“Understanding the world through symbols is a condition of high art.” (Nietzsche, The Innocence of Becoming)
In the second half of the 19th Century, throughout Europe and stretching to Russia, symbolists; be they painters, poets or writers; are leaving reality behind to explore the world of ideas: “Would you be the solitary recollection? Would you be piety, silence? Dream, worry? I have placed in my works a little door opening on to the mysterious. I have made stories. The rest is up to you” (Odilon Redon). The process is intellectual, subjective and introspective.
Symbolist painters take inspiration from literature, legends, religion, and mythology. Their only borrowing from nature will be perhaps a motif, shape or color, which by analogy will provoke a certain feeling or sensation in the spectator. Baudelaire calls these analogies “The Correspondences”, which go beyond the physical world - they explore sensory experiences and their connection to the spirit.
While Symbolism surfaces in Paris in 1886, its aesthetic is not yet refined. The artists do not master the fundamental techniques of Symbolism but they do, nonetheless, share some of the idiosyncrasies that stimulate the creation of dreamlike universes. For example, when it comes to setting a scene in another era, they are quite willing to neglect perspective.
During the 1890s Klimt’s work is greatly influenced by the Belgian and Dutch symbolists Fernand Khnopff and Jan Toorop, respectively. Klimt exchanges many ideas with Khnopff, who becomes a close friend. Khnodff writes that the Secession gives the artists a forum to show “a true reflection of their souls”. With much recourse to the Allegories, the symbolist oeuvres often reveal a dark, unsettling side, for example the woman in Klimt’s Tragedy (1897) is holding the mask of the theater, a mask which portrays a terrified expression. In Pallas Athena (1898), the helmeted goddess stands resolute, staring intensely forward. She is captivating and almost menacing. She holds in her fingertips the Nuda Veritas, who is turning the mirror of truth on the spectator. For these feminine allegories, it is of Khnopff's style that Klimt replicates the forward-facing stance and the intense stare, while Toorop’s work provides inspiration for the imposing body language.
At the time, the symbolist painters are seemingly worried about rampant industrialisation and the consumerism that will ensue. However, their movement profits from the boom in transport and trade throughout Europe: the reviews travel, as do the artists themselves and soon their expositions are international.