Van Gogh to Kandinsky – Symbolist Landscape in Europe at the Scottish National Gallery

By Rhiannon Starr | 22 August 2012
An image of a swirly ooil painting of a mystical forest in dark blue, red, yellow and orange
Piet Mondrian, Bosch (woods) near Oele (1908). Oil on canvas© Collection of Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Exhibition: Van Gogh to Kandinsky – Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, until October 14 2012

“To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the pleasure in the poem, which stems from the joy of divining little by little; to suggest, that is the dream” penned Stéphane Mallarmé in 1891. His words articulated not only the philosophy of French symbolist poetry, but of contemporary European painting.

Symbolism originated as a literary movement in fin de siècle France, but was widely adopted by painters across Europe as an antidote to the quasi-scientific conventions of Realism and Naturalism.

Symbolist landscape painters strove to convey emotion through distorting the colour and form of the world around them into subjective or symbolic imagery.

The exhibition charts this path from Realism to Abstraction, which happens to highlight quite how far ahead of his time American-born painter James Whistler was.

An image of a painting of various buildings on rolling hills in vivid blue, red and yellow
Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau with Church II (1910). Oil on canvas© Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
His canvasses hang towards the end of the exhibition, alongside the work of other painters who began to prioritise expressive colour over descriptive detail: Wassily Kandinsky, Charles Angrand and Paul Signac.

However, Whistler’s paintings were executed between 1871 and 1875 - ten years after Signac’s birth - which make them some of the earliest works on display.

Whistler swept translucent layers of paint over one another to create luminous images such as Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Chelsea, 1871.

The blue-grey tones of the thinned paint ripple gently across this river scene. Whistler consciously used the term nocturne due to its musical associations – music being considered the only art form free from representational duties.

An image of an oil painting of a riverside setting under dark shadows across a lake
Hugo Simberg, Spring Evening (During the Ice Break) (1897). Oil on canvas© Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki
Tom Taylor, critic at The Times, proclaimed in November 1871 that Whistler’s paintings “are illustrations of the theory… that painting should not aim at depicting incidents of history or recording facts of nature, but should be content with moulding our moods and stirring our imaginations”.

These characteristics were later amplified in the vivid paintings of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch: their canvasses, heavily laden with intense colour, are nothing if not stimulating.

Also represented are less famous artists who were working independently of the Symbolist movement. The work of Charles Guilloux and Hugo Simberg - respectively a self-taught painter and a graphic designer - features sharp tonal contrast and sleek silhouettes.

An exquisite discovery is a triptych painted by Lithuanian painter and composer M K Čiurlionis in 1907, entitled Sparks. The impression of drifting along on an evening boat ride is drawn from memory and imagination. Against the swiftly changing backdrop, violent sparks punctuate the billowing steam from a passing train.

In Monet’s Haystacks: Snow Effect, 1891, the cold winter light and indistinct surroundings illustrate the serene isolation after a fresh snowfall. A formative encounter with this series had been an early suggestion to Kandinsky that transcendental colour could render subject matter superfluous.

The joyously liberated colour of Kandinsky’s Murnau with Church, 1910, and Cossacks, 1910-11 was the result of that realisation and the climax of this exhibition.

Both canvasses are alive with brilliant hues loosely suggesting landscapes, rainbows and architecture.

They do not faithfully represent the visible world, but are the culmination of what many of these artists were working towards: imaginative and impassioned expressions of their own subjective experiences.

  • Open 10am-5pm (7pm Thursday, 6pm during August). Admission £10/£7. Book online.

More pictures:

An image of a colourful oil painting of thick cornfields under a sun, green sky and mountains
Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Reaper (1889). Oil on canvas© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
An image of an oil painting of what looks like nuns praying in front of red and yellow fields
Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) (1888). Oil on canvas© Scottish National Gallery
An image of a painting of a calm and tranquil blue sea full of little boats at sunset
Paul Signac, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing (1891). Opus 221 (Adagio) from the series The Sea: The Boats, Concarneau© The Museum of Modern Art, New York
An image of a classical oil painting of various Greek nudes swanning about by the sea
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Vision Antique (Vision of Antiquity – Symbol of Form) (circa 1885). Oil on canvas© Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
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