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  • Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form by Allison Morehead
  • Janet S. Rauscher
Allison Morehead. Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. Pp. xv + 241.

In Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form, Allison Morehead traces the role that scientific experimentalism—its spirit, its intellectual grounding, and its methods—played in European visual art [End Page 148] created during the nineteenth century's final decade. Her skilled, nuanced analysis extends beyond milieu, and even beyond direct influence, to suggest ways in which artists practiced experimentalism in a mode akin to the close observation of pathology that was a contemporaneous aspect of the search for scientific truths, particularly those concerning the human mind and body. The heart of Morehead's study explores the work of four avant-garde artists—Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, August Strindberg, and Edvard Munch—who "took particularly self-conscious and intellectual approaches to producing forms at once symbolist and modernist" (p. 12) and who figure prominently in discussions of both symbolism and modernism. Published by Penn State University Press as part of the Refiguring Modernism Series edited by Jonathan Eburne, Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form posits a significant new perspective on the development and reception of symbolism.

As Morehead rightly notes, in considering the dynamic, heady milieu of the late nineteenth century, and particularly when chronicling the myriad precursors to and influences on the tradition that we term symbolism, notions of the experiment arise but tend to be treated rather allegorically. The word "experimental" thus appears repeatedly in scholarship devoted to early modernism and its forebears but often lacks a precise meaning. As Morehead establishes, "experimental," when used allegorically, can suggest something novel or radical in its own context, or might evoke the notion of investigative activities. In examining symbolism as an artistic mode and a cultural movement, Morehead departs from previous studies that have demonstrated the influence of scientific psychology on symbolist artists, but in so doing have relied on such allegorical understandings of the term; Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form contends that the experimentalism embodied in and expressed by symbolist artists underpins their creations in a foundational way, evident in their very modes of creating. Morehead's study also departs from those that either explore the social, political, economic, cultural, and scientific context in which symbolism arose or (far more rarely) identify aesthetic choices common to symbolist works—seeking to define symbolism and to contextualize the movement. Instead, in focusing on a particular—and especially rich and complex—aspect of both the fin de siècle milieu and symbolist practice, the author combines contextual study and formal analysis. Morehead's ability to weave formal analysis seamlessly into a discussion that is grounded in, and builds from, a deep understanding of the intellectual milieu in which Denis, Vuillard, Strindberg, and Munch worked—particularly its scientific and psychological aspects—is among the book's strongest features. [End Page 149]

Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form is organized into five chapters. A thoughtful introduction provides a thorough yet accessible and engaging background to the pathological method and to the history of psychological experimentation in the nineteenth century. As Morehead's summary reveals, particularly relevant to such scientific exploration was the idea of a continuum between "normal" and "pathological" such that "madness," which features so prominently in symbolist art, was considered "an exaggerated form of normal human psychological functioning" (p. 161).

Chapter 1 charts the influence of experimentalism as an epistemological ideal from Zola to Aurier, particularly tracing the enduring influence of physiologist Claude Bernard's Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (translated by H. C. Greene; Henry Schuman, 1865), which was central to the establishment of experimental, rather than empirical, methods as the most sound basis for exploration (and thus for the acquisition of knowledge) and which features repeatedly in Morehead's study. In its focus on the nineteenth century's final two decades, the chapter treats the role of the experimental in a context much broader than that of symbolism, suggesting an intriguing historiography for the impressionist style as well...


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