Death, desire, and decadence. These three concepts provided the framework for a period of artistic and literary growth known as the Symbolist Movement, which initially came to France from England in the latter half of the nineteenth century, some sixty years after the French Revolution first decriminalized homosexuality with the Penal Code of 1791. The pioneers of the movement rebelled against what they saw as the base materialism of the Realists and Naturalists, who prided themselves on distilling the truth of everyday life through gritty, unembellished images of the humble and the ordinary. For Symbolists, however, the name of the game was transcendence, a rise beyond the earthly through introspection inspired by sex and art.
The Symbolist artistic milieu wasn’t necessarily centered on advocating or promoting homosexuality, but the movement is often considered the first self-consciously queer movement in Western art history specifically because of its approach to sexuality and gender constructs. In the wake of a society that, despite an increase in open expressions of homosexuality, often judged same-sex relations as immoral, the Symbolists discovered that their true experience of self—and sex—existed along a blurry line between dreams and reality as a mystical thing; it was intangible, ineffable—sublime. It was quite simple, according to the grandfather of the movement, Charles Baudelaire. In 1860, he wrote in Les paradis artificiels, “Common sense tells us that terrestrial things have but a faint existence and that reality itself is only found in dreams” (235). So, basically, to transcend, all a man has to do is explore the dreams, hallucinations, and illusions that make up his subconscious and figure out how art can make it real. How easy.
Of course, in Baudelaire’s dreams, the dreams of a straight man, he believed all women fell into two categories: the Mother and the Black Venus. The former gave life, but sex was clearly out of the question. The latter? Hotter than sin, but she left men impotent and usually dead, or at least nearly so. (Lesbians, on the other hand, he thought might bridge those categories, since they render men obsolete but don’t otherwise drain the life out of them). Great options, or what?
It may not come as much of a shocker, then, that with this Madonna-whore theme pretty popular among the Symbolists, alternative lifestyles were in vogue. Poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine had a passionate, if brief, affair; some critics consider Jean Delville’s School of Plato to be one of the gayest paintings in fin-de-siècle art; Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for two years under the charge of gross indecency with other men. The list goes on. Despite the social negativity it drew especially during Wilde’s trials, homosexuality prospered. It was a way of life, not a style, born of a philosophy that unflinchingly questioned what man is—what it can be—and the Symbolists began to speculate that love and sexuality might merely be abstract ideas that figure into a person’s being without necessarily defining who or what they are.
It didn’t take long for this theory to spread, and soon even androgyny, and to some extent hermaphroditism, became incredibly common themes in many Symbolist works, because unlike cut-and-dry heterosexuality or homosexuality, they were believed to run the gamut of human experience. For authors like Gustav Meyrink and Joris-Karl Huysman and artists such as Paul Gaugin and Aubrey Beardsley, queering once-conventional boundaries of sex and gender allowed the artist to imagine identity in an entirely new light, one in which the very notion of transgender symbolizes the ultimate potential of creative imagination: a flawless art object capable of reconciling earthly, decadent sensuality and divine, spiritual transcendence in a single unified body.
It was a bit more complicated for some members of the movement. Many artists reveled in the taboo, while others died under the weight of repressing it. The overarching sentiment, though, was that the body might be male, female, transgender, or even genderless, but in the end, sensuality, sexuality, and love are not. However powerful the visceral experience of sex and desire might be, the body was merely the vehicle of passion, of transcendence; it didn’t qualify it. Rather, love was a force that rivaled death, and Symbolists from England, to France, to Belgium and beyond were willing to go through the deepest agony to experience even the faintest glimmer of such a beautiful dream.
Except for Baudelaire, anyway. He pretty consistently preferred death.
By Stephanie Shea, Staff Contributor