Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 by Nienke Bakker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I gather, from publication histories and the like, that Rodolphe Rapetti is a well-respected authority on the Symbolist movement of the late 19th-Century. Unfortunately, his essays in Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 are the weakest of the volume. Thankfully, his essays are only two of the seven presented therein. The others range from good to excellent, with Anna Maria von Bonsdorff's essay on "Dream Landscapes" and Frances Fowle's on "Silent Cities" being the standout contributions to the volume. And while I enjoyed Richard Thomson's "Into the Mystic," I don't really buy his implied argument that there is a direct line of succession from the Symbolists to early abstractionists. There's a little too much looseness in the connections he hints at.
This is my biggest problem with the volume as a whole. While Thomson's "Arcadia Contested" is rigorous and convincing in showing how certain landscapes clearly fell within Symbolist philosophical bounds, Rapetti, in "Symbolism and Naturalism" claims that some art created in the Symbolist era "remains unclassifiable according to the style labels in use today" then uses this unclassifiability to shoehorn anyone whose work appeared during that time period into the Symbolist bucket. It's unconvincing and feels contrived to anyone who has studied history, let alone art history. Just because a work was created during a certain time period does not mean that it was influenced by or that it influenced the dominate movement of the time. Else how do historians account for transitions from one movement to another?
Of course, the artwork is beautiful and well-presented in full color plates throughout. I was particularly taken by Josef Vachal's
Invokers of the Devil
, William Degouve de Nuncques'
The Pool of Blood
(my favorite of the entire volume), and Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis's
Sonata of the Stars: Allegro
. If you're in it for the art and want to completely ignore the essays, you'll find that the paintings are beautiful throughout.
But don't ignore the essays. Especially "Dream Landscapes". It's absolutely brilliant and does not disappoint!
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