Symbolism was not a single style and from a curatorial point of view this freer premise is a relief from such constraints.

For a collaborative exhibition it allows a degree of international parity to be established, in balancing harmoniously the varied range of works to acknowledge the presumed “needs list” of the three participating national galleries. Indeed collaboration between Britain (qua Scotland), Holland and Finland provided an adequate scale in exhibiting across boundaries to make the show economically viable. This realised, to reach at the essence of so-called Symbolism is to plumb the depths of a fin-de-siècle condition in which the fragmentation of ideas was itself Europe-wide. Typically Paris emerges as the fulcrum here. Already the concrete and perceptible recognition of a plausible Symbolist literature there had duly led to a ready transference of ideas from poetry as a medium to actual painting. However artists continued, in their own vein, to pursue varied sources of inspiration and indeed of expressionism. Already evident and yet subtly percolating everywhere was the freshening idiom of modernism. The point of contact across the board was indeed Landscape Art, growing to fruition into the 20th century. This exhibition is important in documenting that actual process in the formation of such ideas, which would develop over the next hundred years as a coherent and creative field for artists, in several media.

For that reason it must immediately be said here that certain artists, in this space-tight context, might best not have been included. Appropriately Van Gogh and Kandinsky make the perfect bookends to the show: what could be more symbolically explicit here than the former's small but dramatic The Sower, (1888) and the latter's evocative Murnau with Church, (1910) and Mountain (1909). Kandinsky emerged from Russia as the leading innovator to this effect. But into the “clearing house”, meantime, should have been consigned Puvis de Chavannes, Walter Crane, Frederic Lord Leighton, George Frederick Watts. Then to the exhibition there could justifiably have been added, from the key Scottish Galleries and Museums, a significant number of Scottish works wholly compatible with the objectives of the exhibition. This would suit this particular national venue as well as the international audience and festival-goers.

Thematically it seems those above, so to say nominated for “clearing”, are somehow less than relevant, especially when Scottish artists are being entirely and inexplicably excluded on their home ground. From an international standpoint today, such would have allowed a more even-handed balance. The same “needs-list” criteria would anyway have been applied by curators in each of the partnering national galleries of Finland and the Netherlands. Fortuitously, certain relatively unknown gems from elsewhere have indeed been included. One such is the work of the Lithuanian painter Mikalojus Ciurlionis, who was also a composer, and hence was much admired both by Kandinsky and by the composer Stravinsky. He was able successfully to fuse musical concepts into visual form, a good representation too from Lithuania.

However, the critic is not the curator. From a pan-European view this exhibition usefully raises more issues than it can possibly solve. Symbolism is an open field. What is very much a part of contemporary thinking is the role that a culture of landscape art can fulfil, both in the urban and in the rural environment where exploitative development across Europe is so contentious.

Fortuitously this exhibition opens dramatically: a timeless gateway to our humanity's own contemplation of a cosmic landscape where we have to prioritise actions, so fulfilling dreams (as well as anticipating dereliction) if we now default on today's environmental responsibilities. Now after the turn of this century we have recognised the downside. A century and more ago, it was the natural environment that provided the backdrop to our follies, as for no less than William Morris. We still seek "freedom, equality, a certain kind of civilisation in a small corner of the world known as Europe”, as Leo Tolstoy was earlier to put it in his epilogue to War and Peace.

This was indeed the aspiration of most: against such uncertainties artists soon realised was the human predicament and drama, infused with the tensions of the new Freudian analyses of mood and self. In this exhibition the works of Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Piet Mondrian, Claude Monet and from Finland especially, of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Hugo Simberg, and Vaino Blomstedt testify to powerful motivations: Akseli Gallen-Kallela was moved by National Romanticism in anticipation of an independent Finland. Yet there were also talented female artists like Finland's Ellen Thesleff and the Norwegian Kitty L Kiellan reaching for status who could have added another dimension a further motivation, if included.

Then from Russia, Arkhip Kuindzhi so well represented in the Guggenheim “Russia!” show (2006) as also Isaak Levitan could perhaps have been further added, to give a broader picture. The Swedish polymath August Strindberg, painter, playwright and critic here points the way forward, with two powerful works: Wonderland, (1894) and Alpine Landscape (1894). Here there is a sweeping freedom of execution, with paint applied directly by the palette knife that in its richness can even be said to anticipate later 20th-century abstract expressionism.

Importantly the capturing of a sense of “place”, both physical and psychological, pervades the best of the works selected, commonly emanating from such countries. The Finnish painter, Eero Jarnefelt, said in his diary in the 1890s: “I do not care for Symbolism.” Yet the “interiority” of his immaculate work (not shown here), in its psychological provision drew him into the fold.

Figurative works such as that of the Swedish Painter Anders Zorn not shown (as Red Sand, 1902) can readily be equated with Scotland's own J D Fergusson's Les Eus (1910), whereby his joyful nude dancers in the forest contrast as a state of mind with Zorn's apprehensive girl stepping through constricting undergrowth. But focusing purely on this exhibition as presented turning to the section describing several examples of “empty” cities, a certain quality of painterly negativity is cleverly compiled by grouping together in one room effectively those works which express a loss of individual and collective identity, especially when such external places are presented as silent and void, without people. Examples here are Whistler's Nocturnes, the empty urban spaces here of the Belgian Fernand Khnopff, Odilon Redon and of Vilhelm Hammerschoi, are in their instinctual “angst” all brought forward in this part of the exhibition to a powerful, haunting climax reached with the famous work Melancholy by Giorgio de Chirico.
Appropriately too the matter of the “cosmic” landscape (now again a preoccupation of land artists) is addressed specifically (and in the catalogue eloquently by Professor Richard Thomson). Various sorties undertaken in the period by such painters as Walter Crane, George Frederick Watts, the Swedish painter Jens Willumsen and Georges Lacombe reflect an ambivalent escapism, shading into episodic expressions of the same inclination by Munch and Ensor. Here it is symbolically the sun which offers salvation for all, in a further climacteric section, and dramatically portrayed by an early Piet Mondrian entitled simply, Woods near Oele, (l908). Vertical trees and shadowy reflections run with horizontal terrain against a wavering sun, as Thomson says: “to suggest a transitory state on the way to enlightenment.”

But for Mondrian, as for us all, it can only in its emblematic fragility, convey a human aspiration and, no more. Certain works by landscapists such as Charles Filger, Emile Bernard, Georges Lacombe and Harald Sohberg are joined by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's own masterly, Lake Thun and the Stockhorn Mountains (1910), by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. Perhaps relevantly, this Editor as a member of the Gallery's 1976 Acquisition Committee recalls arguing the case for this fine purchase, duly to join the collection, which at the time was initially queried. Now fortunately it stands here as good evidence of the merits of foresight. Indeed this whole exhibition serves as an energiser for this gallery and its companion, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, pointing to the important ferment in today's new period of intellectual confusion.

The National Galleries of Scotland, the Ateneum in Helsinki and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam have jointly here pulled off a remarkable curatorial coup, a fine model of museum collaboration and well-timed at this period of transition and economic “cuts”. Hopefully it will lead now to further such viable projects, and as it goes they might indeed hereby show more confidently Scottish talents new and old, in their international context as which abundantly exists, as also benefits both Finland and the Netherlands. A fresh focus on the evolution of contemporary Land Art, as is well represented by these participating nations and their galleries, would be a timeous successor to the Symbolist show.

Several such Scottish landscapists have already featured in Studio International in the past decade, such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Charles Jencks, Suzanne Philipz, Bruce McLean and Hamish Fulton, as well as Will Maclean and Arthur Watson. The elemental paintings of the late Jon Schueler are also relevant (now exhibiting something of a revival in the USA). Similarly in Finland and the Netherlands, numerous artists have opened new land art perspectives. Such contemporary work is not without reference to this precedent of Symbolism and can arguably demonstrate a particularly Europe-wide generic evolution of art related to landscape. One thing is certain - it will prove equally polyvalent in meaning. Whether the same richness of visual engagement with landscape is achieved can hopefully remain to be seen. 


The book/catalogue, 207pp., 129 illustrations, full colour with articles by Rodolphe Rapetti, Richard Thomson, Frances Fowle, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, is published in six languages by Mercatorfonds, Brussels, 2012.

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