Vampires, fountains of blood, giantesses, dancing serpents, and “casks of hatred” populate Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, a collection of poems from 1857. Similarly nightmarish imagery fills Flowers of Evil: Symbolist Drawings, 1870–1910, on view the Harvard Art Museum. Named after Baudelaire’s collection, the exhibit presents nearly 40 works by artists affiliated with symbolism, a 19th-century cultural force that bridged Impressionism with 20th-century movements.
Symbolist artists — including Aubrey Beardsley, Jean Delville, and Odilon Redon — were united less by style than by their shared intention of illustrating invisible aspects of human experience. Like psychologists of the period, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Symbolist artists were concerned with dreams, visions, spirituality, mythology, archetypes, and other mysterious functions of the unconscious mind. “In Symbolism fact and world become mere pretexts for ideas; they are handled as appearances, ceaselessly variable, and ultimately manifest themselves only as the dreams of our brains,” wrote Belgian poet Emile Vergaeren. To visualize this subjective character of experience, figures in these drawings appear gauzy and translucent; objects look not quite solid. Landscapes shimmer, cast in what Baudelaire called “misty shrouds.”
“Man passes … through forests of symbols,” Baudelaire wrote in “Correspondences,” a poem considered the touchstone of the Symbolist literary movement. Baudelaire owed much of his macabre aesthetic to Edgar Allen Poe, whose works he translated into French. (Symbolism was centered in France, but also reached Austria, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and the United States.) Symbolist visual art, in turn, wouldn’t have existed without the influence of Poe, Baudelaire, and other writers. The “forests of symbols” in these drawings are best understood in context of the literature that inspired them: Many were originally created as book or magazine illustrations; others are dark, modern spins on classic tales and Biblical scenes, stripped of their usual piety.
In Odilon Redon’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” for example, a clawed wraith peers like a grim Kilroy over the lid of a coffin. Whereas most older religious paintings of the same title depicted Lazarus as a triumphant, colorful beneficiary of Christ’s miracles, Redon’s raised Lazarus is more like a zombie. Drawn in charcoal, the undead figure would make more sense as an illustration for Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” a horror story about being buried alive, than for the Biblical tale it references.
London illustrator Aubrey Beardsley’s “The Dancer’s Reward” (1893) was originally commissioned by a British art magazine to accompany Oscar Wilde’s French version of the one-act tragedy Salome. Stylistically influenced by Japanese prints, it pictures Salome in black robes delighting in the severed head of John the Baptist. “I will kiss thy mouth now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit,” Salome addresses the head in Wilde’s play. When the magazine received Beardsley’s drawing, editors deemed it too grotesque to print. Wilde, though, was enamored of Beardsley’s black-and-white graphics, which he likened to “the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybook.” He commissioned the 21-year-old illustrator to create ten illustrations and a jacket design for the English edition of Salome. To a modern audience, the drawing doesn’t appear particularly grotesque, but in the 19th century, its overt themes of death and sexuality made for a shocking riff on a biblical tale.
In the tales of King Arthur, a love potion bound the knight Tristan with the Irish princess Isolde, leading to doom. Aubrey Beardsley’s “Isolde” references Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, an opera based on the medieval legend, which premiered in 1865. Beardsley claimed he “would do anything and go anywhere … to hear Wagner’s music.” Most of Beardsley’s drawings were illustrations, and “Isolde” was reproduced as a color lithograph in the periodical The Studio in 1895. The crimson background evokes both blood and the curtain of the opera. Like his Salome, Beardsley’s Isolde is depicted at the play’s pivotal moment: When she prepares to drink from the goblet that contains “the love drink” instead of the poison she’s expecting.
English illustrator Charles Ricketts was Oscar Wilde’s other favorite illustrator. Ricketts provided the “decorations” for the 1894 edition of Wilde’s decadent, myth-laden poem “The Sphinx.” “Did you love the god of the assyrian/Whose wings, like strange transparent talc, rose high above his hawk-faced head,/Painted with silver and with red and ribbed with rods of oreichalch?” Wilde wrote. Here, Ricketts illustrates this “Assyrian God,” with his “hawk-faced head” and strange wings, in brown ink over graphite on paper. He stares down at a Sphinx clinging to his chest.
Despite being named after a Baudelaire collection, Flowers of Evil only brushes the surface of the literary context for these particular drawings and for the Symbolist visual art movement as a whole. They’re mysterious, stirring drawings and absolutely stand alone, but when you look at them stripped of their original context, you lose half the story. Paired with the texts that inspired them, like Salome and Tristan and Isolde and The Sphinx, the drawings would pack a double punch.
Flowers of Evil: Symbolist Drawings, 1870–1910 continues at Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA) until August 14.