A word on Symbolism and esoteric art

A word on Symbolism and esoteric art


In this extract from the catalogue of her SAVING THE LIVES OF ANGELS exhibition (2016) SASHA CHAITOW gives definition, with accompanying thoughts, to the subject of SYMBOLIST ART, particularly in regard to the esoteric subject.

Symbolism is one of the most challenging forms of art for an audience. Symbolic meaning is more important to the artist than aesthetic convention, and a symbolic composition is often governed by a visual “grammar” and “vocabulary” that depends on prior knowledge and references that may come from any numbers of cultural frameworks. The influences can range from ancient civilizations to Renaissance emblematics. Every symbol contains layers of meaning which are multiplied when in composition with other, similarly complex symbols.

A symbolist artist’s purpose is nearly always to invite the viewer into a silent dialogue. Therefore the most affective way to approach a perplexing symbolist work is not by asking “what does it mean” and expecting a straight forward answer. Rather, it is better to remember that nothing has been left to chance; so every element has something to say, and it acquires meaning in relation to the composition as a whole.The most useful questions to ask oneself are: “Why is that there, what does it make me think of, and what is its relationship to the object/figure next to it?” This applies as much to colour, texture, and even titles, as it does to figures and objects. The process of working out the meanings hidden within the work is the purpose of the work itself.

The mages, androgynes, and sphinxes in Péladan’s writings and in the art of the artists he inspired, are glyphs embodying human spiritual potential. Because of their metaphysical nature, these mysteries could not, he believed, be directly communicated, but needed to be expressed in a manner intelligible to the human intellect, that could withstand the test of time.

Péladan elaborates:  In timeless (antiquity), ideas had not been divided up and individualised as they are today; works of art…presented a perceptible message to everyone, and a further one(…) imperceptible to the uninitiated.

Elsewhere he concludes that:  A work of art must be of such a high order that the people will feel it without comprehending it; we must elevate the letters, the sciences and the arts beyond the reach of fools, so that a new and obvious excellence will appear…

While certainly elitist to the modern sensibility, Péladan’s viewpoint rests on the historical precedent of Renaissance art in particular; simple, well-known symbolic representation was used as a teaching tool for the illiterate, but equally, complex and often obscure symbolism was woven into fine art pieces with a referential framework that could only be deciphered by those well-versed in classical learning. The same tactic was used by esoteric writers throughout history, to encode their teachings so that they could not fall into the hands of the “profane”, but only be comprehended by initiates.

I am not innocent of these techniques; I perceive symbolism in art as a language in its own right, and esoteric symbolism in particular contains numerous fascinating dialects that also deal with profound philosophical questions. I have utilized a referential framework that is as complex as Péladan’s. In both Péladan’s narrative and in mine, it is meant to lead to an understanding of the creative force as man’s inherent ablilty to be his own saviour.

Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that this background is not necessary to appreciate, and indeed to develop one’s own, original interpretation of a given image (this would be the ideal). My aim is to invite each viewer into a dialogue, first with the images, then with the stories they hold, and to be less concerned, at least initially, with the “official” meaning.

Sasha Chaitow, Corfu, August 2016    (Sasha’s website is www.sashachaitow.co.uk ). Her new exhibition ‘Stained by the Light’ will have its UK opening in the Autumn (2017) in Glastonbury.