Dreams of nature. Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky


Symbolism was a pioneering movement in painting of the late 19th-century. Its roots lie in philosophy and poetry, and it was closely associated with music. Symbolist artists endeavoured to evoke dreams and visions, rather than record visible reality. A reaction to the growing industrialisation and materialism of Europe, symbolist works reflect feelings of fear and pessimism, as well as a longing for spirituality and mythology.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), Lake Keitele, 1905, Lahti Art Museum, Viipuri FoundationThis is the first exhibition dedicated to the symbolist landscape in Europe. Some 70 poetical and evocative paintings of nature from the period 1880–1910 will offer a new perspective on this intriguing movement. Artists used their landscapes to represent their vision of death, dreams, infinity and the cosmos, feelings of nationalism or ideas about science and the modern age.

Symbolism in the Van Gogh Museum
To paint a complete picture of the life and work of this many-sided artist in the context of his time, we also collect and present the work of his contemporaries from the period 1830-1920. The works in our collection include leading symbolists such as Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon. Furthermore, Van Gogh himself is often seen as an early symbolist. The rhythms and energy of nature, and people's bonds with the land, are typical symbolist themes that also preoccupied Van Gogh. In the exhibition Van Gogh’s canvases The sower and Wheatfield with reaper play an important role.

From forerunners of symbolism to pioneers of abstraction

Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1894/96, Bergen Kunstmuseum, Rasmus Meyers Samlinger, Munch Museum / Munch Ellingsen Group c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2011 The exhibition will cover a wide range of artists, from forerunners of symbolism, like Böcklin and Whistler, to Mondrian and Kandinsky, who provided the impulse for major 20th-century movements, such as surrealism and abstraction. Works by renowned painters, like Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Munch, will be presented alongside lesser known, but equally fascinating artists from the Nordic countries and Eastern Europe.

Music accompanying the exhibition

Symbolism emerged from philosophy and poetry and was closely connected to music. For instance, Kandinsky was inspired by the music of Schönberg, and Rachmaninov wrote music to accompany Böcklin’s Island of the dead. Visitors to this exhibition can experience the mutual influence between these different arts for themselves by listening to compositions from the Symbolist period.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Wheatfield with Reaper, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)The exhibition is organised into the following six themes:

  • Ancient and new paradises: Artists like Böcklin, Von Stuck and Puvis de Chavannes took inspiration from classical antiquity and mythology. Others, such as Signac and Gauguin, looked for paradise in unspoiled places far away from modern society.
  • Nature and suggestion: Rather than just faithfully representing reality, landscapes by Symbolists such as Gallen-Kallela, Sohlberg and Hodler also reflect the feelings that nature evoked in the artist.
  • Dreams and visions: Gauguin, Munch and Malczewski tried to open the gates to the unconscious mind. They painted dreams and visions, the world beneath the surface of observable reality.
  • Silent cities: Many Symbolist artists saw modern city life as a threat. Whistler, Degouve de Nuncques and Khnopff transformed the city into a mysterious, dreamlike landscape born of memory and imagination.
  • The cosmos: Through their landscapes, painters such as Watts, Van Gogh and Willumsen expressed their ideas about natural forces, cosmic energy, the eternal cycle of the seasons and the insignificance of human beings in the face of nature.
  • Into the mystic: In their quest to express the sublime and spiritual, many artists (such as Whistler, Signac and Ciurlionis) drew connections between painting and music, while others (like Mondrian and Kandinsky) took the first steps towards abstraction.

Touring exhibition
Dreams of nature has been organised by guest curators Richard Thomson and Rodolphe Rapetti, specialists in the area of landscape painting and Symbolism. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with The National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (14 July - 14 October 2012) and the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki (16 November 2012 - 17 February 2013).

Dreams of nature. Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky by Rodolphe Rapetti, Richard Thomson, Frances Fowle and Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff
In this publication the authors present an entirely new perspective on these special landscapes, from the precursors of symbolism, such as Böcklin and Whistler, to Mondrian and Kandinsky, whose variations on landscape themes provided the impetus for their later abstract work.
208 pages, 130 illustrations, English and Dutch,  € 29.95 (museum edition), also available in German and French. Van Gogh Museum/The National Galleries of Scotland/Ateneum Art Museum. Publisher: Mercatorfonds
For sale in the museum shop, the shop on the Museum square, the Van Gogh Museum online shop and in book shops.

Sunday lectures

  • 26 February 2012 - Europe 1900: New landscapes for changing times by Richard Thomson, Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art, University of Edinburgh (English spoken). 
  • 18 March 2012 – Symbolism in literature and painting by Maarten van Buuren, Professor of Modern French Literature at Utrecht University.
  • 1 April 2012 - Symbolist landscapes and silent cities by Frances Fowle, Curator of French Art, National Galleries of Scotland (English spoken).
  • 6 May 2012 - Dream landscapes and music. From Debussy to Schönberg by Edwin Becker, Head of Exhibitions, Van Gogh Museum.
Guided tours

Every Saturday at 2 pm (in English) and 3 pm (Dutch) and on Friday evening at 7 pm (in English) and 8 pm (Dutch), there will be free tours round the exhibition. You can put your name down for a tour at the information desk in the central hall of the museum.

Free painting workshops
Sundays from 10.30 to 12.30 am. After a short tour through Dreams of nature, the participants will get to work with pastels or acrylic paint. More information.

Friday nights
Friday nights the Van Gogh Museum is open until 10 pm. Join the free guided tour or just relax and enjoy the DJ set. The monthly theme nights are devoted to Dreams of nature featuring lots of activities like workshops, performances and live music. Take a look at the programme: www.vangoghmuseum.com/fridaynights.

logo Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands

The exhibition has been supported by the Dutch government: an indemnity grant has been provided by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands.

Logo Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation

Dreams of nature is made possible with support from the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation.

Logo Linklaters
Linklaters is sponsor of the children's workshops accompanying the exhibition Dreams of nature. Symbolism from Van Gogh to Kandinsky.

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