Classical Myth in Post-Impressionist & Symbolist Art

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  • 00:00 Art After Impressionism
  • 1:24 Classical Myths and…
  • 3:05 Using Myths to Reject…
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will discover how traditional subjects can be given new meaning as you explore the use of Classical mythology in the works of the Post-Impressionists, particularly the Symbolists.

Art after Impressionism

Whoa! Did you feel that? That shaking, like the whole world trembled? Was that an earthquake? No, that was just the impact of Impressionism on Western art.

You see, for thousands of years, Western art looked for truth through an ever-increasingly faithful representation of the natural world. And then the Impressionists showed up and said absolute truth is not in the representation of the natural world but in our perception of it. Whoa. Let that soak in. This means that blurring lines and colors to capture the essence of a fleeting moment of time and light can be just as truthful as a depiction of a still life. There it is again! The tremor that shook the art world.

Well, after the initial impact of Impressionism, several aftershocks continued to shake up Western art, continuing to challenge the meaning of art. We call the movements that immediately followed Impressionism and studied expressive qualities of art Post-Impressionism. One of the post-Impressionist movements was called Symbolism, characterized by deeply symbolic images that captured the essence of the inner self. In other words, metaphorical portraits of the subconscious. This aftershock was unique because while others tore down traditional ideas of art to prove a point, this one often built them back up.

Classical Myths and Post-Impressionism

The Post-Impressionists and the Symbolists, in particular, found that one of the most traditional subjects of art, Classical mythology, could actually be used to challenge the beliefs of traditional art. In this sense, they are very much in line with the other Post-Impressionist movements. Check out this painting by Gustave Moreau, entitled Oedipus and the Sphinx. The subject is straight out of classical mythology, from the Greek story of Oedipus being challenged to answer the riddle of the Sphinx.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

This subject has been depicted many times throughout traditional Western art, so the painting does not at first seem controversial. But where this becomes Post-Impressionist is in the interpretation. You see, Moreau was not interested in just presenting a scene from mythology or even a metaphor of good and evil. This is a portrait of his personal subconscious, shrouded in layers of symbolism that really only he can interpret.

The Symbolists believed that absolute truth only comes from within the complex world of the inner mind, and that this truth could only be communicated through metaphors. Some scholars think that this reflects the overbearing, nearly-castrating influence of Moreau's mother, who had become especially needy after his father died. The repetition of symbols relating to the word 'cling', which actually is related in ancient Greek to the word 'sphinx', may support this. So in this way, Classical mythology was used in a very Post-Impressionist manner, challenging traditional assumptions about art by creating images to reflect a personal psychology.

Using Myths to Reject Impressionism

As the aftershock of Post-Impressionism swept through the world of art, it became apparent that they weren't just challenging traditional art, they were also using Classical mythology to challenge Impressionism and other movements of the time. One of the key tenets of Impressionism was the belief that the artist should focus on only that which they could see, touch, and experience. The Impressionists painted landscapes, scenes of modern life, and portraits of people they knew.

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