Julien Nguyen, The Fairest of the Seasons, 2016. Oil on panel, 22 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 1 1/4 in. Photo: Michael Underwood. Courtesy of the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles

Symbolism in a Time of Literal Disaster

In the late nineteenth century, Symbolism gave rise to the bizarre and baroque imaginings of artists in revolt against a world dehumanized by technology and hurtling toward war. Today’s New Symbolist moment carries intriguing similarities.

by Chris Sharp
Jun 5 2018, 8:12am

Julien Nguyen, The Fairest of the Seasons, 2016. Oil on panel, 22 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 1 1/4 in. Photo: Michael Underwood. Courtesy of the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles

Alastair Mackinven, Untitled, 2015–2017. Oil on canvas, 63 x 53 1/4 in. Photo: Joerg Lohse. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York and Los Angeles

Symbolism has achieved a new currency of late, cropping up in galleries in London, New York, and Los Angeles in addition to studios in Berlin and Vienna. Steeped in pagan mythology, occult practices, the organic, and the afterlife, historical Symbolism was an anti-modernist movement of idealized forms that had a large impact on fin de siècle European culture after the French newspaper Le Figaro published a loose-limbed manifesto defining the aesthetic by Jean Moréas in 1886. Reacting against the perceived mundanity of realism—the dominant mode of the era—its practitioners in arts and letters sought to concoct an unlikely aesthetic revolution from pieces of the past, namely Gothicism, neoclassicism, and romanticism. In contemporary painting, the revival of this genre, with its fluid and ethereal bodies and crepuscular moodiness, is no different.

Although not overtly political, Symbolism rejected many of the ideological shifts of the end of the 19th century, spurning entrenched notions of progress, scientific and otherwise, as well as the technological developments of the accelerating Industrial Revolution. The sympathies of its artists—Gustave Moreau, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch, to name a few—lay with fantasy, the distant past, and a pre-Christian iconography. Like Jean Des Esseintes, the reactionary, misanthropic antihero and Moreau stan of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s celebrated 1884 novel À Rebours (Against Nature), they retreated from urbanization and materialism into an interiorized and filigreed universe of their own design.

Odilon Redon, The Smiling Spider, before 1897. Charcoal on chamois paper, 19 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. RF 29932 / Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizzi, Fonds Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York

The anxiety about a rapidly modernizing world that, in part, inspired Symbolism also gave rise to a particularly virulent wave of racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. While advances and liberties were being secured in the domain of science and technology, they were being attacked and lost in the realm of culture and everyday society. Sound familiar?

It is no coincidence that Symbolism and the handmade have made a conspicuous comeback. The moody, pastel palette of London-based Alastair Mackinven’s most recent paintings, shown by New York’s Reena Spaulings this past fall, is reminiscent of Redon, Moreau, and Munch. The subject matter, too, has an otherworldly quality; the artist refers to the pictures as “visions.” One untitled work, dated 2015–2017, directly invokes Redon’s preoccupation with spiders.

In the same season and city, another downtown gallery, Lomex, showed paintings full of strange figurations alluding to episodes from Greek mythology by American artist Kye Christensen-Knowles. Again, the operative art-historical reference is Moreau, and Christensen-Knowles’s gilt Sphinx references the French Symbolist’s deliberately overwrought and ornate depictions of the same subjects.

Kye Christensen-Knowles, Sphinx, 2017. Oil on canvas, artist’s custom frame, 25 x 49 x 1 3/4 in. Courtesy of the artist and LOMEX, New York

The fantastical plays an equally large role in the work of Los Angeles–based Julien Nguyen, whose Renaissance-style architectural meditations are often elegantly peopled with angular demons. Take Nguyen’s tondo, The Fairest of the Seasons (2016), for instance, and the demonic androgyne at its center. While the practices of Nguyen and Christensen-Knowles reference the past, they are also preoccupied with the contemporary, even the future, insofar as their imagery takes cues from video games, anime, and other mediums that generate the digital avatars people often employ to represent themselves in the online realm.

Julien Nguyen, New World Order, 2016. Oil on panel, 48 x 72 x 1 1/2 in. Photo: Michael Underwood. Courtesy of the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles
Edvard Munch, Jealousy, 1907. Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.

Similar tendencies can be seen in the work of Berlin-based Amelie von Wulffen, whose output is peppered with references to German cultural clichés, kitsch, fables, Victorianism, and the history of painting in general. Ohne Titel (2016), for instance, features a clothed cat and an odd, seemingly rapidly limned infant, the labored and darkly mottled surface of the painting recalls the liminal spaces of Redon’s pictorial fantasies.

No two eras are perfect analogues. But as in the late 19th century, the ecological, political, and social state of the world today is inarguably disenchanting. Seen from our perspective, the death-laden imagery of the fin de siècle movement is a harbinger of troubles to come. In times like these, the past—even a mythical one—offers a richly imaginative refuge.

Amelie von Wulffen, Ohne Titel, 2016. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin

A version of this story appears in GARAGE No. 14, available to buy here.