Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form by Allison MoreheadNature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form by Allison Morehead

Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist Form

byAllison Morehead

Hardcover | February 27, 2017

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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 and the Search for Symbolist Form demystifies the avant-garde value of experimentation and reveals new and important insights into a foundational period for the development of European modernism.

Allison Morehead is Associate Professor of Art History and Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.Allison Morehead is Associate Professor of Art History and Cultural Studies at Queen’s University.
Title:Nature's Experiments and the Search for Symbolist FormFormat:HardcoverDimensions:264 pages, 9 × 9 × 0.98 inPublished:February 27, 2017Publisher:Penn State University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0271076747

ISBN - 13:9780271076744


Table of Contents


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





Editorial Reviews

“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.”—André Dombrowski, author of Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life