Portrait of Mallarmé by Edouard Manet in 1876

An Exploration into French Transgressive Symbolim as Seen in Art and Poetry

The existence of transgression in human composition is an existence that some would prefer to ignore and/ or remove.  To be or to accept transgression, for some, is to accept a base or shameful aspect of oneself.  This though is not the fear of some artists, as transgression can afford a richer experience of language and expression.  The objective of such authors and artists is not necessarily to shock, but to elevate that which society has ignored or rendered base.  Transgressive works, whether they be written or visual, strive to alter previous conceptions thus often resulting in the often beautification of that which has been targeted as vile and, on occasion, Evil.  The Marquis de Sade attempted this as he felt that all levels of deviance are found within man; “You do not want to understand that, since vice must exist, it is as unjust of you to punish it as it would be to poke fun at a blind man…do not pass judgment…leave to nature the care of moving you…and to eternity that of punishing you”(Bataille 111).  Given the reaction to this author and his work, one can claim that transgression is at its strongest in the written or painted image; it is so because the transgressive act is temporary, whereas the written word or painted image is eternal.   The written word and painted image can also be considered as arrogant, in that they flaunt the trangressive element in the reader/viewer by taunting and enticing a reaction that may spark deviant thoughts and desires.

When considering the French Symbolists, one cannot claim that the aforementioned stimulus is their sole objective in creating works that embody transgression; more the objective (for the authors) is to change “the function of language”(Harland 107).  By altering the function of language, one witnesses the end of language that covers and sees the birth of language that exposes.  The new notion of language no longer relies on a textual definition of meaning but on the “replacement by their counterpart, by images, relationships, impulses…”(Harland 108).  Therefore the Symbolist poet creates poems with the intention of formulating images that render new meaning and freedom to language and expression.

The poets achieved this alteration of language by expressing “ the immediate sensation of human experience and inner life, through the subtle and suggestive use of highly metaphorical language, in the form of symbols. The underlying philosophy of the symbolists was a conviction that the transient objective world was not true reality, but a reflection of the invisible Absolute”(The Cultural Poet 1).  Thus, if one must abandon objective reality and explore all aspects of experienced reality, one must also visit the transgressive aspect of reality.  One poet to embark upon this journey is Charles Baudelauire, who in several of his works explores different elements of transgression, namely notions of Evil and varying levels of an apparent deviance in eroticism.  The reaction to these works is often reactionary, where it should evoke a higher level of awareness and acceptance.  These works do not set out primarily to shock the reader but to force an acceptance towards all levels of reality.  Acceptance will reduce the sensational quality of apparent transgressions and therefore remove the often-inane avoidance of this element.

In regards to the artist’s understanding of Symbolism, its main function is to be the “painting of ideas”(Turner 346).  By employing the vehicle of ideas to stimulate an interpretation the artist forces the viewer to enter further into the work and to rely on his/her own definitions of the presented ideas.  This often results in a multitude of interpretations as each viewer will bring their personality and experience to the work, simply because the interpretation of ideas is achieved through personal associations.  For the symbolist artist and viewer there is no ‘key’ to presentation and interpretation as there is with Realism, for example.  In symbolist art, both the artist and the viewer must utilize “feeling and evocation over definition and fact and emphasize the power of suggestion”(Turner 346).  In the realm of transgression the implementation of an individual interpretation, which may have a leaning towards the transgressive, is reinforced simply due to the open-ended quality of having to rely on feeling and suggestion; “Be advised that in general symbols are obscure…”(Diderot 47).  This obscurity affords the viewer the opportunity to transgress through art more than that of the written work because the reader’s level of imagining is somewhat controlled and stimulated by the accompanying words and images, which are under the control of the writer.  However, in the painted image, the images are presented and then abandoned by the artist forcing the viewer to step in and employ his/her own imaginings, which if they are transgressive by nature will only add to the transgressive quality of a painted image.  This statement does not necessarily infer that the written word has fewer opportunities for transgression, just that the painted image, due to the reliance on feeling and suggestion, seems to contain more opportunities for imposed transgression because the viewer is free to do as he/she wishes.  This statement can be supported by the awareness that during the symbolist period there are few transgressive works to be found, as the majority of symbolist works focus on well-known historical events and on myth, both of which are controlled by history and universal understanding.

French Symbolism in poetry can first be seen in the works of Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, which are reactions against Romanticism.  The French Symbolists found art to be superior to nature as well as “quite separate from moral concerns…and…from any social utility (there is nothing really beautiful save what is of no possible use)”(Hartland 103-4).  By affording art this freedom the poet is able to explore all avenues because the poet makes the final decision as to what is to be considered as beautiful and noteworthy.  Baudelaire’s focus thus often settles on what is usually considered transgressive and on occasion deviant, which then is often dismissed as being an “ offense against public morals…”(Clark ix).  The offense occurs because of “…lurid aspects…obvious eroticism…his evident interest in sexual and religious variations like sado-masochism, lesbianism and Satanism”(Clark xi).  Baudelaire is also considered to be an occasional transgressive poet due to his quiet and private voice, which has the ability to draw the reader’s attention into the text (Clark xvii).  This appears transgressive because the reader has to become involved in the poet’s deviant or transgressive exploration to truly ‘hear’ what he says.  But, to consider this journey of the poet and reader only in the aforementioned view is to oversimplify and ignore the element of turmoil that is integral to both the journey and exploration.  In the following extract taken from one of Baudelaire’s letters he writes,


Should I tell you, who have guessed it no more than the
other’s, that I have put my whole heart,
my whole affection,my whole religion (in disguise), my whole hatred, my whole
misfortune into this atrocious book? It is true that I will write
the contrary, that I will swear by the gods that it is a book
of pure art, of imitation, of imposture, and I will be an
arrant liar (Bataille 37).

This quote, according to Sartre proves that Baudelaire penned Les Fluers du Mal to be nothing more than a diversion, but if that is the case, how does one account for the obvious element of torment?  A more likely understanding of both the collection and the letter is the conflict that the poet encounters being a player of two distinct worlds.  These worlds are explained by Bataille as the sacred and the profane, where the sacred is comprised of social deviants and transgressors, who are considered sacred due to their honesty in belonging to one world, whereas the profane are those who travel and transgress according to whim, and are considered profane in their hypocrisy (Bataille 240-45).  Because these works appear to torment the poet, one may assume that the torment lies in his inability to find a solution and to rectify and absolve him from society’s tendency to label the transgressor: as a social misfit.  The torment may also be found in society’s avoidance of what Sade found to be integral to mankind- that all aspects of man are natural and are not to be judged by systems that ignore certain ‘shameful’ aspects.  The denial, in effect, denies the individual universal acceptance, thus forcing him to the sidelines of society never to gain access.  Thus, one can surmise that Baudelaire’s torment may lie in his inability to both accept and rectify an apparent deviance and in society’s need to exaggerate his difference.

The first work to show the torment of the poet and a connection between him and his reader is “Au Lectuer”, in which the poet addresses the reader directly; “Stupidity, error, sin, meanness fill up our minds and work upon our bodies…”(1-2).  Here the poet connects himself and the reader to negative human qualities, and in so doing he places these qualities into the arena of acceptance.  Acceptance is achieved because if symbolist poetry is to be considered as art in its highest form, then these aspects are elevated from negativity to a form of beauty- art is beauty- poetry creates and deals only with art.  The poem continues; “We find charm in disgusting things…like a penniless debauchee, kissing and gnawing the battered breast of an ancient whore, we steal in passing some illicit pleasure, which we squeeze very hard, like an old, dry orange”(17-20).  These lines highlight more than a transgressive element, they present basic human behavior; many find greater pleasure in activities that are completed in secret and against the accepted norm.  These lines also give an example of Bataille’s complaint; that these illicit acts are done in passing shows the temporary involvement in transgression, not only of the poet but also of the reader.  Baudelaire adds strength and depth to these lines by his deliberate and constant breaking of rules of decorum, and by his studied use of mismatched symbols (Clark xv).  For example, by paring an “illicit pleasure” with an old orange, Baudelaire forces the reader to make this association each time the reader encounters an orange because of memory and the reader’s imagination. In this instance, Baudelaire likens himself to Sade; both present the everyday in its blatancy and force the reader to involve himself in the transgressive moment. This similarity continues as both authors include the reader in their acts and thoughts of transgression.  For Baudelaire this connection is found in the close of the poem, “…hypocritical reader, my fellow-man, my brother”(39-40).  The element of anger found in these lines can be explained by the following quote; “ The mobility of the desiring imagination makes the identity of the desiring self problematic”(Hamilton 21).  The problem and anger stem from the restraints society places upon the individual that result in the individual forced into being a hypocrite.  One may assume that Baudelaire suffers under this rope of hypocrisy; of having to exist in two worlds and that he sympathizes with his reader who may also be within the same confines.

In the next poem under discussion “Une Charogne”, Baudelaire presents an image at once natural and disgusting at the same moment.  The natural element lies in the representations of life, death and survival.  The aspect of disgust evolves from the use of language and the coupling of beauty with what is usually associated with death and decay.  Baudelaire achieves this duality by finding in “each reality a fixed unsatisfaction, an appeal to something else, an objective transcendency…of ‘objects which are prepared to suppress themselves in order to point out others’” (Bataille 41).  The objects in this poem that suppress themselves are those that stimulate a reaction of disgust,

…The whole mass fell and rose like a wave, or erupted in

sparkling foam; you would have said that the body, filled

with some mysterious breath was living and multiplying.

And this world was emitting a strange music, like running

water and wind, or the grain which a winnower with a

rhythmic movement shakes and turns in his winnowing-

basket (21-28).

Baudelaire presents an image of a rotting corpse but transcends it into the realm of beauty by affording it with images of natural beauty.  For example, “The whole mass fell and rose like a wave”(21), gives ideas of the cleansing and even calming effect of the sea.  The lines “And this world was emitting a strange music, like running water and wind”(24-25), likens itself to a natural symphony instead of the reality of an image of a form oozing foul bodily fluids.  Here then, one encounters another example of Baudelaire’s unique use of language.  Instead of recounting this experience in a realistic manner, he manipulates language so as to afford a new level of experience and consciousness.  Paul De Man explains the problem facing poets such as Baudelaire and how they solve this problem of presenting the everyday in a new heightened level of presentation,

It can be said that there is a perceptual consciousness of the

object and an experience of this consciousness, but the

working out of a Logos of this experience…encounters

considerable difficulties…instead of containing or reflecting

experience, language constitutes it…through repeated

association, the sign comes to take the place of the


By placing the focus not on the object itself but on surrounding and imposed symbols, the poet is able to redefine the object through disconnected language.  Although the poem presents an image of a rotting corpse, Baudelaire has manipulated language to where the reader is aware of an element of dark beauty that can be found in death.  One then understands that the image of death is not a deviant depiction or fascination, but an element of natural order and even beauty.  Added to this, the element of water affords this condition with the notion of movement, that there is something beyond the notion of the permanence of death; “Here death, as is always the case with the Romantics and the Symbolists, ceases to be an aspect of life itself and becomes again a phenomenon on the border between life here-and-now and a potential other kind of life”(Bakhtin 200).  The other kind of life may be the incorporation of the natural world into the civilized.  The presentation of death highlights a reality that man often prefers to ignore.  Baudelaire clearly states that this vile pile of decay is the physical reality awaiting all; “And yet you will be like that ordure…After the last sacraments, when you will go under the grass…”(40-46).  By doing this, Baudelaire proves that there is no separation between the two worlds, and thus the notion of transgression, which is not found in the natural world, will cease to exist.  It will cease to exist because once the stigma has been removed and acceptance has been implemented, what was once considered uncivilized, i.e. transgressive will then be recognized as natural.  Simply put, if man is forced to accept that all that occurs in the natural world, will also eventually occur in the civilized world, then there is no notion of transgression.  That there should be no separation of the two worlds presented in the poem is shown by Baudelaire’s technique of “…ironically bring[ing] love poetry’s exalted endearments to bear upon nature’s brute physicality, to which they are hopelessly unsuited”(Paglia 424).  For Baudelaire his torment and apparent transgression evolves from this incompatibility.  He encounters this duality and yet society denies its existence, which renders him on a continual quest, searching for the co-existence of the two worlds, “His city is…the shapeless, almost absurd, setting for a directionless and desperate quest that takes him through a world which…is crisis, so much so that it has lost all substance; has no meaning…and consists in a network of mere appearances”(Macherey 98).  Thus Baudelaire’s use of apparent transgressive and or deviant subjects is not a sensationalist quest to shock the reader, but to find meaning in a modern world void of meaning.  He utilizes symbols and realities of the natural world and contrasts them to the civilized world that he finds hypocritical as seen in the reader of “Au Lectuer”.  One believes that the disillusion that stems from his experience of the civilized world stimulates his need to use apparent elements of transgression, in the hope that he will place transgression onto a plane of acceptance, and because he finds this element integral to life, his own torment will cease.  Proof that Baudelaire desires the co-existence of the natural world with the civilized is found in his essay “The Painter of Modern Life”, where he states

If an impartially minded man were to look through the

whole range of French fashions…he would find nothing

to shock or even surprise him. He would find the transition

as fully prepared as in the scale of the animal kingdom…we

have…[an] opportunity to establish a rational and historical

theory of beauty, in contrast to the theory of a unique and

absolute beauty, and to show that beauty is always and

inevitably compounded of two elements…(Lefebvre 170).

The two elements that Baudelaire refers to because he makes reference to the order and smooth progression of the animal kingdom can be seen as the unification of the natural world and the civilized.

Regarding Symbolism in art, the first probable artist to paint a symbolically transgressive piece is Fransisco de Goya.  The notion of transgression is most notably seen in his Caprices and in the “Black Paintings” of 1819- 1823.  Although Goya is Spanish he is still considered to be a symbolist, as even the symbolists regarded him as such.  Charles Baudelaire writes,

Goya’s great contribution lies in the fact that he makes

the monstrous believable. His monsters are credible,

well balanced- creatures…all these contortions, these

animal distortions and devilish grimaces are thoroughly

human. One cannot reject them, even from the viewpoint

of natural history…In a word, the line of suture, the

boundary between the real and the fantastic is impossible

to grasp…(Buchholz 52).

There is no distinct boundary between the two worlds of the natural and civilized, only a man made one, which Goya continually breaks down.  He breaks this boundary by showing that there is no distinction, nor superiority between man and animal.  For example, in his Caprices, Goya etches scenes that depict a multitude of everyday beliefs and practices.  One particular work deals with superstition, which in effect violates all mores regarding the treatment and respect due the dead.  Caprice 12: A Casa de Dientes (1797-1798. Etching and aquatint. 21.8 x 15.1 cm), presents a scene where a woman tries to extract the teeth from a hanged man; because superstition says that they bring good luck.  It is obvious that Goya is reacting to this practice, though critics claim that he wished only to stop the practice (Gassier 172).  One can argue that this was not the only stimulus behind this work; if one considers that symbolism set out to present images based upon feeling, one can suppose that a desired effect of this work is one of revolt.  Given this notion, one may claim that Goya may have also desired to expose a less than human practice and to show that deviancies, such as this one, occur only in the civilized world.

In Caprice 13: Etan Calientes (1797-1798. etching and aquatint. 21.8 x 15.4 cm), the obvious attack is on certain monks who misuse both their office and power.  According to the definition afforded to the concept of what constitutes a monk, a monk is suppose to live a life of hardship and simplicity, yet the monks presented in the work are comfortable and apparently well fed.  This work proves that there is a level of hypcrocity in the civilized world that is not found in the natural world.  In the natural world, things are as they are- whereas in the civilized world things are rarely how they seem.  The freedom of symbols for the symbolist artist is found in the multiplicity of meaning and association afforded to each and every entity defined by man.  It is obvious that Goya takes advantage of this aspect and offers the viewer an interpretation based upon his experience, as well as that of the viewer.  For example, if the viewer is unaware of monks misusing their office for personal gain, then he may interpret this work as just a few monks sitting around.  This is one of the dangers of symbolist art- it leaves too much up to the viewer and can therefore be often misinterpreted.

In French symbolist art, as stated in the introduction, the focus is usually on feats of history and myth.  There are, of course, exceptions and one of them is some of the works of Paul Gauguin.  One of his pieces, The Lost Virginity, deals with a subject that is socially accepted as transgressive, that being rape and sexual violation.  But one will see that the element of transgression is not so much the subject matter, nor the nude but the crowd of spectators in the background.  They become the transgressive element due to their distance, which implies their lack of concern for the victim.  The character of the piece that appears to console the victim is the fox, which is a representative of the natural world.  This aspect once again highlights an artist’s discontent and possible disillusionment towards the civilized world.   In regards to technique, Gauguin reacts to previously accepted modes of artistic expression in a few ways; one of which is his use of bold colors.  For Gauguin, traditional use of color left the piece flat and usual.  By intensifying the shades and levels of brilliance he places the whole composition into a higher, exaggerated plane of expression (Gibson 33).  For example, in the work The Lost virginity (1891. Oil on canvas. 90 x 130 cm), the bold reds and rich greens intensify and separate themselves from the stark whiteness of the nude woman.  Here color serves as an outline, as a distinction between the vibrancy of the natural world and the sterility of the civilized.  This difference of the two worlds is accentuated by the distance of the crowd in contrast to the closeness of the fox.  One may believe that this distance represents a wish of the artist to distance himself from the civilized world and move closer to the natural; this is supported by Gauguin’s personal life, in that he left France to live in an ‘ideal setting’, namely Bali.

The fox plays an important role in the piece, and in the concept of symbolism; according to Michael Gibson the fox can be interpreted in at least three manners.  The first follows local traditions of Brittany, where a fox symbolizes sexual power.  The second interpretation can be that of cunning and the last follows an Indian (Aztec) belief that a fox represents perseverance (33).  This then becomes another symbolist painting that leaves much to the discretion, experience and imagining of the viewer.  The multiplicity of interpretations forces the viewer into the piece so as to allow an interpretation and depending upon the leanings of the viewer, the opportunity for transgression increases.  This occurs because by nature symbolist art is “based on the notion that the prime concern of art was not to depict, but that ideas were to be suggested by symbols, thus rejecting objectivity in favor of the subjective” (Read 346).  For example, if one reads this painting according to each and every different possible interpretation, one will be left with many different impressions regarding the work.  This is one of the ‘dangers’ of the painted image, the artist paints it, but because of the multiple meanings for certain symbols, the viewer is often uncertain as to what is the intended interpretation.  All the artist does, in effect, is to suggest and the viewer must decipher the suggestion based solely upon his own experience and understanding of the artist’s suggestion (Gombrich 203-4).

For the symbolist the use of symbols afforded them a greater level of freedom than other periods.  The writers and poets, through the effective manipulation of language, were able to achieve a higher meaning in their written work by coupling mismatched symbols.  This is clearly seen in some of the works of Baudelaire.  In the works of Baudelaire the apparent trangressive element is found neither in the poet nor his work, but in the duality of the civilized world that travels selectively through the natural and civilized.  The transgressor for Baudelaire, Bataille and Sade is the reader who refuses to choose one world over the other.  They also find the transgressor to be the individual who will look down upon the natural world and ignore the base element natural to man.  This refusal is what seems to be at the root of Baudelaire’s torment; he recognizes all aspects of life and accepts but society will not tolerate these aspects and thus they sentence him to remain, indefinitely, on the sidelines of society- forever alone, forever a deviant.  With Art, the movement seems to have begun in Spain with certain works of Goya, which are a direct reaction to the brutalities of both humanity and the institution of war.  Goya arrogantly set about to expose man and his deviant nature, in what one believes was an attempt to stimulate a change.  Gauguin, in France painted under the auspices of symbolism to contrast the idea of civilization against nature.  In Gauguin’s work, nature is the hero as it is depicted vibrantly and as the only ally for man.  The universal objective for both the authors and painters is to depict what is considered base and or transgressive in such a manner so as to alter this perception.  These artists found in transgression an area unexplored and the possibility to experiment.  The result of their experiment led to shock and social exclusion not because of the element of transgression, but how society fared against transgression.  For these artists and their work the only deviant and transgressive to be found is not their subjects but their audience, and therein lays the true transgressive element to all of these works.


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