Towards the end of the 19th century, Symbolist artists rejected a modern western culture dominated by reason and belief in progress.
They set off in search of more spiritual worlds, which they visualised in their prints. These artists took refuge inside themselves, in the secret places of dream and imagination.
They also looked outside, however, towards ‘primitive’ regions like Brittany and to earlier eras, such as the Middle Ages, when the connection between human beings and mystery was still intact.
Paul Gauguin’s quest for mysticism
Paul Gauguin literally travelled the world in search of the lost paradise. His print Manau Tupapau expresses the fears of a Tahitian girl through a highly personal mix of mystical symbolism that is hard to decipher. Like most Symbolists, he resisted attempts to decipher his work, which he felt would simply dissipate the mystery.
Maurice Denis: ‘He who mystics’
In 1899 the trendy satirical paper Père Ubu bestowed nicknames on numerous modern artists. Maurice Denis was dubbed ‘he who mystics’ (‘Celui qui mystique’).
It’s not a bad soubriquet for this artist, who managed to combine his Catholic faith, his poetic nature and his artistic ambitions in modern, mystical prints.
He used arabesques, colours and patterns to offer his own, distinctive interpretation of iconic figures like Mary and Christ, who represented the purity and serenity with which he wanted to touch the souls of his viewers directly.
Alfred Jarry, Almanach du Père Ubu, Parijs, 1899
Pierre-Louis Mathieu, La génération symboliste, Genève, 1990
Henri Dorra (red.), Symbolist Art Theories. A Critical Anthology, Berkeley, 1994