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Symbolism was a late 19th-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin. The movement rejected realism and naturalism, and included poetry and other arts. Symbolists believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly. Thus a symbolist painting may look realistic, but actually it represents a non-visual idea.
In literature, the style started with the publication Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The name "symbolist" itself was first used by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented it to distinguish the symbolists from similar styles of literature and art. Symbolism in art is related to the gothic component of Romanticism.
There were several groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, including Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gaston Bussière, Edvard Munch, Félicien Rops, and Jan Toorop. Symbolism in painting was even more widespread geographically than symbolism in poetry. Its ideas affected Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich, Martiros Saryan, Mikhail Nesterov, Léon Bakst, Elena Gorokhova in Russia, as well as Frida Kahlo in Mexico and David Chetlahe Paladin in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a symbolist sculptor.
The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. More a philosophy than an actual style of art, symbolism in painting influenced the contemporary Art Nouveau style and Les Nabis.
- A symbol is an object, action, or idea that represents something other than itself, often of a more abstract nature.
- Trope: figure of speech, device, theme.
- Jean Moreas 1886. Le Manifeste du Symbolisme, Le Figaro.
- Balakian, Anna 1967. The Symbolist movement: a critical appraisal. Random House.
- Les Nabis: a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists who set the pace for fine arts and graphic arts in France in the 1890s.