The names Van Gogh and Kandinsky are enough to attract anyone remotely interested in art, and this exhibition does not disappoint.  Billed as the “first ever exhibition dedicated to symbolist landscape painting” it guides the audience through the symbolist movement from 1880-1910.  Much of the material on show (with the exception of works by Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Gauguin to name a few) will be unknown to many of the visitors, the presence of Scandinavian artists is particularly strong with Akseli Gallen-Kallela depiction of Lake Keitele being a personal favourite.

The symbolist movement for those of you reading and feeling a little clueless (don’t worry I was too before the exhibition) began around the 1880’s as a reaction against the growing technological and material change occurring in the western world.  Symbolist artists jumped on the literary bandwagon spearheaded by Mallarmé and championed the use of art to express an idea or emotion through traditional scenes; landscape, portrait, and cityscapes.  For the symbolists a landscape could be imbibed with an emotion and thus symbolise more than just a mere representation of nature. From this we get Van Gogh swirling landscapes filled with a sense of uncertainty and Gauguin’s primitive scenes of Martinique life expressing a wish to return to simplicity, a far cry from the increasing industrialisation of his homeland.

One of the real highlights of the show is the diverse and varied selection of paintings on offer.  The symbolist movement was widespread throughout Europe yet was without a unifying technique or visual goal as is successfully represented in the exhibition.

Askeli Gallen-Kallela’s paintings act as a hymn to his homeland by offering an extraordinarily calm and peaceful depiction of Lake Keitele.  He presents a view of Finland untainted by external forces, which is particularly interesting considering Finland’s fight for independence from Russia at the time.  Whilst the landscape in Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele symbolises national pride and heritage, the landscape in Fernand Knhopff’s The Lac d’Amour is a study of grief.  The image portrays a town in the background with a lake dominating the foreground.  The monochromatic scheme of the painting echoes the listlessness of grief.  The town itself is out of focus mirroring the blurred reflections on the surface of the lake and it is this lack of clarity that symbolises the disorientating nature of grief, for what should be clear and concrete (i.e. the buildings and reality) is blurred and made uncertain.

The wide-ranging nature of symbolist art is made clear throughout the exhibition.  Whilst this could have proved problematic it has instead been skilfully handled by the curator, arranging the paintings according to themes; “Moods of Nature,” “Dreams and Visions” and “Silent Cities”, to name a few examples.  The exhibition draws to a close by linking artists’ (such as Kandinsky) move from symbolism to abstraction leaving one contemplating how much can be evoked through traditional scenes thanks to the use of colour and technique.

Exhibition runs until 14th October.

All images courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland.


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