19th CENTURY EUROPEAN ART AND LITERATURE

The early 19th century in Europe witnessed revolutions not just in the political sphere but also in the cultural sphere. One saw the emergence of a new cultural movement –Romanticism (1900-1950) which emerged as challenge to long prevalent Enlightenment beliefs. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement of the 18th whose philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau) searched for universal laws that applied to society and human behaviour, just as Newton had discovered universal laws for the physical world. In this they quest laid great emphasis on scientific reasoning, rationalism, liberty, toleration and progress, rejecting the traditional Christianities emphasis on superstition and irrationalism. 

ROMANTICISM: Romanticism emerged particularly in art and literature championing the freedom expression of emotions and personality. Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Coleridge and Byron(England) and few novelists like Victor Hugo(early life) and Chateaubriand from France, painters like John Constable ,JWM Turner, Caspar Friedrich and musicians like Beethoven and Schubert emphasised passion, individuality, emotional expression and spontaneity in their art. They rejected the Enlightenment beliefs on a number of counts- (i) Firstly they rejected the Enlightenment’s restraint on emotions as the philosophers felt emotions were an obstacle to rational thinking. Romantics on the contrary exalted human feelings and argued that scientific rationality and reason crushed creativity. William Blake in his poem ‘Milton’ expressed his disdain for scientific reasoning asking the reader to “caste off Bacon, Locke and Newton” and to “clothe” himself with “Imagination”. (ii)Secondly they rejected the Enlightenment traditions excessive intellectualism and analysis. Arguing that to restore human beings to their true nature on must emancipate themselves from the tyranny of excessive intellectualizing. Thus Coleridge argued “deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling” seeing emotions as the gateway to truth. (iii)Thirdly they also rejected order, rules and clarity emphasised by the Enlightenment, which had led to literature being written according to a certain formula for e.g. Lenmercier’s set of 26rules for a tragedy and visual arts depicting only Classical themes from Greco-Roman mythology. Thus in literature one saw the rejection of formal styles of classical literature such as the French Neoclassical tragedy and the English heroic couplet in favour of medieval romance tales and ballads of chivalric adventure which emphasised heroism. In painting one saw the rejection of classical mythological themes in favour of medieval themes, heroic and bizarre themes as seen in the works of James Barry, painting of landscapes by JMW Turner and J. Constable with dramatic emphasis on light and shade in order to portray the awe inspired by nature, adventurous subject matter of Eugene Delacroix’s paintings depicting Arab life and revolutionary politics. (iv)Fourthly linked to this exhalation of one emotion was a great emphasis on individuality and human diversity, rather than the emphasis on universal laws/traits shared by humans which the Enlightenment portrayed. Thus Romantics all strove to express their inner zeal, as noted in Beethoven intensely passionate music. Marvin Perry says rebelling against standardization of culture Romantics also revived various native languages, songs, myths and legends thus revering the diversity in people’s ancient cultural expressions.

Romanticism was also marked by a veneration of nature. Romantics viewed nature as alive and suffused with God as well as a source of inspiration. This veneration emerged as a reaction to the Enlightenment view that nature was a lifeless machine governed by laws and due to the havoc the Industrial Revolution was wrecking on the natural landscape of Europe. English Romantic poets such as William Blake mourned the “dark satanic mills” that dotted the English landscape. Poet William Wordsworth drew immense inspiration from nature for example in “Daffodils” and in “The Tables Turned” he saw nature as the gateway to knowledge rather than books. In painting this passion for nature was noted in landscape paintings by English painters like John Constable and JWM Turner. The Romantics also rejected the Enlightenment notion that God was a detached observer of the world, in favour of the belief that God was omnipresent in nature and one could realize him though communion with nature. Finally Romanticism also drew inspiration from the middle ages, which had been rejected as superstitious by the Enlightenment. Romantics in the context of growing revolutions looked back to the middles ages as a period of chivalrous, heroic deeds and a period of harmony when Europe was united. On an intellectual level Romanticism was articulated in David Hume’s theory of Scepticism which essentially caste debut on scientific certainty of events and cause and effect relationships, advocating that all knowledge derives from experience. According to Perry, Romanticism, had a lasting impact on European culture as it fostered freedom of expression which impacted later movements such as the Modernist movement (early 20th century), it also fostered nationalism through its revival of native songs and languages, attacked industrial capitalism and fostered humanitarianism.

REALISM: (1850-60s) By the 1850 a number of cultural movements emerged in Europe as a reaction to Romanticism’s excessive sentimentalism and as a reflection of the progress in science and accelerating industrial revolution.  In art and literature one saw the emergence of Realism, in philosophy -Positivism, in intellectual spheres -Darwinism, Marxism and Liberalism emerging. Realism emerged opposing the excessive sentimentality, focus on inner self and the portrayal of an idyllic medieval past which epitomized Romanticism. Realists aimed to portray the present as close to reality in a scientific manner without any sentimentality. They concentrated on contemporary themes such as prevalent social conditions and details of everyday life. Marvin Perry says they analysed with clinical detachment how people looked, worked and behaved.  Thus in art one saw the rejection of natural and historical themes in favour of what  artist Gustave Courbet  called “living art” i.e. painting common people/scenes- labourers, peasants tilling land, bathers, burials etc. Realist painters like Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot and Chardin, painted numerous scenes of rag pickers, prostitutes, peasants, beggars etc. with Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans, being a very famous work. In literature the novel emerged as the main medium of expression as opposed to poetry which the Romantics preferred. Writers took up themes like- social abuse and sordid aspects of human behaviour and life. Thus in England one saw novelists like Charles Dickens deal with urban squalor and drudgery of British industrial labour in Oliver Twist and Hard Times. Novelist William Thackeray described social foibles and pretentious London society. The theme of declining English country life in face of industrialization was also popular in England as seen in ‘Mill on the Floss’ by George Eliot. In Russia, Nikolai Gogol depicted the injustices of serfdom, while Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace  described the outlook of Russian nobility and the tragedies of Napoleons invasion. In France playwright Victor Hugo in his novel Les Miserables portrayed the struggles of the poor while Honore de Balzac who described how socio-economic forces affected human behaviour.

NATURALISM: Evolving out of Realism in literature one saw the growth of a movement known as Naturalism, in which writers tried to demonstrate a causal relationship between human behaviour and social environment i.e. certain social conditions produced predictable traits in humans. This movement grew owing to the increasing prestige attached to science by the close of the 19th century. In literature individual characters were seen as helpless products of their environment. Thus writer Emile Zola, searched for laws of human development in his novels just like Darwin had done for man’s physical development. He combed slums, brothels, mining villages etc, examining how people were conditioned by their environment as seen in his novel Germinal. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen examined with similar precision the ambitions and relations of bourgeoisies in works like A Doll House. In art this naturalism took painters like Gustave Courbet and Theodore Rousseau, to start painting their common subjects outdoors in situ, rather than in a studio, so as to capture the effect of their environment on them.

IMPRESSIONISM: (late 1860s-1880) Naturalism in art was followed closely by Impressionism which marked start the Modern Art, as it was the first movement to challenge the style/ rules of painting used and accepted from the Renaissance right down to Realism. The Impressionists were group of French artists such as Eduard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro to mention a few, who came together from the late 1860s till 1880 to initiate a decisive break with traditional themes, composition, brushwork, colour and shadow. Seen as revolutionaries of the art world they aimed to capture how movement, light and colour appeared to the eye at a particular moment. In terms of themes they continued realist themes painting- landscapes, and contemporary life-railways, boulevards, people etc. But some works like Eduard Manet’s ‘Lunch on the Grass’ were seen as revolutionary as it had a nude woman sitting casually with two fully clothed men on the grass. But their most revolutionary break was in style (a)they rejected the traditional method of painting within a studio by painting in open air and capturing life, light, nature and people in the natural setting (b) They rejected Renaissance linear perspective, line and three dimensionality and saw colours merging into each other without outlines. (c) they used pure bright colours, and rejected contemporary practices of mixing colours and using black or brown shadows ( as Romantic painters had). (d) Painting outdoors they developed a hasty choppy technique of painting as opposed to Renaissance traditions of smooth strokes. Because of their revolutionary nature their works were not accepted at The Salon in Paris thus displaying at the Salon des Refuses(for rejected painters). Monet emerged as the principle theorist of the group who remained true to the aim of capturing the effect of light on nature till his end with his Water Lilies series.  Yet by 1880 the group went its own way. 

Impressionism is hailed as the first Modern art movement as subsequent art movements from here built upon the previous and  owed a lot to impressionism, primarily for helping loosen up brush stroke, abandon formal linear perspective and ushering in artistic experimentation. From the 1880s one saw the emergence of Post Impressionists who further revolutionized the Impressionist emphasis on space and colour, yet also perused their own highly personal styles that would later contribute to Expressionism. Vincent Van Gogh exemplified fascination with colour and personal expression through art, in the blazing colours used to depict his vision of the night sky in The Starry Night. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac to develop a new technique known as “pointillism” in which they filled their canvas with tiny dots of paint, owing to their belief in contemporary light theory that light was made of various particles of the spectrum. Artist Odilon Redon, painted strange canvasses with dream like images, probably owing to interest in Sigmund Freud’s exploration or the subconscious and growth of Symbolism. Paul Cezanne explored landscapes and still-life in multiple planes simultaneously.

SYMBOLISM: (1860s-1880s) Contemporaneous with Impressionism one saw the growth of Literary Modernism, ushered in by Symbolism, even though the heyday of Literary Modernism occurred in 1920-30s. Symbolism primarily articulated by French poets such as Stephane Mallarme, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, sought to express individual emotional experience through subtle and suggestive, highly symbolized language, thus breaking with Enlightenment tradition which stressed reason. Thus in some sense they shared earlier Romantic aims of individualism and emotional expression but ushered in new styles of such expression, much as Impressionism had done in art. Interestingly a Realist writer Gustave Flaubert was the first to display symbolist tendencies, dissenting from the direct realist style. He dissented at two levels- firstly in terms of theme in his novel ‘Madame Bovary’, a story about an unhappy house wife whose adulterous affairs and spendthrift ways bring her to commit suicide. His work was condemned for its moral ambiguity as Flaubert didn’t condemn Madame Bovary on moral grounds. Secondly he dissented by developing a new style of writing which operated at multiple levels-as sometimes he writes from the protagonist Emma’s eyes and then suddenly from a narrator’s eyes. Charles Baudelaire was another influential figure in the birth of Symbolism. He developed the symbolist concept of synaesthesia phenomenon where by one sensory experience could produce another sensation (e.g. listening to music could produce a tactile impression/ a colour). His poems in Les Fleurs du Mal broke with Romantic style as he used mysterious obsessive private symbols (e.g. a lover’s hair) to portray the effect these had on his consciousness. He also destroyed the traditional distinction between prose and poetry and introducing the prose poem.  Arthur Rimbaud was another symbolist poet, who had a highly creative but turbulent and short life. He felt the poet must be a “seer” in order to create anything pure. In order to become a seer the poet must subject himself to extreme experiences so as to step out of his familiar self. He also held that the poet must manipulate language to break its usual boundaries. This was important as it greatly impacted later Modernists such as the Dadaists. Interestingly most symbolist poets seem to have had turbulent lives probably owing to their fascination with pushing the limits. Baudelaire excessively used  wine, hashish and opium. While Rimbaud entered a turbulent sexual relationship with poet- Paul Verlaine (who also became a Symbolist) who at one point wounded Rimbaud with a pistol. Stephan Mallarme was another principle symbolist writer. He is credited expressing his scorn for the bourgeoisies, by producing writing that didn’t cater to the bourgeoisie expectations and being content with a “happy few” understanding his work, thus dramatizing the artist’s sense of isolation. The symbolist writing he and his contemporaries developed was extremely complicated, expressive of the state experienced by the author and full of symbols that reflected the author’s psyche.  Mallarme dissented from tradition as he wrote poems about poetry, writing on writing. He also experimented with new typography instead of writing in straight lines in his poem “A Roll of the Dice” the letters rolled down the page like dice. According to James .A. Winders Symbolist writers felt that art could offer a secular salvation and escape from mundane life.

CUBISM: Impressionism and Symbolism had led to the start of a number of Avant Garde movements in art and literature by the late 19th century peaking in the early 20th. Cubism (1906-1914) developed borrowing from post-impressionists such as Cezanne. Associated primarily with Paris based, Spaniard Pablo Picasso and Frenchman Georges Braque, the Cubists were concerned mainly with structure of form rather than colour. They rejected the Realist and to some extent Impressionist aim of precisely capturing nature, its colour, form and texture. Instead advocated depicting multiple planes/view of an object at once. They took the impressionist rejection of traditional Renaissance techniques of linear perspective and 3D modelling to the next level. Colours took a back seat so as not to distract from structure/form-they painted monochromatic highly disjointed geometric paintings that looked fragmented and flat. Picasso’s work Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon(1907) marked the birth of this style depicting 5 female nudes in fractures shapes. The Cubists also developed new technique- they rejected using merely oil/water paints as all earlier artists had to use newspaper, tobacco wrappers etc in art. Thus they pioneered the use of “mixed media” and developed the technique of collage in art which would influence later movements. Associated with the Cubists in literature one saw poets Max Jacob and G. Apollinaire use bizarre typography which amounted to a literary cubism.

FUTURISM: Simultaneously in Italy one saw the emergence of a group called the Futurists, who shared many affinities with the Cubists, but were more “Modernist”. Futurism emerged 1909 with Fillipo Marinetti the principle theorist of the group published his manifesto in the Parisian newspaper-Le Figaro. He coined the term ‘Futurism’ and called a discarding earlier art and celebrating technological innovation. Inspired by scientific leaps he glorified technology especially machines and automobiles marvelling at their speed and beauty. In art this inspired a group of artists-like Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Carro Carra, to depict visually the perception of movement, speed and change. To achieve this they adopted the Cubist technique of using fragmented images and intersecting planes to show simultaneous views of a moving object. For example Balla in his ‘Dog on a Leash’ depicts a trotting dachshund whose legs are blur of images. The futurists differed from the cubists, as they portrayed moving objects, while the cubists, still life and portraits. Within literature too the futurists sought to represent speed and ruthlessness of the 20th century, Thus they established a number of new genres to do- They developed-(i) free word poetry, which rejected the constraints of linear typography, conventional spelling and syntax much as the symbolists started, (ii) Minimalist plays (iii) designed analogies and (iv) literary collages- combining words and graphics. Marinetti’s poetry was greatly influenced by WWI- He used bold typography, exploding words to depict a bomb and onomatopoeia to reflect noise of modern warfare. Such new styles had a lasting impact on later movements. 

World War I greatly impacted the culture of the 20th century. We saw a progressive shattering of the Enlightenment principles of reason and progress and the development of cultural pessimism. Artists who survived like Siegfried Sassoon and E.M. Remarque were scarred by war for life. Within art the war years saw a number of artists and poets desert various armies and head for Switzerland land- a neutral save haven. Thus in 1916 at Zurich one saw the opening of the Cabaret Voltaire, a club founded by German poet and deserter Hugo Ball and artist Emmy Hennings. This bohemian club attracted numerous European artists, such as Hans Jean Arp and his wife Sophie Arp (both influenced by Cubism), as well as Romanian poet Tristan Tzara. Cabaret Voltaire emerged as the centre of an avant garde artistic movement known as the Dada movement. The artists at the Cabaret adopted this nonsensical child like word Dada, as their experimental artistic activates reflected just that and because they were “Anti Art” i.e. anti bourgeoisie art. Thus the too Dadaists broke from all art guided by reason, science or logic as seen in the Enlightenment period- with Renaissance and neoclassical traditions. Tristan Tzara conducted bizarre poetry performances like “simultaneous poems” where three poets recited the same poem in different languages- fostering internationalism. Arp for example, cut words/images out of a news paper and tossed them onto a sticky surface to create random collages. They also played noise music created out of random objects they found. In this period the New York Dadaists also emerged with French √©migr√© Marcel Duchamp leading them, by experimenting with random hardware objects like a urinal etc. After the war the group dispersed and one saw the continuation of the movement by two groups – the Paris Dadaists (under Max Ernst and Tzara) and the Berlin Dadaists. The Berlin Dadaists under George Grosz and John Heartfield, were influenced by recent Bolshevik Revolution and attempted to forge an alliance with the workers, thus founding a magazine with a whimsical name, “ Every Man His Own Football” to bridge the gap between them and workers. Yet this wasn’t really as workers couldn’t relate to it.

According to Winders the War led to artists either adopting such escapist routes like the Dadaists took or developing a grave cultural pessimism and despair as seen in the Modern Literature of the period. Literary Modernism peaked in 1920-30s, one saw a continuation of Symbolist preoccupation with expression of inner feelings much as Romanticism had done. But the new feature now was a greater preoccupation with the unconscious and irrational-with dreams and fantasies, owing to the need to escape war time turmoil as well as to the advances in psychoanalysis (Freud). For example dreams played a central role in works of writers like Anton Chekhov (Russia) Thomas Mann (Germany), painter Max Beckmann etc. One also saw pessimism and longing for the past develop in literature, breaking with Enlightenment’s idea of hope/progress, best reflected in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”- a lament for the vanished social world. Literature in this period was also marked by intense psychological introspection noted in works of famous English novelists such as Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, their fiction is part autobiographical and takes us into the emotionally turbulent and complicated psyches of their protagonists who at times is modelled on the author as in Woolf’s ‘To the light house’ one sees powerful portrayal of a mother daughter relationship complicated by Woolf’s childhood memories. These authors also developed the stream of consciousness technique to express their emotions in literature. Large numbers of authors from this period were psychologically scarred by the war years and had turbulent lives- e.g. Woolf was a manic depressive, Fernando Pessoa Portuguese poet was self effacing. Some also displayed apocalyptic visions through their obscure cosmological imagery in literature e.g. Yeats in “A Vision” and Franz Kafka in his novel “The Trial”.

Parallel to this development of a grave sense of disillusionment and de-humanization post WWI we also saw the growth of Surrealism a movement which depicted these feelings in art. Developing out of the Dada movement in 1924 in Paris, the Surrealists emerged with a great interest in the subconscious drawing on Freud’s theories. They produced images with optical illusions so as to evoke a dream State. Thus Rene Magritte painted very real painting but just altering one crucial element, to evoke absurdity- e.g. Son of Man, which depicts a portrait of a man whose face had an apple in front of it. Salvador Dali another famous Surrealist who painted numerous desolate landscapes with odd dream like scenes- e.g. Persistence of Memory has watches melting and dripping on surfaces in a desolate landscape, indicating isolation. He also produced odd films like An Andalusian dog in which one sees human eye balls being sliced by razors. Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism contributed greatly to Abstract Art which didn’t merely depict the natural world but sought to depict emotions also. This Abstract Art also fully articulated from the war period on with movements such as the De Stijl and works of Russian abstract painter Kardinsky- who portrayed things that couldn’t be identified in the natural work. Their works comprised of lines, colour tone and texture which was random and abstract. This was finally taken to its peak in 1950s in American with Abstract Expressionism with abstract works of artists like Jackson Pollock. 

Thus not only in the early 19th century with Romanticism did one see a saw a major move away from the rational ordered and scientific aesthetic sensibility of the enlightenment expressed in Renaissance art and Neoclassicism, but more so in the early 20th century. Realism in the mid century may have drawn in some sense upon the enlightenment’s precision, but largely the visual and literary modes of the 18th century had died out in favour of more irrational, pessimistic modes, which may have reflected the political social turmoil as well as intellectual developments in Europe at the time.