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Vincent van Gogh – The Sower

So the marketing merchants have been at work here with a title purely designed to bring in the masses. Two household names: Van Gogh [cheer!] and Kandinsky [cheer!] and then: Symbolist Landscape in Europe [cough]. The second part, Symbolist Landscape, is what this excellent show in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh is all about and the first part is two guys with a couple of paintings in it. I can’t disagree with this approach though, even if the emphasis is a little misleading. I mentioned the impressive attendance figures for museums and galleries in London this year in my last blog (Tanks a lot), and I’m pleased to see that Edinburgh is experiencing a similarly high turnout. Around the corner from the SNG, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has exceeded its annual visitor target with three months to go. So if a sensationalised headline persuades a few extra people to pop through the gallery doors, then it can’t be a bad thing.

The period that the show here covers (1880-1910) is surely one of the most exciting and turbulent times in history. Europe, as people knew it, was changing with unprecedented speed. It was a time of transition: religion, science, transport, industry, society, politics and economics. It was both a new dawn and a setting sun. It was a continent rife with uncertainty, and those most sensitive to the transition displayed it with various forms of cathartic expression; in writing, in music and in art. So, in art, during this time, it’s not a set of similar visual styles that defines the era, but a shared anxiety.

Newton’s famous law that actions create equal and opposite reactions often rings true in the history of art. Against the chaos occurring off the back of the Franco-Prussian War, French artist, Puvis de Chavannes sought a return to the stability of a more natural, classical world. When national dignity needed reasserting, his landscape in Vision Antique recalls unsullied virtues of the past. Many of the symbolist artists like him escaped the onslaught of industrial development with paintings of myth and dream often centred on their own nations. The Scandinavians like Edvard Munch, Akseli Gallen Kallela, Albert Edelfelt and Harald Sohlberg painted rural scenes, symbolic of the endangered state of their landscapes in the face of the modernising world.

Puvis de Chavannes – Vision Antique

On the contrary, other artists depicted cities; ghostly and deserted, a far cry from the overcrowded reality of some areas of London, Paris and Berlin after the rapid increase in workers from the countryside.

One of the best parts of this exhibition is how it embraces this and the multi-disciplinary nature of the time. Signac and Kandinsky famously played with the new concept of synesthesia – the idea of confusing the senses, so you could see sounds or hear colours. Look at Signac’s extensively titled Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221 from the series The Sea, The Boats, Concarneau – the boats appear almost like notes on a score of music.

Paul Signac – Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Adagio. Opus 221 from the series The Sea, The Boats, Concarneau

Kandinsky wrote that a splash of yellow should evoke the sound of a trumpet and that colour combinations were like chords on a piano. To help with this, the exhibition allows you to listen to the inharmonious music of Arnold Schoenberg on an iPad whilst looking at one of Kandinsky’s musically titled ‘Compositions’.

As psycho-analysis became an increasingly accepted form of science, artists of the time, such as Van Gogh, Gauguin and again, Munch, explored different mental states in their works. They abandoned strict perspective and realistic colour in favour of vivid palettes and dreams or nightmarish scenes.

For some the anxiety was best represented by apocalypse or ultimate symbols of death – storms, deluges, destruction of worlds. One G.F. Watts aside, this is possibly the only area where I felt the exhibition was short on decent on examples, but nevertheless the overarching message of uncertainty, variation and change that Symbolist Landscape provides is spot on.

It isn’t showing for much longer in Edinburgh (14th October), so some may question why I’m blogging about it for our readership which is predominantly London-based, but if you can’t nip up on an East Coast train [other train lines available] between now and then, perhaps you could catch it on a romantic city break in Helsinki where it’s headed next.

By Edward Lines