a preliminary thought on the Symbolists and art

When I did my blog post on Pamela Coleman Smith, I came across a wonderful website dedicated to her. PCS is a bit of a hero of mine, someone who led a unique life, followed her own vision, and contributed a lasting, immensely appreciated and influential legacy in the form of her tarot designs. These brought tarot to the masses and at the same time shaped the form (and meaning) of popular tarot. They are also multiple, card sized works of art that thousands of people have been able to own, handle, meditate on and use. It would take years for her deck to really reach the public, with a shifting culture and a boom in the interest in magic and mysticism, but the work was basically done by 1909. Simply by virtue of the nature of tarot reading, it also forms a constantly shifting and recombining, composite work of art, and one which spills over the borders of art, mysticism, and everyday life. You could not invent this stuff; it is the kind of lateral artistic thinking which artists would kill to pioneer, but here she was doing it in the very early 1900s, and it wasn’t even recognized (still isn’t), because it was tarot cards and occultism. And tarot cards didn’t work like this, not before Pamela Coleman Smith.

Amongst all the other details on the Pamela Coleman Smith website, what stopped me in my tracks was the statement that PCS is often classed as a Symbolist artist. This immediately took me back to the art which I instinctively gravitated towards as a teenager, and which, when I think about it, influenced the art I aimed for in my twenties. I loved the Symbolists, and I always remember the book my sister got on them. They really meant something.

The writer of the PCS blog (I only know her as “Holly”)  went on to enumerate common features of Symbolism which suddenly made so much sense to me. The reaction to determinism, naturalism and materialism, ok I get that, sure. Focus on the internal rather than the external and empirical, yes, that’s beautifully clear. Primacy of “spirit, soul or imagination”; what can you say but bravo! But when she notes the place of

“Personal and enigmatic visions and mystical themes expressed through private symbol rather than public, consensual allegory or metaphor”

well something really clicked.

That is the key. That is what you don’t expect from the name “Symbolism”, with its associations of wooden, set archetypes and pre-set meanings (a kind of visual ritualism), but what you do see in the intimations of the art, with its personalizations, its idiosyncrasy, its suggestiveness, innovations, deviations and ambiguities.

The reason that Smith’s tarot designs work is not because they follow a Golden Dawn lexicon of symbolism, but because they deviate and personalize enough to make the designs live. And the opposite tendency is what kills some modern Pagan inspired art. Even where it is accomplished, it can fall into a pseudo-literalism and replication, as if symbols existed as literal, definable objects, without any stretchiness, without that ungraspable trans-dimensionality, without the sovereign subjectivity of both artist and viewer, without the life blood and breath of ambiguity.

The unseen and the ineffable can be brought through by means of art, music, literature, and speaking of visual art, by means of the individual inner experience of the artist communicating with the viewer. It is intensely personal and relational. This is not a colonizing of the unseen with a series of structures and rules that mimic the known world, the plastering of a map over invisible waters, as an inexperienced occultist, or a devout theologian might try to do.

The water in this cup is actually wet. That is why I love it so much.

Island of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[28th March 2014: 4th paragraph – “interpretiveness” changed to “suggestiveness”]


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