They turned their attention to the human psyche and pivotal moments in human life, such as birth, death and maturation into adulthood. Symbolists were fascinated by dreams and the imagination, and they often depicted these themes of the invisible world in their art.
Symbolists often found their inspiration in literature and music. The most famous literary source was Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, 1857). Symbolists admired Neoplatonism and considered the material world to be merely a reflection of the real world of ideas. For them, works of art build bridges between worlds.
The setting of Magnus Enckell’s (1870–1925) scene of musical appreciation is the Great Hall at the University of Helsinki. The figures in the picture can be identified: artist Väinö Blomstedt is shown sitting at bottom right, the central figure is composer Selim Palmgren, and the man in profile at left is psychologist Albert Lilius. Magnus Enckell is one of the key figures of the golden age of Finnish art at the turn of the 20th century. After the turn of the century, Enckell’s symbolist style of the 1890s, with its often reduced palette and graphic appearance, began to develop in a more painterly direction towards post-impressionism and its profusion of colour and light.
Everywhere a Voice Invites Us…
Many symbolists considered music to be the highest art. In this picture you can almost hear one girl singing and the other playing. Having studied art in Helsinki and Paris, Beda Stjernschantz (1867–1910) was a key symbolist in the 1890s. This painting, which takes its title from the lyrics of the patriotic Song of Finland, is Stjernschantz’s main work. Painted in Estonia on the island of Vorms, the picture has a dreamlike atmosphere and is both decorative and stark at the same time. Shown in a nearly empty and shadowless space rendered in a narrow palette, the children symbolise timeless innocence and vulnerable beauty. The symbolists did not seek to imitate nature; the external motif was for them always subservient to spiritual truth and emotional expression.