Spiritual angst is nothing new, and it seems to get exacerbated whenever a century turns. As we teeter on the edge of a new millennium, contemporary artists, like those of the past, have become the mediums that channel and express this societal angst. Like sinners who've mortgaged their souls, we anxiously forecast our own deaths as we scramble nervously to find meaning before the great god Time chimes the final hour. Doomsday cults spring up, stories of Satanists scare the already paranoid villagers, and everyone worries that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. It all becomes rather overwhelming.
Overwhelming is also a good description of Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe. The Museum of Fine Arts packs 19 galleries with almost 600 art objects from the turn of the last century, and by the end of the exhibition even the staunchest art lover becomes aesthetically fatigued and blasé. The viewer can easily overdose on a heady diet of Klee, Gaudi, Giacometti, and many other high-calibre artists from a broad spectrum of turn-of-the-century art movements. Divided into four main themes, The Waning of Culture, The Self Beyond Recovery, The Cycles of Life, and Towards Regeneration, directing curator Jean Clair and his panel of curators have gathered many movements under the broad banner of Symbolism. Lost Paradise, by way of a collection of exceptional artwork, leads the viewer through the hopes and anxieties that were symptomatic of the fin de siècle and the emerging industrial revolution. What makes this show such compelling viewing for a contemporary audience is our own condition as the millennium changes. As we dwell in the midst of our own technological revolution, incurable plagues, and increasing global warfare, societal anxiety rises as the countdown to the future starts. Pessimists predict the end of the world while optimists dream of the new age, but all seem sure that radical change will be effected once the future arrives.
It becomes apparent that the concerns of the past are not so dissimilar from our own contemporary obsessions.
Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts to Oct. 15
Photographer Xavier Nuez's new series, Burial Grounds, at Galerie Stornaway, could easily fit into a contemporary fin-de-siecle show. His cibachromes of magnified dead insects contain many of the same elements of decay, sexual disgust, and emotional apprehension as works in Lost Paradise. Nuez's keen eye and succulent colours infuse the insects' with a fragile shimmering beauty that deflects much of the horror and repulsion one expects to experience. The photographs' titles - like Sophia, Johnny, and Fabian - anthropomorphize the insects. They emerge as symbols of past lovers and friends, dead and empty husks of failed relationships, implying a sense of betrayal and loss. Distrust lurks among the memories in the dust; past intrigues dangle like Lorenzo's glassy spindle of a spider's leg caught dead in its own web. Nuez magnifies the microcosmic world of an insect until it becomes large enough to encapsulate a whole universe. The same fears of death, sex, and the future infect us now as they did the Symbolists as the last century came to a close, but in the midst of all the apprehension there was a vision of a brighter future where man and nature attained a symbiotic beauty and balance. Still on the dark side of the turning of the century, we seem to be producing a worried, morbid strain of work. As time proceeds, undoubtedly we too will allow some light to creep into our dark vision of the future.
Burial Grounds at Galerie Stornaway to July1