European Symbolism

Since ancient times, symbolic art has served as a means of knowing human nature and as an instrument for understanding the secrets of the universe. One of its fullest and richest manifestations was symbolism – a trend in art that originated in France in the mid-1880s. It quickly spread to other European countries and infiltrated the young culture of the United States.

Symbolism grew out of the protest of philosophers, theoreticians and practitioners of literature and art against a positivist worldview, against a rationalistic and materialistic understanding of the world. Over the past two decades of the twentieth century, belief in the undeniable power of intelligence has weakened, and the exact sciences have been insufficient for a full understanding of reality. Industrialization and technological progress did not satisfy the emotional needs of a person of the end of the century who felt himself more and more alien and lost. Philosophers, poets and artists realized that the meaning of existence is not limited to the knowledge of the material side of phenomena, since the basis of being is the spiritual principle. The belief in the dual, physical and mental nature of the universe gave rise to the desire to overcome the material barrier and penetrate the spiritual realm in search of the incomprehensible and unattainable, but intuitively felt.

Under the complex influence of philosophical reflections, poetic revelations and literary images, the emergence of artists, graphic artists and sculptors, who believed in the deliverance of art. The faithful imitation of nature in the art of realists and detailed descriptions in the novels of naturalists have given way to the inexhaustible possibilities of imagination. Intuition, proclaimed the main tool of knowledge, the ultimate subjectivity and individualism, unlimited creative freedom – these are the main slogans of the heralds of a new artistic trend and at the same time the distinctive features of symbolist aesthetics.

The concept of symbolism

In literature on the art of the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, the concept of “symbolism” functions along with several other terms: “modernism”, “new art”, “expressionism”, “fin-de-siècle” (“end of the century”), “ Young Europe. ” In Germany and France, literary criticism of the 1880-1890s attributed “modernism” to currents that oppose realism. On Polish soil, this term was spread thanks to the book Ignatius Matuszewski published in 1902, “Slovak and New Art (Modernism)” (“Słowacki i nowa sztuka (Modernizm)”.

In order to distinguish between the last decades of the 19th century and the previous cultural formation, critics introduced the concept of youth – “Young Belgium”, “Young Germany”, “Young Scandinavia”, “Young France”, “Young Spain” and “Young Vienna”. The term “Young Poland” was first used by Arthur Gursky in the pages of the Cracow magazine Życie.

Symbolism of “Young Poland”

Today, by “Young Poland” we understand not only the literary movement, but also the cultural formation, which in 1890-1914 covered various areas of thought and creativity, as well as various artistic positions that were not connected by one goal and program. This period is considered one of the peaks in the development of national culture, an era that summed up the intellectual achievements of the 19th century and at the same time opened up new creative prospects. From other currents of “Young Europe”, “Young Poland” was distinguished by the political situation: by that time Poland had been deprived of statehood for more than a hundred years. That is why the traditions of Russian romanticism, which made literature one of the key manifestations of national identity, were so carefully cultivated on Polish soil; that is why culture was understood as an enclave of Polishness; that is why the memory of national history and martyrology did not go out and the hope of freedom was constantly revived.

This largely explains the features associated with the “Young Poland” symbolism. The burden of romantic tradition weakened and delayed the search for new forms of artistic expression in Polish symbolism. However, when thanks to such outstanding critics as Stanislav Vitkevich, Zenon Pshesmytsky, Felix Yasensky, Stanislav Pshibyshevsky and Caesare Ellent, an understanding of the autonomous values ​​of art already appeared in the aesthetic consciousness of the Poles, it acquired an original form specific to Polish culture. Art has ceased to be an illustration of national history. It transferred its national mission to the sphere of aesthetic qualities and stylistic decisions, which bore the imprint of the historical consciousness of the Polish artist. The largest Polish symbolists, two students of Matejko, Jacek Malczewski and Stanislav Vyspiansky struggled with the burden of history. Each of them, in his own way, looked for a new plastic language to express national content, each used means of expression different from the style of Grottger’s patriotic cycles and Matejko’s historiosophical paintings, although these two luminaries of Polish painting left an indelible mark on the minds of the younger generation.

Malchevsky found his poetry in the field of allegory, symbolic painting, which spoke of the patriotic duty and calling of the artist. Vyspiansky in his dramas and sketches of stained-glass windows of the cathedrals in Lviv and Wawel embodied the tragic vision of the history of the homeland and its purpose. Another way was the establishment of the creative position of Jan Stanislavsky, Leon Vychulkovsky, Olga Boznansky, Ferdinand Ruschits and Konrad Krzhizhanovsky, who were influenced by the artistic environment of Paris and St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, Polish symbolism is not characterized by contradictions between the old and the new, Polish and foreign. On the contrary, he became an example of the perfect symbiosis of the Russian tradition with the life-giving impulses of European modernism.

The forerunners of the symbolists of the end of the century

The role of the forerunner of symbolism in Poland was played by Adam Khmelevsky and Vitold Pruszkowski. Both were educated in Munich, both denied the limitations of a materialistic worldview, both of which could be called neo-romanticists.

In the treatise of 1876 “On the essence of art” Khmelevsky presented the principles of aesthetics, dating back to the ideas of Neoplatonism and identifying beauty with a mystical beginning. His imagination was occupied by romantic subjects, themes of death, loneliness and tragic love. Khmelevsky’s neo-romantic position was most fully expressed in the 1880 nocturnes “In Italy (Italian Cemetery I)” and “Gray Hour (Cemetery II)”, which were more than ten years ahead of the achievements of the Symbolists.

Khmelevsky enjoyed a reputation as an outstanding theoretician and a fine connoisseur of art. In fact, in 1879 he left the studio at the Evropeisky Hotel, which he shared with Stanislav Vyspiansky and Jozef Helmon, but his legend continued to live among artists associated with the Wędrowiec publication, on whose pages Vitkevich fought for realism in art. Alexander Gerimsky, Vladislav Podkovinsky and Jozef Pankevich belonged to this circle.

Witold Pruszkowski, an artist of legends and folk tales, who was admired by Jacek Malczewski and Wlodzimez Tetmeier, chose a path other than Khmelevsky. Prushkovsky was inspired by the symbolism of the mystical works of the Slovak and Krasinsky. Over time, the artist’s paintings more and more lost touch with reality, more and more resembled a fictional world. The “Death of Achilles” by Pruszkowski (1879) opened a number of works in Polish art based on the Slovak poem “Angelli” describing the tragic fate of a Polish exiled to Siberia. The theme of national martyrology is featured in the painting “The Path to Siberia” (c. 1892), in which a muffled combination of white, pink, and blue acquires symbolic meaning. The exiles, having passed three crosses, the modern Golgotha, disappear in the snowy veil and the radiance of the polar star, as if having sunk into oblivion. Jacek Malchevsky, like Prushkovsky, has repeatedly returned to the motives from Angelli.

Manifests of Symbolism

It was Malchevsky, who grew up on the works of Prushkovsky, Grottger and Böcklin, who became the author of the manifesto of Polish symbolism, writing in 1890-1894 the painting “Melancholy. Prologue. Vision (The Last Century in Poland). ” In this work, the artist destroyed all the canonical paintings that existed until that time, depicting the interweaving of several themes: national martyrology, the art process, the course of human life and the mystery of destiny. In Malchevsky, the patriotic sound is combined with existential content. In the picture, we see a round dance of realistically written rebels, widows, clergy and artists breaking out of the canvas and filling the workshop room. Two-part picture space will become a hallmark of the formula of symbolist painting created by Malchevsky as a kind of reflection of the inner duality of the world, its material and spiritual nature.

Another direction of Polish symbolism was founded by Vyspiansky, writing in 1892-1894 a draft stained glass window “Oath of Jan Casimir” for the cathedral in Lviv. This is another manifestation of symbolism, which is based on a historiosophical vision, a movement that synthesizes and reinterprets the Polish past. Stylistically, the stained-glass window project referred to medieval art. In the complex, vertically built concept of a stained-glass window, the influence of Gothic polychromes and stained-glass windows is guessed, which Vyspiansky met when he and Mateiko were engaged in the restoration of the Mariacki Church in Krakow.

In 1894, the year of the completion of both the Vyspiansky’s stained-glass window project and Malchevsky’s “Melancholy” project, two different artistic approaches crystallized, for which the fate of Poland was a central issue. The year 1894 brought another kind of symbolism – expressive symbolism, represented by Vladislav Podkovinsky’s painting “Ecstasy” (“Szał uniesień”). Expressive symbolism emphasized the individual experiences of the author, tried to penetrate deep into the human person. Thus, in the early 1890s, three main trends of symbolism formed in parallel, which determined the main directions of development of Polish art in the coming decade. The ideological unity of the era was confirmed by the younger generation of modernists: Vlastimil Hoffman, following in the footsteps of Malchevsky, Jan Rembovsky close in artistic terms to Vyspiansky and experienced by Podkovsky Vitold Voitkevich. It was these artists, despite the difference in style, who were able to express common aspirations. In 1905, they founded the “Group of Five” (“Grupa Pięciu”) together with Mechislav Yakimovich and Leopold Gottlieb.

Nevertheless, the artistic avant-garde of that time dubbed the manifesto of new art not Malchevsky’s programmatic composition, but Podkowsky’s Ecstasy, a picture enthusiastically accepted by most critics and the public, stunning with its intensity, expression and drama. Everyone agreed that the woman depicted in the picture, riding a demonic horse in a fit of erotic passion, personifies the destructive power of instincts. Abstract gloomy space; dynamics of the horse falling into the abyss; Titian’s hair of a naked girl and the ecstatic expression of her face – these are the elements of pictorial drama, despite their traditional form, that created a suggestive and shocking whole.


The main exponent of expressionist tendencies was Stanislav Pshibyshevsky, who in the fall of 1898 came from Berlin to Krakow in the splendor of the glory of the “brilliant Pole”, a friend of Munk and Strindberg, a member of the Berlin artistic and intellectual bohemia, Satanist and occultist. In Krakow, Pshibyshevsky made a commotion, destroyed the accepted hierarchy of values, surrounded himself with an aura of scandal and a circle of followers, mocking the mentality of “philistines”. At the beginning of 1899, he published on the pages of Życie magazine the manifesto of a new aesthetics Confiteor, in which he equated art with religion, exalted the artist-clergyman, calling him “cosmic, metaphysical force through which absolute and eternity manifest themselves.” Discarding the patriotic, ethical, and social functions of art, Pshibyshevsky argued that real art has “no purpose, it is a goal in itself, it is absolute, because it reflects the absolute of the soul.”

Comprehending the scope of the subconscious, the writer created the theory of the “naked soul”. As a passionate follower of Schopenhauer’s views, he considered the driving force of human existence a sexual instinct that steadily leads to death. Pshibyshevsky formulated a “metaphysics of gender”, a philosophy of the eternal struggle of a woman with a man, from which a woman emerges as the winner as the embodiment of the “apocalyptic lechery”.

Projecting the nature of the artist’s feelings and fantasies in order to deform, transform and thereby more fully convey the world of emotions and dreams is the hallmark of the proto-expressionist movement, which was developed by Wojciech Weiss, Vitold Wojtkevich, Ferdinand Ruschits, Konrad Krzyzhanowski in the art of Young Poland and Olga Boznanskaya.