Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2018
Allison Morehead Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form Refiguring Modernism (Book 21). University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017. 264 pp.; 51 color ills.; 60 b/w ills. Hardcover $89.95 (9780271076744)

Gustave Kahn’s characterization of Symbolism as “the exteriorization of the Idea” is usually explained as the Symbolists privileging the imagination over a naturalistic art practice that reproduced the visible world. In Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form, Allison Morehead reorients this quotation and Symbolist art itself toward science, specifically the experimental method. One of the crucial arguments in Nature’s Experiments is that even as positivism was being widely critiqued at the end of the nineteenth century, experimental methodology was gaining authority as a mode with which to realize not only scientific truths, but also truths about the human condition. Morehead demonstrates that naturalism was so closely aligned with the notion of truth that the Symbolists could not completely jettison it, and thus, while rejecting the style, they kept some naturalist tenets in their art.

In this book we learn how the epistemology of the experiment was taken up by four artists—Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, August Strindberg, and Edvard Munch—as a manner to radically alter the surface of their paintings. A chapter is dedicated to each painter, explaining a handful of art works, enriched by archival sources, art criticism, artistic sketches, and notes from carnets. This book is not a quick read. Morehead digs deep into the artists’ jottings and use of language to lay out how experimental strategies, including deformation, experimental arabesques, naturalistic symbolism, and an interest in madness were used to create a new style. Scenes alluding to degeneration, hysteria, dreams, and hypnogogic states are familiar subject matter for fin de siècle artists, but Morehead goes further stating that examining “abnormal” behavior was also the foundation for the formal innovations of the avant-garde. Morehead builds a strong case that pathology is not only fundamental in shaping modernist subject matter, “but also determinative of modernism” (174).

Claude Bernard’s Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865) is central to Morehead’s book because of its role in promoting experimentalism beyond medicine into the humanities. Bernard believed that the testing of an a priori concept, the idea, was the superior manner with which to generate scientific truths. As Symbolists were recasting their formal style away from the perceptual-based art of the Impressionists, toward an art of interior experiences, experimental science was becoming canonical. Morehead explains that experimentalism seemed to offer a means with which to carefully examine self-expression (the “Idea”), to make it more relevant on a universal level.

The title of Morehead’s book “Nature’s Experiments,” explained in the introduction, is taken from a medical phrase that refers to a specific methodology within experimentalism, whereby pathological abnormal states were used to learn about normal states. It was thought that sickness could act like a “magnifying glass” on the healthy state (6). As psychology developed in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century, pathological studies became the dominant methodology, and it was taught in the French Lycée system to a generation of students, including Denis and Vuillard. This training went a long way in preparing artists to be receptive to scientists and historians like Bernard, Hippolyte Taine, and Théodule Ribot, contextualizing for the reader the widespread interest in “abnormal” behavior and psychopathology during this period.

Chapter 1 outlines how Bernard’s systematic study was applied to “intellectual and moral phenomena” (6), and offered up a scientific methodology for “fin de siècle truth seekers” (14) to investigate emotions. This chapter deals with the writers and art critics who shaped experimental Symbolist theory, beginning with Émile Zola’s take on “The Experimental Novel” (1879), and moving through how Jules Laforgue, Gustave Kahn, Émile Hennequin, and Édouard Schuré applied pathological notions to better understand human behavior. Albert Aurier, the oft-quoted Symbolist theorist, is an outlier for Morehead because of his polemical rejection of science. Instead, as introduced above, she focuses on the importance of Kahn’s scientific sounding statement to “objectify the subjective” in the context of Bernard’s notion of objectively testing ideas. By the end of the century, “to seek knowledge meant to experiment” (174).

Chapters 2–5 are each dedicated to one artist and a few key artworks. For Denis it is Décor, for Vuillard the portrait of Lugné Poë and Woman Sleeping, for Strindberg Night of Jealousy stands out, and for Munch The Scream and a remarkable series of paintings at a roulette table. These are interesting choices. Munch’s Scream is iconic, but Denis’ Décor is lost, and thus little known. Strindberg is discussed here more as a painter than a writer. Yet the strategy of choosing these four artists does not seem restrictive because the book is densely packed with new research, primary source analysis, and etymological readings, all moving us toward understanding how the artists exaggerated and distorted their formal elements within a “pathological” frame work.

In chapter 2 we observe Denis’s creative process through the pencil, pastel, and oil sketches that Morehead uncovers to help visualize Décor, a large painting of a “deformed” reclining, nude woman, exhibited at the 1891 Salon des Indépendents. Morehead uses Denis’s notebooks to demonstrate how pathology provided him with a valid scientific basis to deform nature. Décor illustrates and updates Denis’s well-known, formalist-oriented Définition du néo-traditionnisme (1890). By 1895 he critiqued his “subjective” deformation of the body in Décor, in favor of what he called “objective” deformation, a seemingly more scientifically grounded in the pathological method. Morehead challenges the notion that his later style was a retreat from the avant-garde. Rather, Denis was critical of the twentieth-century vanguard artists who had lost touch with the purpose of experimental methodology, while he remained committed to searching for a concept of truth, grounded in science.

Vuillard was taught about the lucidity of the unconscious mind at the Lycée Condorcet, and in chapter 3, Morehead outlines that he created a technique of automatic marks, akin to an experimental process, through the play of positive and negative space on the canvas, which she describes as the experimental arabesque. Morehead positions Vuillard’s repetitive reworking of angular lines as retaining a sense of fluidity and automatism, signifying the artist’s ability to catch the “spark of the idea” (104), thus connecting with the subconscious mind. Vuillard strove to balance the quick line of the arabesque with a more willful and deliberate process of repetitive marks, not copying nature, but presenting his interior perception of the natural world, a common goal for Symbolists.

Strindberg is not usually associated with a visual practice, but in chapter 4, Morehead highlights an intense period of studio work between 1892 and 1894, in which he produced a series of thickly painted, abstracted Symbolist landscapes. Strindberg used gestural taches in his automatic painting practice to reflect the processes of nature, what Morehead labels naturalistic symbolism. Chance and automatic systems were thought to reveal unknown and intelligent forces, a popular occult idea that he discovered through the Black Piglet circle in Berlin. Strindberg enjoyed the aesthetic pleasure of the visual associations generated through automatism such as Rorschach-like ink blots, which he knew from the psychology-oriented journal Sphinx. Given the thorough historicization in this book, it does not come as a surprise to the reader that Strindberg positioned Zola as “a master of symbolism” (117), leaving no doubt that the experiment was perceived as a manner of testing all types of ideas, including emotional states.

Like others at the debut of the twentieth century, Munch had been exposed to the expressive possibilities of the subconscious mind, in his case, from visiting asylums around Paris with Marcel Réja, who published The Art of the Insane in 1907. Outsider art was thought to be indifferent to academic principles, and the fanatical marks reflected the freedom of the irrational mind. In chapter 5, Morehead notes that Munch’s distortions of bodies and space and his exaggerated colors represented in The Scream are akin to types of somnambulistic and mediumistic drawings and telepathic thought experiments reproduced in Sphinx. Munch understood that “madness” was an exaggerated form of normal behavior, and he experimented with his own obsessive compulsion for gambling to work out a new manner of painting where form and content parallel each other. Munch writes poignantly about his “gambling mania,” and Morehead notes that he plays out this loss of self on his canvases, which focus on the spinning, distorted roulette wheel that gripped him in the casino at Monte Carlo. Munch brought a sense of madness into his formal innovations, reinforcing the main point of this book, that pathology is at the very foundation of Symbolist style and content.

For much of the twentieth century, scholars have explained Symbolist art by either focusing on the flattened style or by emphasizing the alterity of the subject matter. Morehead develops Reinhold Heller’s interpretation that Symbolist art represents a dialectic between form and content: formal deformations help determine psychopathological subject matter. For Morehead, the experiment is as fundamental for the Symbolists as theories of prismatic color were for the Impressionists. There are so many contributions this author makes toward better understanding Symbolist art, from the close reading of key words, to letting the artists’ voices be heard, to learning more about the concept of truth at the beginning of the century. To my mind, the most important breakthrough, however, is that Morehead lays out the fundamental role of science for the Symbolists, which reinforces recent scholarship that has recovered this aspect of Symbolist theory. We now really understand how the core method of modern science—experimentalism—was taken up by four key Symbolists to create a radical new style that was associated with a notion of truth.

Serena Keshavjee
Professor, University of Winnipeg