The Symbolist aesthetic and the impact of occult and esoteric ideologies on modern art
Within the past couple of decades, art-historical scholarship has developed a more acute awareness of the need to reassess and re-evaluate its dominant narratives. It has become apparent that the value judgements that have guided modernist historiography can no longer be taken for granted, and there has been an ever-increasing demand for more diverse perspectives. One central issue which has gradually surfaced into broader consciousness, is the impact of occult and esoteric ideas on artistic theories and practices since the late nineteenth century. This article looks into the background of this phenomenon, locating a point of culmination in the new Symbolist direction of art that emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century. The aim is to demonstrate that central Symbolist principles, such as inwardness, intuition, and dematerialisation are linked with popular esoteric beliefs, and that the late nineteenth-century aesthetic theorisations of these issues have had significant effects on later artistic developments. The artists of this new movement were no longer satisfied with the old ‘window on the world’ paradigm. Instead of copying a tangible reality as it appeared to their eyes, they turned inward, towards the world of dreams, fantasies and nightmares, visions and hallucinations, ancient myths and fairy tales. But they were not merely looking for new kinds of subject matter in order to ‘shock the bourgeoisie’. The innovative aesthetic attitude that they developed in both theory and practice rested on a philosophical foundation that was deeply rooted in occult and esoteric ideologies and their quest for new directions and forms of expression in art was paralleled by an intensive religious searching.
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