In this lesson, you will discover how traditional subjects can be given new meaning as you explore the use of Classical mythology in the works of the Post-Impressionists, particularly the Symbolists.
Art after Impressionism
Whoa! Did you feel that? That shaking, like the whole world trembled? Was that an earthquake? No, that was just the impact of Impressionism on Western art.You see, for thousands of years, Western art looked for truth through an ever-increasingly faithful representation of the natural world. And then the Impressionists showed up and said absolute truth is not in the representation of the natural world but in our perception of it. Whoa. Let that soak in.
This means that blurring lines and colors to capture the essence of a fleeting moment of time and light can be just as truthful as a depiction of a still life. There it is again! The tremor that shook the art world.Well, after the initial impact of Impressionism, several aftershocks continued to shake up Western art, continuing to challenge the meaning of art.
We call the movements that immediately followed Impressionism and studied expressive qualities of art Post-Impressionism. One of the post-Impressionist movements was called Symbolism, characterized by deeply symbolic images that captured the essence of the inner self. In other words, metaphorical portraits of the subconscious.
This aftershock was unique because while others tore down traditional ideas of art to prove a point, this one often built them back up.
Classical Myths and Post-Impressionism
The Post-Impressionists and the Symbolists, in particular, found that one of the most traditional subjects of art, Classical mythology, could actually be used to challenge the beliefs of traditional art. In this sense, they are very much in line with the other Post-Impressionist movements.
Check out this painting by Gustave Moreau, entitled Oedipus and the Sphinx. The subject is straight out of classical mythology, from the Greek story of Oedipus being challenged to answer the riddle of the Sphinx.
This subject has been depicted many times throughout traditional Western art, so the painting does not at first seem controversial.
But where this becomes Post-Impressionist is in the interpretation. You see, Moreau was not interested in just presenting a scene from mythology or even a metaphor of good and evil. This is a portrait of his personal subconscious, shrouded in layers of symbolism that really only he can interpret.The Symbolists believed that absolute truth only comes from within the complex world of the inner mind, and that this truth could only be communicated through metaphors. Some scholars think that this reflects the overbearing, nearly-castrating influence of Moreau’s mother, who had become especially needy after his father died. The repetition of symbols relating to the word ‘cling’, which actually is related in ancient Greek to the word ‘sphinx’, may support this.
So in this way, Classical mythology was used in a very Post-Impressionist manner, challenging traditional assumptions about art by creating images to reflect a personal psychology.
Using Myths to Reject Impressionism
As the aftershock of Post-Impressionism swept through the world of art, it became apparent that they weren’t just challenging traditional art, they were also using Classical mythology to challenge Impressionism and other movements of the time. One of the key tenets of Impressionism was the belief that the artist should focus on only that which they could see, touch, and experience. The Impressionists painted landscapes, scenes of modern life, and portraits of people they knew.
Some Post-Impressionists rejected this idea, the Symbolists most of all. Remember, for the Symbolists, truth was not found in the outside world but inside the mind, something very clearly not tangible. To express this difference between them and the Impressionists, they often turned to one of the subjects that the Impressionists refused to paint: Classical mythology.
The Impressionists said that absolute truth could only come from that which the artist can personally see, touch, or experience. Then Gustave Moreau went and painted this. Is there possibly a better image to reject the Impressionist focus on reality? This is Europa and the Bull, a scene from Greek mythology where the Phoenician princess is abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull. Again, this scene is just a metaphor that hides a deeply personal psychological portrait, but in this sense, the use of Classical mythology served to reject both traditional art and Impressionism as well.
Here a few more images of Moreau’s that show the Symbolist insistence on focusing on the intangible, fantastical, and imagined. Post-Impressionism is all about moving beyond Impressionist ideas, not just recreating them, and the uses of Classical mythology to reject all previous artistic styles is an effective way to prove that this isn’t just an aftershock. This is an entirely new earthquake.
When Impressionism shook up the artistic world in the mid-19th century, it challenged the idea that art needed to faithfully represent the world as we saw it. The Impressionists tried to capture the world as we experienced it. This idea was maintained by the Post-Impressionists, who studied the expressive qualities of art, particularly the Symbolists, who found truth within the personal subconscious and presented it through metaphors.
With the goal of disrupting traditional ideas about art, the Symbolists especially decided to use traditional subjects, like Classical mythology. Using traditional subjects allowed them to critique the history of art and provided a nice layer of metaphors and symbols that concealed the true, personal meaning of each piece.The use of classical mythology was also a way to demonstrate that they had moved beyond Impressionism, which stressed that the artist should only paint real, modern subjects and not fantasies. With their use of Classical mythology, Post-Impressionists challenged the meaning and purpose of art, and the entire art world shook.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- Discuss the origin of the Symbolist movement
- List some characteristics of Post-Impressionist paintings
- Describe the intent behind the Symbolists’ use of mythology in their paintings