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Symbolism, as I understand it here, must not be confused with allegory nor with any other system of hieroglyphic figuration such as that found in the Catacombs. It was the art of expressing sentiments and ideas, not by the more-or-less idealised representation of a given subject, but by the technical means used in the representation. Form, colours, volume became directly expressive, by virtue of natural correspondences between the visible and the invisible, between the appearances of the world received by the senses on the one hand and our emotions on the other. 

"Les parfums, les couleurs, et les sons se répondent." (24)

(24) 'Perfume, colours, sounds respond one to the other' from Baudelaire's poem Correspondances.

It was what Fr. Sertillanges calls: "Speaking to the instinct by presenting the living idea revealed in forms of art, as the soul is revealed through our living organs." And he adds: "It is to deal with us according to our nature." This art benefitted from the freedom gained by Impressionism, in particular from its subjectivist position before nature, its tendency toward abstraction. It re-established the essential role of imagination in the arts. It restored the idea of the painting which, instead of being an "open window on nature", a "slice of life," in the end a trompe-l’oeil, became again, according to the definition which I gave at the time: "a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order." 

The power to suggest certain rapports between ideas and things has always been the essential characteristic of art. What was new was that it should be worked out systematically. Very much in the spirit of our age, of our poets, our musicians, our thinkers, that systematisation has yet to yield all its fruit. It is there that new directions should be sought. 

There is no truly aesthetic, truly moving work of art which is not symbolist. I have cited Puvis de Chavannes. But now, by way of contrast, let us take Forain. Yes. Forain. When Forain wishes to express the venality of the magistrate, the lust, the infamy of the wicked rich man, the old party-animal, or again, the heroism of the ordinary footsoldier, the widow’s resignation or the faith of the Lourdes pilgrim, what does he do? A photographic drawing, an exact view of reality? No. He seeks by, a series of eliminations, the essential, characteristic line, the synthesis, the arabesque which, by enhancing it, epitomises the physiognomy, the drama, the idea. There is no psychological condition, no matter how complex, that he cannot turn into a readily intelligible schema. Once he has found that schema, that synthesising line, the work is done. That is very great art. And that is what I call symbolism.

 Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931) Café scene, c1910

And Raphael! Yes, when in the Stanza della segnatura in the Vatican, he traces those two immortal pages: the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament and the School of Athens, what has he done to bring us into that "state of perfect docility" Bergson speaks of "where we realise the idea suggested unto us, where we sympathise with the sentiment expressed"? Of course, the guides can tell us that here are the fathers of the Church, there St. Thomas, Dante or Savonarola, and all the details of the allegory. But what surprises us most in that Disputatio (25) - ironically so-named, as everything in it is calm, order and harmony - is the order itself, the rhythms of the composition, that play of circles and half-circles which, along both vertical and horizontal axes, direct one’s attention up toward the Three Persons above, and down to the eucharistic center below; between the two lies a clear space adorned with a delicious landscape, but it is in fact the Holy Sacrament that fills it. Whereas the School of Athens shows the chaos of doctrines in the absence of God, the contradictory ways of human philosophy. Under the sky, which is masked by a specious architecture, we see the dispersion, the isolation of groups, the calculated discord of the gestures. And if a little symmetry appears in this magnificent disorder, it is around Plato and Aristotle, synthesised in such a manner that all Renaissance thought is made perceptible thereby to the mind and, so to speak, to the eyes.

(25) NOTE BY DENIS: Disputatio means 'solemn debate'; that is the literary subject. But there is another subject ...

So it is not necessary to make figures that are too long, with awkward gestures, and a false naivety in order to be symbolist. We find ourselves before an art that is frankly decorative and which strives to awaken in our souls the whole range of human emotions through the whole range of sensations that correspond to them. Here is an art which desires to be a language whose words are all in nature, a profoundly human language, so human as to be mystical! What does it take for such an art to become Christian? 


I say that it conforms already to the whole tradition of our Faith. Was Religion not proclaimed in parables? perpetuated by the sacraments? And to guide us by means of the sensible to the supra-sensible, does it not offer us a system of signs, ordered in beauty: the Liturgy? 

There was a time when, in obedience to the councils, the painter’s aim was to convey the fact of religion, the truths of the Faith, to the illiterate. But even in the Middle Ages, this was accomplished by means of artifices destined to suggest that which, plastically, is inexpressible. All the more today, when everyone can read, the religious painter does not need to be a painter of history. Every artist must be a poet. Music before all things, said Verlaine. Whether the painter be Fra Angelico, Rembrandt or Puvis de Chavannes, it is not his quality as a historian, nor his documentation which count, but the fervor of emotion which he communicates. His ambition must be to incite to prayer, to bring the soul closer to God, to wrap it, as organ music does, in a penetrating atmosphere of recollection and piety. Like the Liturgy which both orders the common prayer, and is its ornament, art should provide for the faithful the benefit of, in the words of Dom Besse, (26) a spiritual ascension. Liturgy, like art, is decorative because its domain is beauty; aesthetic, because it makes use of sounds and colours to move the soul; symbolic because it establishes a perpetual coming together of the images of the sacred text and revealed truths, of natural phenomena and those of the inner life.

(26) Dom Jean-Martial Besse, O.S.B - 1861-1920. As novice master in the abbey of St Martin of Ligugé he was associated with the prominent converts Huysmans, Claudel and Forain. From 1906 he was associated with Action Française and from 1910 he contributed regularly to the paper L'Action Française. After the monks were expelled from Ligugé in 1901 under the government secularising policy, he moved to Chevetogne in Belgium, where he died. 

If I have absorbed this theory of correspondences thoroughly, and if I am Christian, I may call upon all nature, all modern life, all the resources of my sensibility for the work destined for the Church. Such an art obliges us to engage in an effort of sincerity and, so to speak, of introspection, which excludes the conventional and thus all academism. To represent and symbolise our religious emotions by means of forms and colours is to work on the most intimate depths of our souls. The work of art is thus born from the artist’s personal experience. Instead of a system of allegory or of cold hieroglyphics - banal, frozen - instead of a sentimental realism of doubtful quality, the Christian artist must give us a living art, and speak the language of his heart. I see in this a sort of ascesis which binds the overflow of our sensibility to the service of the Faith. Well! Undoubtedly there are and have been other formulas - Christian art is inexhaustible; but should it wish to express the aspirations of each age, is this not the form of art best suited to our own present time? 

Emotion is for us what is essential in art. But it is still necessary that we realise, according to its proper laws, the object which translates and transmits that emotion - in a word, to know one’s craft. 

This is where, in the plastic arts, a problem arises, a capital problem - that of imitation. Just because the representation of nature is not the goal of art, it does not follow that we have to stumble into abstraction. Art is a language: it must therefore be intelligible, and the whole of our vocabulary is to be found in nature. 

The problem of imitation is more or less analogous to the problem of knowledge in philosophy, and following whether it is the subject or object one makes to predominate, solutions vary. I am of the opinion that, following the ascetic method I have just indicated, the modern artist, if he wishes to exteriorise the mysteries of his interior life, will of necessity adopt the naive, virginal, humble attitude before nature that we associate with the medieval artist, an unfeigned naivety, not one acquired in museums, but one imposed on the soul as a virtue, as the most perfect form of sincerity. It is the naivety of the Primitives, of Giotto, of Fra Angelico, of the statuary of our cathedrals. For them, it isn't a matter of executing a tour de force, of exhibiting their technique, nor is it a matter of revealing the beau idéal after the manner of the academic school, of creating those generic types of humanity as the Renaissance did, idols which are ends unto themselves. The medieval artist does not prefer himself to what he expresses. For him, nature is Creation, and the creatures are witnesses and signs of the All-Powerful and the All-Bountiful. He is the child of the Heavenly Father, and it is in that dependency, in that childlike attitude that he finds contentment. Like St. Francis, he is brother to all the humble things which sing the glory of God, and those humble things have been rendered dearer to him by the Gospel which has associated them with divine instruction: harvests, planting, the little birds and the lilies of the field. No matter how skilful an artisan he might be, no matter how well he knows how to organise his forms and colours - because in the art of the Middle Ages, reason never lost her rights - he stands before nature full of candour and childlike simplicity.