Cover image for Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form By Allison Morehead

Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form

Allison Morehead


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Refiguring Modernism

Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form

Allison Morehead

Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form argues—rightly and boldly—that symbolism’s stark formal experiments, which have so often been taken to point the way toward twentieth-century abstraction, were tied to an explorative scientific culture concerned with the status of the modern body and mind and their pathologies. It is the first book to take seriously the semantic proximity between the terms ‘form’ and ‘deformation,’ including the gamut of ethical conundrums stretching between them. In this regard, Nature’s Experiments is a revelation, allowing us to see afresh a set of familiar paintings by Denis, Vuillard, and Munch, among others, through period eyes schooled in the scientific language of experiment.”


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This provocative study argues that some of the most inventive artwork of the 1890s was strongly influenced by the methods of experimental science and ultimately foreshadowed twentieth-century modernist practices.

Looking at avant-garde figures such as Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, August Strindberg, and Edvard Munch, Allison Morehead considers the conjunction of art making and experimentalism to illuminate how artists echoed the spirit of an increasingly explorative scientific culture in their work and processes. She shows how the concept of “nature’s experiments”—the belief that the study of pathologies led to an understanding of scientific truths, above all about the human mind and body—extended from the scientific realm into the world of art, underpinned artists’ solutions to the problem of symbolist form, and provided a ready-made methodology for fin-de-siècle truth seekers. By using experimental methods to transform symbolist theories into visual form, these artists broke from naturalist modes and interrogated concepts such as deformation, automatism, the arabesque, and madness to create modern works that were radically and usefully strange.

Focusing on the scientific, psychological, and experimental tactics of symbolism, Nature’s Experiments demystifies the avant-garde value of experimentation and reveals new and important insights into a foundational period for the development of European modernism.

Nature’s Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form argues—rightly and boldly—that symbolism’s stark formal experiments, which have so often been taken to point the way toward twentieth-century abstraction, were tied to an explorative scientific culture concerned with the status of the modern body and mind and their pathologies. It is the first book to take seriously the semantic proximity between the terms ‘form’ and ‘deformation,’ including the gamut of ethical conundrums stretching between them. In this regard, Nature’s Experiments is a revelation, allowing us to see afresh a set of familiar paintings by Denis, Vuillard, and Munch, among others, through period eyes schooled in the scientific language of experiment.”

Allison Morehead is Associate Professor of Art History and Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.


List of Illustrations

Introduction: Symbolism and Nature’s Experiments
1 Toward an Experimental Symbolism: Ideas and Ideals
2 Defending Deformation: Maurice Denis’s Positivist Modernism
3 Édouard Vuillard’s Experimental Arabesques
4 August Strindberg’s Naturalistic Symbolism
5 Madness as Method: The Pathological Experiments of Edvard Munch



Symbolism and Nature’s Experiments

Experimental art was not always avant-garde. And avant-garde art was not always experimental. In the eighteenth century, long before the emergence of what have been called the historical avant-gardes, l’art expérimental was, according to Denis Diderot, quite simply the art of seeking the laws of nature through experience, a method of inquiry increasingly associated with scientific ways of knowing. But by the mid-twentieth century, experimental art had become so synonymous with avant-garde art that Clement Greenberg felt the need to downplay “experiment”—he placed the word in quotation marks—as the avant-garde’s primary function. Carrying with it an almost incantatory power, the term experimental, in art making, is understood to valorize the new, the radical, the forward-thinking, and the progressive of virtually any time and place, and sometimes in such self-consciously utopic terms as to inspire parody.

But in the early 1890s, at the precise moment that a critical mass of avant-garde strategies was coalescing around groups such as the neoimpressionists and the symbolists, experimental art had yet to stabilize as a discursive formation. In 1892, the poet and critic G.-Albert Aurier, keen to define and to advance symbolist painting, derided experimental art, lambasting what he understood to be the objective and scientific aspirations of a naturalist mode of painting. In Aurier’s view, experimental art was crude and materialist, tired and retrograde, the exact opposite of what he hoped symbolist art would be. Had he lived long enough, he would no doubt have sympathized with a turn-of-the-century caricature of Émile Zola flinging fecal matter from a chamber pot onto a canvas, a vulgar representation of Zola’s programmatic essay “The Experimental Novel” that suggested that experimentation was, quite literally, a shitty way to go about painting (fig. 1). Over and against what he called experimental art, Aurier sought to promote a vanguard symbolist painting that was idealist (or “ideaist,” as he insisted on calling it), radical, and forward-thinking—in short, avant-garde—but definitely not experimental.

Nonetheless, within the context of late nineteenth-century symbolism, when it came to productive alignments between art and experiment, Aurier was in fact an outlier among the many seeking to identify, to define, and to practice symbolist painting at the fin de siècle. Theorists and promoters of symbolism had initially concentrated on reorienting literature, and above all poetry, away from a world of exterior appearances toward a world of interior experiences. Symbolist theory situated symbolist practice as a new form of knowledge production, and called for representational modes that would make understandable or present not the external, visible world but a mysterious, difficult-to-access world within. As such, symbolists adhered to and promoted specious notions of objective truth—“immutable principles,” in the words of the painter Paul Sérusier—and psychological universalism, imagining all members of their public to be equally and comparatively susceptible to symbolism’s forms, rhythms, and neologisms. Theories of symbolism remained contested terrain, but the critic Gustave Kahn’s reduction of symbolism’s tenets to a pithy catchphrase both marks out that terrain and, in its very reductiveness, suggests how anxious symbolists were to find clear directives for achieving putatively universal forms of communication. “The essential goal of our art,” Kahn wrote in 1886, setting symbolism in opposition to Zola’s naturalism, “is to objectify the subjective (the exteriorization of the Idea) instead of subjectifying the objective (nature seen through a temperament).” Experimental science, as Kahn would readily admit, would have a potentially important role to play in the objectifying processes of symbolism.


I am convinced that when physiology has advanced sufficiently, the poet, the philosopher, and the physiologist will all understand each other.

—Claude Bernard, 1865

The physiologist Claude Bernard, celebrated in an 1889 painting by Léon Lhermitte, incarnated experimentalism in nineteenth-century France (fig. 2). Henri Bergson would insist that Bernard’s Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, published in 1865, had been as influential for nineteenth-century ways of thinking as René Descartes’s Discourse on Method had been for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought. Bernard’s lofty vision of a future in which the poet, the philosopher, and the physiologist would all speak the same language, a vision shared by many symbolists, was predicated on Bernard’s belief that man had just reached the third and final stage of intellectual development, namely, that of experimentalism. While experiment had been installed as the methodological basis for the physical sciences in the early seventeenth century, vitalists had continued to argue that organic matter differed so fundamentally from nonorganic matter that experimental methods could not be applied to the life sciences with any rigor. Bernard’s book marked, for many at least, the end of the debate, establishing an experimental physiology as the foundation of medicine, and experimental methods, rather than empirical ones, as the basis for all knowledge about the natural world.

Unlike Auguste Comte, who had argued for a model of human progression through various stages toward the age of positivism, Bernard believed that man cumulated successive stages, with the a priori idea remaining crucial to all, including the age of experiment: “the goal of the experimental method,” Bernard wrote, “is to transform [the] a priori concept, founded on an intuition or a vague sense of things, into an a posteriori interpretation established through the experimental study of phenomena.” Experiment, he argued, was thus fundamentally “induced observation” (observation provoquée); the experimenter observes a phenomenon, formulates an idea based on his observations—a hypothesis—and then subjects that idea to rigorous testing under controlled conditions that he himself creates. Throughout the process, the experimenter must maintain philosophical doubt—not skepticism toward science itself, but a belief that existing theories are at best only partial glimpses of the truth of the natural world. Succinct, engaging, and easy to comprehend, the immensely popular Introduction constructed a doctrine for experimental method. By the time the writer and promoter of esoterism Édouard Schuré published his book The Great Initiates in 1889, a work of enormous influence for symbolist artists, it was not at all surprising that Bernard’s belief in the coming together of the poet, philosopher, and physiologist under the aegis of experiment should appear as the epigraph to the book’s preface.

Bernard’s Introduction not only brought words such as expérimentalisme and expérimentaliste into use; it contributed to the already shifting meanings of the word expérience. Whereas the distinction between the English terms experience and experiment can be traced back at least to the eighteenth century, both meanings continue to be covered by the single French word expérience. From the Latin verb experiri, to try, expérience was hardly a straightforward term prior to the nineteenth century, but the pace of denotative and connotative change accelerated in the wake of Bernard’s Introduction. Until 1878, the notoriously outdated dictionary of the French Academy had expressed the dual meaning of expérience as, on the one hand, a “trial or test occurring by design or by chance,” and, on the other, as expertise, “knowledge of things, acquired through use over a long period.” The Academy’s previous edition, the sixth, published in the 1830s, had been the first to introduce scientific usage not in a separate entry but with physics and chemistry experiments offered as examples after the first definition. In his 1863 dictionary, the positivist disciple Émile Littré had repeated almost verbatim the Academy’s two definitions; but presumably because the idea of a “trial or test occurring . . . by chance” (emphasis added) posed problems for positivist science, Littré added a third and charmingly inoffensive definition to cover the scientific usage: “attempt to recognize how something happens,” which was followed by the now obligatory examples of physics and chemistry experiments. Littré also recognized two cognate neologisms, expérimentateur and expérimentation, and two more would appear—expérimentalisme and expérimentaliste—with credit to Bernard, in the 1870 Larousse dictionary.

For his second edition of 1872–77, published after the appearance of the Introduction, Littré reworked the entries for expérience, adding a fourth, more rigorous definition derived directly from Bernard: “experiment, in the strict sense of the experimental method, denotes a posteriori knowledge gained through the observation of phenomena,” and Littré now added physiology experiments to the examples of physics and chemistry. The French Academy finally caught up with Littré and Larousse in the 1930s with its eighth edition, giving the first definition entirely over to science, which necessitated dropping that problematic phrase “by chance”: “Trial or test instituted to study the way in which natural phenomena occur, and to determine the laws that govern them by reproducing them artificially.” The second definition took on the connotation of “by chance,” transforming it into “involuntarily,” while relinquishing the notion of expertise by dropping “use over a long period” in favor of “knowledge of things, involuntarily acquired through usage in the world and in life.”

This overhaul of expérience between the Academy’s seventh (1878) and eighth (1932–35) editions, alongside Littré’s changes between his first and second editions, signals not only the rapidly increasing authority of science but also the extent to which all meanings of expérience were in flux in the second half of the nineteenth century. In other words, it was not simply a case of adding denotations and connotations but of recalibrating existing ones in relation to one another. When “by chance” migrated to the second definition as “involuntarily,” this cast one sense of expérience as more evidently subjective and passive, over and against a more objective, more active, and more thoroughly “scientific” definition. These recalibrations, which would inflect symbolists’ changing understanding not only of experiment but also of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity, were undoubtedly linked to what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have argued was a newly stark but in some ways paradoxical opposition between passive observation and active experimentation that came into play around the middle of the century.

None of these dictionaries included cultural or vanguardist usages for the adjective expérimental. Only the Academy’s ninth edition, which started appearing in 1986, records experimental art as a discursive formation, while other dictionaries, both French and English, vaguely identify the artistic vanguard usage as a specialized form of the figurative emerging in the early twentieth century. Historians of art and literature have been similarly vague, implying and in a few instances arguing that the conjunction of art and the experimental under the banner of avant-gardism was inevitable in a modern scientific age but largely allegorical.

This book, on the contrary, counters assumptions of a vaguely allegorical relationship between experimentalism and artistic avant-gardism, and argues instead that experimentation and avant-gardism coalesced around symbolism and around a pervasive way of thinking, doing, and knowing in nineteenth-century France. This way of knowing was immensely influential, but it has largely been forgotten. I shall refer to it as the epistemological paradigm of nature’s experiments.

Nature’s Experiments

In 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche noted, as if it were a widely accepted fact, “It is the value of all morbid states that they show us under a magnifying glass certain states that are normal—but not easily visible when normal.” He elaborated on this point by citing Bernard’s Lessons on Animal Heat (1876): “Health and Sickness are not essentially different. . . . In fact, there are only differences in degree between these two kinds of existence: the exaggeration, the disproportion, the nonharmony of the normal phenomena constitute the pathological state.” The belief that the normal and the pathological were quantitatively linked such that the pathological could act like a “magnifying glass” on the normal, and the use of this paradigm as the basis for a scientific methodology—the pathological method—probably has its roots in the late eighteenth century. But it was Comte who credited himself with transferring a nascent version of the pathological method from the biological sciences to a systematic study of “intellectual and moral phenomena” under the banner of experiment. Rejecting vivisection as both a cruel and a useless form of experimentation, Comte recommended pathological cases as the “true scientific equivalent of pure experimentation” for the biological and, by extension, the new sociological sciences. Whereas experimentation, he argued, proved extremely difficult on higher-order organisms, simpler organisms allowed the researcher to establish controlled conditions more easily. As if nature herself had offered up a gift to science, “precisely in the case in which artificial experimentation is the most difficult,” Comte argued, “nature fulfills the conditions for us” by providing the opportunity to study quantitative variants of normality in the form of abnormality. Pathological conditions—and for Comte’s sociology this meant the state of revolution—thus provided nature’s own experimental setup for the investigation of complex organic phenomena and for the extrapolation of laws for normal organisms, including the laws for a stable society.

Despite protests to the contrary, Bernard was deeply indebted to Comte, especially when it came to the experimental value of a continuous relationship between the normal and the pathological. If medicine, Bernard reasoned, by definition the study of disease, was aimed at developing therapies, the scientist must understand the organism’s normal state in order to return it to health from the pathological state. Bernard’s insistence on this point relied more on what Georges Canguilhem called “monotonous repetition” than on solid evidence, but for the purposes of this study, the fundamental error that Canguilhem identifies—the erroneous assumption about the continuity between the normal and the pathological—is beside the point. The cultish authority surrounding both Comte and Bernard suggests that nature’s experiments offered an enticing model for those seeking to establish facts about complex organic phenomena and especially, as was the case with the symbolists, the inner complexities of the subject presumed to be at the apex of normal earthly existence, the white bourgeois man. As men of science increasingly conceived of their own psychological functioning as an object of scientific investigation, the pathological method was ever more frequently summoned to provide psychological studies with the authority of experiment.

Nature’s experiments supplied French psychology with both its scientific credentials and its modus operandi in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the philosopher and political theorist Ernest Renan summed it up in 1890:

Sleep, madness, delirium, somnambulism, and hallucination offer a far more favorable field of experiment than the regular state for studying the psychology of the individual. Phenomena, which in the regular state are almost effaced because of their tenuousness, appear more palpable in extraordinary crises because they are exaggerated. The physicist does not study galvanism in the weak quantities that nature presents, but increases it through experimentation, in order to study it more easily, although the laws in that exaggerated state are identical to those of the natural state. Similarly, human psychology will have to be built around studying the madness of mankind, the dreams, hallucinations, and all those curious absurdities to be found on every page of the history of the human mind.

For much of the nineteenth century, psychology had been the purview of philosophy, and a centerpiece of the eclecticism of Victor Cousin. For Comte, Cousin’s introspective method of psychological observation of the internal self was a logical impossibility, since the individual, Comte insisted, could not be at once subject and object of observation. But as positivism gained institutional ground, and especially with the apparent successes of physiology, a scientific psychology seemed to many second-generation positivists to be imaginable. In 1888, the same year that Nietzsche highlighted the value of “morbid states,” and after nearly two decades of debate over the name for the new psychology, Théodule Ribot accepted the first chair at the Collège de France in “experimental and comparative psychology.” The following year, in Paris, at an international congress timed to coincide with the Universal Exposition, French delegates continued to discuss the name of the new field, rejecting “physiological psychology” as too narrow and “scientific psychology” as “too absolute,” and reiterating their approval of “experimental psychology” because it plainly rejected philosophy and explicitly signaled that experimental psychologists would henceforth be “abstaining from any metaphysical questions.” Ribot, as Jacqueline Carroy and Régine Plas have argued, recommended that French psychologists eschew what he characterized as a narrow and largely quantitative German experimental psychology for a more descriptive psychology. In doing so, Ribot, along with Hippolyte Taine, chose to derive institutional authority for French experimental psychology from what he understood to be specifically French contributions, above all the new experimentalism and the pathological methods of Comte and Bernard. These proved especially appealing in the first decades of the Third Republic, when anxiety about France’s scientific and technological achievements was at its peak.

“The more a phenomenon is bizarre,” Taine wrote in his expanded preface to On Intelligence, first published in the second edition of 1876, “the more it is instructive.” “The most minor, well-selected phenomena” (tout petits faits bien choisis), he argued, provoke a heightened state of consciousness, a state that functions, as Nietzsche would later assume, like an optical prosthesis to enhance the capabilities of the human eye and to provide a way to “see” the inner workings of the human mind. As his contribution to a fledgling scientific psychology, Taine offered an exhaustive list of recommended objects of study, which reads as a partial compendium of avant-garde inspiration. Nearly all were what he considered abnormal psychological situations: the language of children, dreams, the experiences of drug addicts, hypnagogic hallucinations, hypnotism, somnambulism, automatism, spirit manifestations, and madness. To this veritable catalogue of the abnormal, he added artistic genius, recommending that “every exceptionally clear-headed painter, poet, and novelist” submit himself to the questions of a “friendly psychologist.” Taine lamented the dearth of documents written by the mentally ill themselves, and went so far as to repudiate Comte by recommending the self as an object of study, endorsing a form of self-experimentation on one’s own abnormal states.

While Ribot maintained a place within experimental psychology for what he called a “subjective method” akin to Cousin’s introspective method, only an “objective method,” Ribot argued (what he also called a “morbid psychology”), could establish the discipline as a science. Like Taine, Ribot believed that his predecessors had virtually ignored the abnormal, but that pathological cases offered ideal opportunities to gain knowledge of the most complex, difficult-to-observe phenomena, and could thus constitute the new psychology as objective: “morbid disturbances of the organism that bring about mental disorders; anomalies, monsters in the psychological order, for us these are like experiments prepared by nature and all the more precious for being rare.” Ribot subsequently devoted himself to producing a series of monographs that would take “experiments prepared by nature” as their central object of study, publishing Diseases of Memory (1881), Diseases of the Will (1883), The Diseases of Personality (1885), and monographs on attention (1889), the emotions (1896), and creativity (1900), all of which went through numerous editions and were rapidly translated into English, German, and Italian. In each, Ribot took the opportunity to reiterate the critical importance of the pathological method, promoting over and over the triad of “madmen, primitives, and children” as psychology’s preeminent objects of study. Ribot thus introduced a dimension of the pathological method only implied in Taine’s thinking, namely, an evolutionism derived primarily from Herbert Spencer and John Hughlings Jackson. No longer, Ribot promised, would psychology concern itself only with the higher rungs of the evolutionary ladder, namely the “white, adult, civilized male.” Rather, it would now engage in comparative studies of animals, children, the mentally ill, and “inferior races,” all seen as nature’s experiments, to be mobilized as objects of investigation. In these putatively pathological cases, “the actions are less numerous, less complicated,” Ribot wrote, “but . . . the functioning does not disappear.”

Owing in no small part to the writings of Taine and Ribot, French experimental psychology in the late nineteenth century came to be identified with psychopathology, but in the early twentieth century, the discipline began to shift toward a German model. By 1911, when leading French psychologists dropped the reference to pathological psychology in the subtitles of their influential textbooks, French experimental psychology had ceased to depend upon nature’s experiments as its methodological paradigm. A thirty-year reliance on the pathological method, however, meant that readers of French psychology, including many within the emerging avant-gardes, could consider themselves well schooled in altered psychological states and in the mental functioning of “madmen, primitives, and children,” which they could understand as continuous with their own mental functioning. Psychopathology had also led to intense debates over the status, function, and nature of the unconscious, raising questions, including legal ones, about how unconscious, automatic activity related to conscious, willed activity. The pathological method had ushered the unconscious, the part of the mind that Taine had argued was usually waiting in the wings, onto scientific psychology’s center stage. But the increasing incorporation of the unconscious into an understanding of normal mental life would eventually bump nature’s experiments from their starring role as the methodological centerpieces of a scientific psychology. By then, however, which is to say, by the early twentieth century, the avant-garde had taken up what psychology had constructed as pathological alterity, all those altered states and all those “madmen, primitives, and children,” as wellsprings for masculinist, colonialist inspiration. While the avant-garde was certainly recapitulating the romantic view of children and “primitives” as original natures, its revaluation of alterities, when we consider its more direct roots in symbolist theory and practice, reveals a scientific cast provided by the epistemological paradigm of nature’s experiments.

<1>Symbolism: From Theory to Visual Practice

Consider the following four works, all, at the time of their making in the early 1890s, conceived of, and to a greater or lesser extent received as, instances of symbolist form, and all easily described as experimental: an oil study for Maurice Denis’s lost painting Décor (ca. 1890–91, fig. 3), Édouard Vuillard’s portrait of Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poë (1891, fig. 4), August Strindberg’s Night of Jealousy (1893, fig. 5), and Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893, fig. 6). They are all extraordinary for their time and extraordinarily hard to characterize. But consider some of their most striking formal aspects: the flattened and distorted forms of the female nude in Denis’s sketch, the flattened areas of paint in Vuillard’s portrait and its curving arabesques, which are in fact narrow gaps where the painting’s support shows through. Consider Strindberg’s resolutely painted Night of Jealousy, signed on the back “the Symbolist August Strindberg” and only barely registering as a seascape. And consider Munch’s iconic Scream, with its in-your-face antinaturalism that proclaims its anti-aesthetic avant-gardism as loudly as a Dada sound poem. Are these works experimental in the sense that they were new or radical in their own time? Are they experimental because they appear to be attempts at something, trials that perhaps are not entirely successful? Are they somehow like scientific investigations? Or are these symbolist works of art connected to experimentalism as it was understood in the late nineteenth century in a more fundamental way?

Following the publication of Jean Moréas’s and Kahn’s symbolist manifestos in 1886, a number of artists, including Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, were proclaimed symbolists avant la lettre, extolled for having explored symbolist themes using symbolist modes as early as the 1860s. At the same time, a number of writers, critics, and artists had begun to adapt symbolist literary theory to theories of symbolist visual practice. Artists wishing to make symbolist art—and by the early 1890s there were many—not only faced competing theories designed to describe and disseminate symbolist literary forms, but increasingly encountered contradictory, even antagonistic statements regarding how that theory might be applied to or transformed for symbolist visual practice.

Symbolism has thus proved an especially slippery thing for art history. Symbolist art lacks the evident stylistic coherence or group dynamics that might enable the art historian to insert it smoothly into canonical narratives, modernist or otherwise. Consequently, the difficulty of defining and categorizing symbolism, and of describing its relationships to synthetism, neoimpressionism, cloisonnism, Stimmungsmalerei, and a host of related movements or terms, has long beset art historians. From Robert Goldwater’s Symbolism (1979) to more recent publications, such as Rodolphe Rapetti’s Le symbolisme (2005), Michelle Facos’s Symbolist Art in Context (2009), and Richard Thomson’s collaborative project, Redefining European Symbolism, 1880–1910 (2010–13), scholars have often taken on the movement or “moment” as a kind of whole, a problematic whole to be sure, but a monograph-worthy one nonetheless. In doing so, definition, redefinition, and even “dedefinition” continue to remain imperative and often productive art-historical strategies. To these have been added contextual and thematic approaches, not only Facos’s aptly named text but also the landmark essays in Théberge and Clair’s exhibition catalogue Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe, Patricia Mathews’s feminist intervention, Passionate Discontent: Creativity, Gender, and French Symbolist Art, and Sharon L. Hirsh’s work of social art history, Symbolism and Modern Urban Society.

This study draws upon the critical art-historical projects centered on definition, contextualization, and thematization, but it seeks provisional answers to questions of a different order. Fundamentally, it asks how symbolist theory could at times be transformed in such a way that, in its antinaturalism, its abstractions, its attentiveness to surface and materiality, and its expressionist distortion, it was liable to be called symbolist, and finds provocative answers in the epistemology of experiment. The argument about symbolism presented here is thus unabashedly partial in both senses of the term. Rather than look at symbolism as a contested whole, it addresses only a small selection of symbolist visual practices, delving into the work of only a few artists at fairly restricted moments in their careers. It does not privilege those artists who were part of symbolism’s construction of its own past, such as Moreau or Redon, or those whose works might be labeled primarily symbolist on the basis of their iconography, but considers the work of a handful of artists who, especially in the early to mid-1890s, took particularly self-conscious and intellectual approaches to producing forms at once symbolist and modernist—those, in other words, who searched, and left significant traces of their search, for symbolist form. While my conclusions might be extended to a number of other artists, including Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Paul Sérusier, and Pierre Bonnard, all of whom make cameo appearances, the study concentrates on the work of Denis, Vuillard, Strindberg, and Munch, who all sought to apply symbolist theories to visual practice, to transform naturalist modes into symbolist ones, and often, most evidently in the cases of Denis and Strindberg, to adapt symbolist theories so as to more adequately reflect or constitute their own practices.

In narrowing the focus in this way, the book aims not so much to come to a definitive understanding of symbolist visual form, or even to engage the problem of defining symbolist painting, as to interrogate the epistemological conditions under which these four artists, no doubt four among many others, translated the theories and assertions of symbolism into working practices aimed at producing visual form with the potential to be identified by their contemporaries as symbolist and later as modernist. From the decorative and quasi-abstract early works of Denis and Vuillard, to the “automatisms” of Strindberg, to the protoexpressionism of Munch, the symbolist forms considered here, while never easily subsumed into the dominant narratives of modernism (at least not under the name symbolism), are nevertheless startling in the way they appear to presage twentieth-century modernist currents. But the mechanisms by which symbolism provoked such “modern” and indeed “experimental” works remain obscure. At the same time, the legacy of some of these prototypes has often been questioned in the face of what appear, from within the dominant discourses of modernism, to be regressions (especially when it comes to Denis, Vuillard, and Munch, who all lived well into the twentieth century) into seemingly repetitive naturalisms or impressionisms.

I argue that the visual and textual practices of Denis, Vuillard, Strindberg, and Munch were enabled and at times disabled by what I am calling nature’s experiments, which informed and conditioned these artists’ practices and the reception of their works in both productive and counterproductive ways. A number of scholars have demonstrated the extent to which the nineteenth century’s promising new field of scientific psychology influenced symbolist theory and practice. And while the new French psychology plays a key role in what follows, my focus is less on the field itself and more on how the field was constituted around the paradigm of nature’s experiments. My aim is to investigate how the culture of nature’s experiments, as it functioned not only across different scientific disciplines but also within broader contexts both inside and outside France, allowed for and encouraged the cultivation of pathology and otherness to determine ways of producing and receiving symbolist art in the 1890s.

As implied earlier, an art history of nature’s experiments, while focused on a small selection of artists, texts, and works of the late nineteenth century, has implications for a discontinuous history of artistic experimentation. Symbolism turns out to provide the specific context in which experiment came to be closely associated with artistic advance. Not at all incompatible with idealism and spiritualism, experimentalism provided a ready-made methodology for fin-de-siècle truth seekers, a mobile doctrine that easily traversed disciplinary boundaries. As a centerpiece of experimentalism, the pathological method proved to be a particularly seductive pathway to something called truth, an epistemological goal that, in the late nineteenth century, squared easily with vanguardism. This study thus questions a transhistorical and transcultural notion of artistic experimentation as a persistent, pervasive, and altogether positive avant-garde value, and offers instead an interrogation of a historically specific artistic experimentalism, thereby restoring to experimentalism its less attractive values—specifically, its construction of the cultural other as a particularly valuable object of study, the imagined basis on which to establish what was imagined to be universal truth. A scientific revaluing of pathology and otherness thus preceded the emergence of a full-blown avant-garde art, and it is traceable in this study as the residue of the discursive formation of experimental art.

At the outset, I wish to head off one criticism that I suspect will nevertheless stick to certain parts of my text, namely, the charge that in privileging discussions of symbolist visual practice, that is to say, form, I disregard content. The modernist discursive separation of form and content is, in my view, a false construction for much modern art, and especially for the kinds of symbolist practices under discussion here. While this study assumes an unstable notion of symbolist form, emphasizing the search for it rather than an a priori and fixed notion of it, I have nevertheless found helpful, as a point of constant return, Reinhold Heller’s analysis of symbolism as not definable solely by subject matter but, at its most characteristic, as instituting a dialectic between form and content at the surface of the work. If I seem to focus more on the problem of form, it is not because I think content can be disregarded (although that claim was made in Denis’s protoformalism), but because content often proved less vexing for the symbolist artists considered here. The content, what many symbolists called the “Idea,” generally came first. Their most pressing problem became the search for appropriate forms in which to “clothe” or “envelop” that capital-I Idea, forms that would then ideally become completely inextricable from content. The dialectical relationship between form and content proves especially crucial to the analysis of Munch’s work that concludes this study. More consistently than perhaps any other symbolist artist, Munch sought out pathological form for pathological content with a view to providing what he and his critical supporters imagined as truthful and universally legible representations of human experience. At the same time, this discursive split is a critical issue for the historiography of modernism, and is relevant especially to my discussion of the writings of Denis in chapter 2, where an expunging of pathological content from the concept of deformation is read as one consequence of an epistemology based upon nature’s experiments.

In concerning myself nominally with form, both the form of symbolist visual practice and the rhetorical form of symbolist theory and criticism, I have found it useful to keep in mind the words of T. J. Clark: “It is the form of our statements, and the structure of our visualizations, that truly are our ways of world-making—at any rate the ways that hold us deepest in thrall.” I readily admit to being in thrall to much of the symbolist form that I discuss, not because it always or even usually affects me in the way that the artists hoped it would—my twenty-first-century critiques of ideals such as universal truth and experience prevent this—but because the formal solutions to the problems posed by symbolist theory, and especially those put forth under a presumed psychological universalism, strike me as singularly radical and perplexing.

The problem of many symbolists, and it was a problem that would bedevil surrealist artists as well as abstract expressionists, was twofold. Their challenge was to create form that could be read as corresponding to an individual’s, usually the artist’s, interior emotive world, and to render that form objectively understandable, even truthful, without using what were understood to be or caricatured as traditional, academic, naturalist modes of art making. Having ostensibly rejected one system of representation, more often than not identified as naturalism, symbolist artists actively sought another. But another system of representation was not to be plucked from thin air. It still had to function within existing ideological structures. This study therefore concerns itself with both production and reception, or, more precisely, production with a view to reception. For Denis, Vuillard, Strindberg, and Munch, along with many in their symbolist cohorts, operated with a keen awareness of and attention to the stakes involved in the critical reception of their work. It is, moreover, precisely in those journals that sought to delimit symbolism, above all in La revue blanche and the Mercure de France, that we can glean a more precise understanding of the relevance of experimentalism, the pathological method, and the work of Taine and Ribot to symbolist audiences. An obscure journalist and devotee of French experimental psychology, Léon Bélugou, will be our guide.

French Experimental Psychology, Symbolism, and the Petites Revues

Symbolist writers, critics, and artists organized themselves around the numerous and often short-lived petites revues that proliferated in Paris in the late 1880s and 1890s. Denis and Vuillard, along with other artists who dubbed themselves the Nabis, were especially closely associated with La revue blanche, the intellectually and artistically ambitious journal founded by the three Natanson brothers in 1889 (fig. 7). The Natansons, and especially Thadée Natanson, were major patrons of the Nabis, reviewed their exhibitions, and frequently solicited contributions from the artists to enliven the journal’s pages (figs. 8 and 9). But La revue blanche also actively looked beyond Paris. In 1895, Thadée Natanson visited Kristiania (present-day Oslo), where he met Munch and saw a large solo exhibition of his works. Later that year, Natanson published an appreciative article on the Norwegian artist in La revue blanche, and he must also have been instrumental in having Munch’s lithograph version of The Scream published in a subsequent edition of the journal (fig. 10). When Munch, no doubt encouraged by Natanson’s support, exhibited in Paris in 1896, Strindberg, who had known the artist since their days in Berlin in 1892, contributed to the journal an idiosyncratic reflection on Munch’s work, one of a number of articles Strindberg published in La revue blanche during his time in Paris, between 1894 and 1898 (fig. 11). Essays on and by Strindberg also appeared in the Mercure de France, a journal founded in 1890 that published major statements on symbolist visual practice, including Aurier’s defining articles on Vincent van Gogh in 1890 and on Paul Gauguin in 1891.

Both of these journals cultivated highly educated contributors and readers, many of whom would have attended one of the elite French lycées and passed their philosophy baccalaureate. By the late 1880s, the lycée philosophy class was producing candidates who were intimately familiar with the most up-to-date developments in experimental psychology and steeped in the pathological method. These students included Denis and Sérusier, who both attended, along with Vuillard, the Lycée Condorcet, a prestigious Parisian institution earlier attended by Bergson at which the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé had taught in the 1870s and early 1880s.

Both La revue blanche and the Mercure de France used two journalistic formulae designed to enhance their claims to intellectual seriousness: enquêtes, quasi-scientific surveys on questions of the day, and chroniques, regular overviews of the state of research in various fields designed to keep readers aware of contemporary developments in a wide range of disciplines. In 1897, four years after his death, La revue blanche published a survey on Taine, accompanied by a woodcut portrait by the Nabi artist Félix Vallotton (fig. 12). The survey’s instigator, Bélugou, invited philosophers, journalists, novelists, historians, and scientists of all philosophical stripes to reflect upon how Taine had influenced them. The respondents’ near unanimous appreciation reflects the high esteem for Taine within the Revue blanche community, and a special admiration for On Intelligence as a formative work. Maurice Barrès, author of the Cult of the Self trilogy (1888–91), much admired by Denis and his fellow Nabis, expressed his indebtedness to Taine’s methods of observation and experimentation. While the Catholic prelate and writer Maurice Le Sage d’Hauteroche d’Hulst praised Taine as a “metaphysician by race” and suggested that Tainean positivism could be easily reconciled with Catholicism, since Taine’s method was “at once positive and very a priori, despite the contradiction that those two terms might imply.” In a similar vein, Émile Boutroux, the spiritualist philosopher and an important mentor to both Bergson and Émile Durkheim, stressed not only Taine’s impact on psychology but also his more inadvertent contributions to a resurgence of idealism.

More predictable were the responses solicited from fin-de-siècle men of science. The psychologist Pierre Janet, who would eventually take up Ribot’s chair at the Collège de France, confessed that On Intelligence had been on his bedside table when he was a student, and Cesare Lombroso proclaimed Taine “the only master I had after Darwin.” The philosopher and Kant scholar François Picavet reminded readers of Taine’s importance for anyone claiming to be an intellectual; in Picavet’s view, it was simply inconceivable that a well-educated man would not have read his Taine. Concluding the survey, Bélugou confessed his own admiration for Taine’s humble morality, absolute conviction, and methodological rigor. And he reminded Revue blanche readers that Taine sought what he proclaimed they were all after: the truth.

A journalist and private tutor for a number of wealthy French families, Bélugou, it turns out, is emblematic of the admiration within symbolist communities for experimentalism, experimental psychology, and the pathological method. From 1894, Bélugou’s columns for La revue blanche and the Mercure de France were dominated by his interest in experimental psychology, his admiration for Taine, and his perhaps even greater regard for Ribot. He was especially explicit on the importance of the pathological method for the great strides being made in scientific psychology. In a column published in November 1894, Bélugou discussed recent studies on multiple personality and other “lucid” cases of insanity, citing Ribot and Pierre Janet and praising the work of psychologists who “employed . . . the documents of mental pathology for the solution to psychological problems.” Bélugou had in fact been faithfully attending Ribot’s courses since 1887, first at the Sorbonne and then at the Collège de France, and would continue to do so throughout the 1890s. Calling Ribot the foremost psychologist of his day, Bélugou recommended to readers Ribot’s 1894–95 course on diseases of the emotions, which promised to cover “character anomalies, perversions of moral, social, religious feeling, [and] aberrational notions of the beautiful.” For the cultivated audience of La revue blanche, Bélugou took pains to clarify that Ribot’s approach had nothing to do with decadent curiosity and everything to do with rigorous scientific method: “If he takes his subjects from the asylums, among the insane, the hysterics, and the degenerates, it is so that he can all the better disassemble a normal soul, it is never with the ulterior motive of satisfying some unhealthy curiosity.”

When Bélugou reviewed Ribot’s Psychology of Emotions (1896) and The Evolution of General Ideas (1897) for La revue blanche in 1897, he once again emphasized the importance of Ribot’s work for his aesthetically minded audience. In attempting to “establish some fixity in the undulating morass of emotional life,” Ribot had broached territory until then examined only in poetry, novels, and drama. In doing so, Bélugou insisted, Ribot had “made a voyage of discovery,” accomplishing for the study of emotions what Taine had achieved for the mind. In particular, Bélugou wrote, The Evolution of General Ideas responded directly to the interests and needs of an elite audience of symbolists: “The main goal of this book . . . is to study how the mind abstracts and generalizes, to demonstrate that these two operations come into play at the highest stages of evolution, which is to say that they already exist in perception, and that, in a series of gradual advances that can be determined, they attain the most elevated form, pure symbolism, which can be accessed only by a small number of individuals.” To readers who imagined themselves highly refined personalities, members of an intellectual and cultural elite, Bélugou pointed to Ribot as offering the undoubtedly attractive confirmation, gained through the pathological method, that the aesthetic goals of many symbolists—abstraction, generalization, even “pure symbolism”—could be the products of only the most highly evolved minds.

According to Bélugou, Ribot gave a lecture in 1898 on the conscious and the unconscious, inaugurating his course that year with a discussion of the beginnings of psychological life in barely sentient creatures such as coral and starfish, from which he proceeded to discuss consciousness in the child. The following year, Bélugou informed Mercure de France readers that Ribot’s topic was genius, no doubt offering a preview of his Essay on the Creative Imagination, to be published in 1900. When Ribot ceded his chair to Janet in 1901, Bélugou reported it as the “university event of the season,” and paid homage to Ribot’s style of teaching: “The students who came to hear him did much more than take in a doctrine, they assimilated a method, and in the most powerful and lively manner, witnessed his groping and his progress, and watched him work.” Throughout the 1890s, that method, the psychological method that Bélugou assimilated and distilled for readers of La revue blanche and the Mercure de France, was the pathological method.

What appears to be Bélugou’s final article for a symbolist journal attempted to shore up the reputation of the pathological method at the precise moment that its influence began to wane, doing so in a creative way that satirized both the increasing reliance on quantitative methods and avant-garde advance. A 1904 article titled “The Power of the Imagination in Children: Experimental Research” purported to be a contribution to “the new experimental psychology or, as one says today, neopsychology.” Signed with the names of Gustave Flaubert’s misguided clerks, “Bouvard and Pécuchet,” but directing the reader to Bélugou “for a certified true copy,” the article describes an experiment in which young children are asked to touch first a hot gas lamp and then a cold one. The intrepid investigators propose to measure the power of the children’s imaginations by timing how quickly they remove their hands from the cold lamp—in other words, how hot they imagine the cold lamp to be. “Bouvard and Pécuchet” placed their work under the auspices of Alfred Binet, once a proponent of Taine’s petits faits methods but by the early twentieth century better known for his work with children and his reliance on questionnaires and quantitative measures. Binet supposedly inspired the investigators to ask the children, “What do you feel?” and to perform various “rites of anthropometry,” but the results, sadly, “remained obscure.” In the end, “Bouvard and Pécuchet” consoled themselves by reminding readers that Binet himself had remarked upon the difficulties of a psychology that aimed to be at once scientific, physiological, and experimental: “It is difficult to perform vivisection, even psychological vivisection,” they had Binet say, “on a living being.”

Bélugou’s last word on experimental psychology for a symbolist journal obliquely reminded readers that Ribot rather than Binet was the true master, and managed to do so by satirizing the avant-garde just as the symbolist avant-gardes were under threat of being eclipsed. “Neopsychology,” in Bélugou’s view, was not truly new or revolutionary but merely a fad. Quantitative measures of the body were silly, as was asking people questions and tallying up their responses. The only way to truth, Bélugou implied, was the systematic study of pathology, the method by which, year after year, in course after course and text after text, Ribot had succeeded in dissecting the mental functioning of the complex human mind. While psychological vivisection might be difficult for the lesser Binet, relying on quantitative methods, for Ribot, “tireless worker of most glorious renown,” it was entirely feasible with a steadfast belief in and reliance upon nature’s experiments. As the following chapters reveal, symbolist avant-gardes were just as invested as Taine, Ribot, and Bélugou in pathology as a pathway to knowledge and to what they imagined as something like objective truth.

Chapter 1 of this study, “Toward an Experimental Symbolism: Ideas and Ideals,” places the caricature of Zola flinging shit from a chamber pot at the center of an interrogation of the uses of experiment in artistic discourse before and during the period in which symbolist theories and practices emerged. A rereading of Zola’s “The Experimental Novel” situates the essay in relation to its source in Bernard’s Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (hereafter usually referred to as the Introduction), ultimately arguing that Zola used Bernard’s text not so much to confer scientific authority on the naturalist novel as to shore up the roles of idea, genius, and temperament in the creation of the naturalist work of art. Focusing on impressionist criticism and on the writings of Jules Laforgue, Gustave Kahn, Émile Hennequin, and others, the chapter proceeds to analyze experimentalism in relation to discursive constructions of impressionism and symbolism, concluding that experimentalism functioned especially effectively within symbolist discourses as a modern methodological ideal. Experimentalism could be, and was, easily detached from the discourses of materialist science and, when necessary, naturalism, in order to be promoted as a method for universalizing individual ideas.

The next two chapters are organized around different symbolist problems to which the central Nabi protagonists of each chapter offered unique solutions. Chapter 2, “Defending Deformation: Maurice Denis’s Positivist Modernism,” addresses modernist anxieties over deformation as a visual strategy. It analyzes the practices and theorizations of deformation primarily in the work of Denis, but with reference to works by Denis’s fellow Nabi artists, Vuillard and Bonnard. Using a lost painting, the enigmatically titled Décor (1891), the chapter demonstrates how Denis, after producing a highly distorted female nude that he called a “study in subjective deformation,” positioned his writing in opposition to initially tempting, but in the end hostile, conceptions of symbolism, discursively emptying deformation of pathological content in order to make it synonymous with form. The closely linked chapter 3, “Édouard Vuillard’s Experimental Arabesques,” considers Vuillard’s self-conscious development of linear forms that could be read as symbolist. It focuses on iterations of what I call the experimental arabesque in Vuillard’s paintings of sleeping figures and the portrait of Lugné-Poë, an image of intense mental concentration. The artist’s early notebooks, considered in relation to Bélugou’s notes from Ribot’s psychology courses, reveal how Vuillard’s experimentation on his own automatisms and altered states of mind was ultimately figured through a highly labored use of the arabesque.

The final two chapters introduce the reader to “At the Black Piglet” (Zum schwarzen Ferkel), a Berlin-based but Paris-oriented avant-garde community named after a wine cellar frequented by Strindberg and Munch, among others. Chapter 4, “August Strindberg’s Naturalistic Symbolism,” explores how the late nineteenth century’s most energetic entrepreneur of experiment cultivated altered states in a bid to transform naturalist practices into symbolist ones. Using material published in the Leipzig-based journal Sphinx, the chapter suggests the ways in which Strindberg sought out new artistic methods of painting and writing by performing, eventually on himself, psychological experiments on automatism, hallucination, hypnosis, and other forms of abnormal perception. The final chapter, “Madness as Method: The Pathological Experiments of Edvard Munch,” traces Munch’s deliberate and methodical engagement with different forms of madness as an artistic strategy that enabled him to slough off naturalism and to constitute form liable to be read as symbolist. Analyzing the artist’s roulette paintings and writings, produced during and following a time when he made repeated visits to the gambling rooms of Monte Carlo, the iconic painting The Scream, and a corpus of works set in Parisian hospitals, I consider the artist’s ongoing search for appropriate pathological form to communicate and universalize pathological content. The book’s conclusion makes explicit what is elsewhere implicit: the underlying naturalist precepts of symbolist modernism despite symbolism’s claims to antinaturalism. I also make clear in the conclusion that this book should be read as a critique of a monographic approach to alterity that has resulted in overly teleological narratives of the so-called discoveries of the art of the primitive, the child, and the insane.

Nature’s Experiments is one alternative to those narratives, an examination of the epistemological conditions that made otherness in myriad forms available for artistic borrowing under the sign of avant-gardism. Engaging in self-consciously constitutive practices of symbolism, Denis, Vuillard, Strindberg, and Munch rejected existing aesthetic methods and turned to the still emerging methods of experimentalism, above all the belief that an investigation of the pathological could lead to what was imagined to be a form of truth. In exploring the culture of nature’s experiments, this study forges a different kind of art history, excavating the epistemological foundations of some of the most formally radical, but thoroughly historical, visual practices of the late nineteenth century.

A final note: my approach to symbolist visual form is reflected in my preference for lowercase in terms such as symbolism, impressionism, and naturalism, a choice that happily adheres to the editorial style of the Press but is also meant to underline all three as discourses (practices) in flux, never able to be entirely pinned down, and involving different stakes and different stakeholders at any given moment. The lowercase downplays the notion of a definable “Symbolism” and more easily allows for multiple symbolisms. It also signals an attempt to speak not from within what Michel Foucault called a “dubious unity” but from without, making use of historical groupings such as symbolism only as starting points, and not always convenient ones, for interrogation.