In the late 19th century, many painters began to reject realism in order to explore more subjective modes of expression. This shift was linked to the transformative ideas of the era articulated by Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and others. Unencumbered by the need to depict the world realistically, progressive artists distorted it for psychological effect and often explored darker themes.
German painter, sculptor and architect Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) attended the Munich Academy and was a co-founder of the Munich Secession in 1892, when artists broke away from the conservative Munich Artists’ Association to form an independent cooperative.
Stuck’s primary subjects were taken from mythology and religion. His brooding Lucifer from 1890 places a seated naked man in an undefined dark space, his eyes staring directly at the viewer, with his head is propped on his left hand. Lucifer’s right arm is pulled back and sideways, holding his wings, with a phosphorescent light source to his right (lucifer is Latin for ‘morning star’).
The over-used adjective iconic can justly be used to describe Munch’s 1893 work The Scream, one of the most reproduced pictures in the history of art. The Scream was first exhibited in 1893 at Munch's solo exhibition in Berlin and it was central to Munch’s (never-completed) painting cycle The Frieze of Life which explored mortality and sexuality. As in many of Munch's pictures, it is assumed that The Scream is based on the artist’s own feelings and experiences. Munch's diaries contains descriptions of episodes which may have been the raw material of The Scream, such as this entry from 22 January 1892:
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – My friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety –and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.
The simplified landscape in the picture is recognisable as Oslo Fjord seen from Ekeberg, with broad views of the bay, the city and the hills behind it. In the background to the left, where the road ends with the railing that cuts diagonally into the picture, walk two men who may be the friends Munch mentions in his diary. However, it is the central figure in the foreground that draws our attention, its mouth shaped in a silent scream that seems to be mirrored by the undulations in the surrounding landscape. Click here to explore Munch’s work on Europeana.
Like Munch and many Symbolists of his era, the art of Hugo Simberg (1873-1917) is concerned with mysticism and metaphysical themes, populated by devils and personifications of Death. Having studied art in his native Finland, Simberg went to London in 1896, before travelling onwards to Paris and Italy during the following year.
The Wounded Angel is one of Simberg's most recognisable works and, in 2006, it was voted Finland's ‘national painting’ in a survey held by the Ateneum museum. The picture’s meaning remains ambiguous as Simberg declined to offer any clues; he preferred that viewers drew their own conclusions. To listen to a short audio guide about The Wounded Angel, visit this page of the Finnish National Gallery’s website. To see Simberg’s life in a series of fascinating photographs, check out this feature by the Public Domain Review.
In 1864, Belgian artist Félicien Rops (1833-1898) met Charles Baudelaire towards the end of the poet’s life. Rops illustrated the frontispiece of Baudelaire's Les Épaves, and in doing so, he became respected by contemporary writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Théophile Gautier.
Much of Rops’s work is deliberately blasphemous and provocative; a potent mix of sex, death, Satanism and general degeneracy. Pornokrates is no exception: it shows a mostly naked woman in profile, walking a pig as three cherubs in lascivious poses fly before her. Below the woman’s feet is a frieze with allegories of sculpture, music, poetry and painting. To find out more about Pornokrates, visit its dedicated Wikipedia page.
Next time, in the final installment of Faces of Europe, we’ll see how European artists responded to the 20th century’s dizzying array of modernist styles and movements. Until then, click here for a chapter preview.