Symbolist transpositions d’art at the Fin de Siècle

I organized and moderated a panel on “Symbolist transpositions d’art at the Fin de Siècle” for the annual Nineteenth-Century French Studies Association Colloquium that took place November 9–11, 2017. Participants included Louis Marvick (University of Nevada, Reno) who spoke on Stéphane Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau’s shared interest in the figure of Salome, Diana Schiau-Botea (Independent Scholar), who talked about Odilon Redon and Stéphane Mallarmé’s relationship and Jennifer Johnson (St John’s College, University of Oxford), who examined Georges Rouault’s conversations in his work with that of Gustave Moreau and Alfred Jarry. The conference program can be found here.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Untitled lithograph for Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de des, 1897. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Réserve des livres rares, RESFOL-NFY-130.

The late-nineteenth century offered ample opportunity for collaboration and exchange between French poets and artists, whose social circles often overlapped. Whereas at mid-century Parnassian poets sought to recreate the formal effects of painting, all the while staying true to the metrical structure of the Alexandrine, by the end of the century Symbolist poets dispensed with this particular form and any desire for fidelity between source and referent. Instead, the Symbolists created highly subjective compositions distinguished by their suggestive ambiguity, offering a fertile ground for complementary works in other media. A key figure for the scholars participating in this panel is Stéphane Mallarmé, whose collaboration with Édouard Manet on “Le Corbeau” (1875) is an early precedent for the artist-writer exchanges that would flourish during the 1890s, such as Odilon Redon’s lithographs for Mallarmé’s Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897).

At the same time that Symbolism emphasized the importance of the author’s individual voice, it empowered the reader/viewer to take an active role as a maker of meaning. As objects of exchange, transpositions d’art offer evidence of social relationships, including the styling (or norms) that bonded artistic men together. As retellings of another’s creation, they also offer evidence of reader response and, at times, historical distance. This session explored how attention across media to the artistic language of Symbolism can help shed new light on a movement whose means were infamously obscure. While the panel was focused on the fin de siècle, it extended backward towards the mid-century to consider the mutual interests of Mallarmé and Gustave Moreau, and forward into the early-20th to Georges Rouault’s response to the theatrical experiments of Alfred Jarry.