Symbolist Silences: Images of Contemplation and Meditation
For the artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries called Symbolists, the themes of silence, contemplation and meditation were essential to their art. The Symbolist movement rejected Realist and Naturalist art, feeling it promoted materialist views and emphasized everyday reality over the intangible realm of ideas and emotions. Instead, the Symbolists sought to evoke the latter through the former, regarding the objects and phenomena of physical existence as symbols of concepts, feelings, and mental states. This outlook derived primarily from the concept of “correspondences” put forth by French writer Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), which held that everything in the material world had a counterpart in an invisible, spiritual world. In taking up such views, Symbolist artists also adopted the Romantic idea of considering music as an analogue for the visual arts, embraced various contemporary forms of spirituality, and drew upon the work of Symbolist writers for support and inspiration. The Symbolists’ focus on thoughts and emotions naturally led them to appreciate mental activities such as contemplation, and the conditions favorable to them, such as silence and solitude.
This thesis focuses on works by Symbolist artists with themes of silent contemplation and meditation, with consideration of major literary and philosophical connections and influences. Contemplation is defined as personal reverie, becoming lost in one’s thoughts, and meditation is taken to mean a specific form of contemplation, reflecting on spiritual matters. In depicting these interrelated subjects, the Symbolists typically relied on two general motifs: the figure lost in thought or meditation (directly illustrating mental activity) and the empty setting, such as a landscape or interior, (allowing the viewer to engage in mental activity). Of course, each artist also brought a particular set of related themes to his works. For example, Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921) used his sister Marguerite and the Belgian city of Bruges to symbolize his ideals, including silence, isolation, and introspection. In the same period, Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) primarily depicted the nearly empty rooms of his own home, emphasizing stillness and austerity, whereas several late works by Odilon Redon (1840–1916) contain religious or spiritual themes, associating silence with meditative states. Although the Symbolists were a diverse group, they were nevertheless linked by a few common ideals and subjects.
Timothy Kaneshiro graduated from Bradley University with a BA in Art History in 2001. At SAIC, his studies focused on late nineteenth century European art and culture. He currently resides in Peoria, IL.
Thesis Advisor: Thomas L. Sloan, Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Thesis Reader: Debra Mancoff, Adjunct Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism
Stanley Murashige, Associate Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism