Van Gogh to Kandinsky, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

An exhibition of Symbolist landscape painting mixes big names and lesser-known artists to illuminating effect

Munch’s ‘Man and Woman on the Beach’ (1907)

In 1888, a young French painter called Emile Bernard painted a cycle of Breton landscapes. Often peopled by female figures, whose mask-like faces are dominated by their flowing, snowy-white bonnets, while the countryside is stripped back to planes of bare, fierce colour, their essentialism hints at forces beyond the visible. Bernard’s vision furnished Paul Gauguin, who was also living in Brittany, with the painterly tools to make his early masterpiece “Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel)” (1888). In turn, that work nourished “The Sower” (1888) and “Wheatfield with Reaper” (1889), by Van Gogh.

One of many reasons to catch this exhibition at all costs is the opportunity to see one of Bernard’s Breton paintings, “Women on the Cliffs, St Briac” (1888) in the same room as Gauguin’s “Vision” and “The Sower”, with “Wheatfield” just around the corner.

In Bernard’s picture, a trio of white-capped women wait above the shoreline, gazing abstractedly over a murky, eau-de-nil sea lit to a curious shade of primrose yellow by the sun. Gauguin elevates Bernard’s daydreamers into a state of revelation. Making no effort at realism, he slakes the foreground with a tundra of white cotton as his women stare at a vision of Jacob struggling with his celestial challenger in a field keyed to burning vermilion. Slicing diagonally across the centre, a tree trunk carves a barrier – or perhaps a bridge – between terrestrial and celestial worlds. Holy yet humble, ecstatic yet earthly, “Vision” was dubbed the first Symbolist painting by the French critic Albert Aurier in 1891.

By then, Symbolism was a recognised literary movement whose members included the French poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé. The radical advances of the 19th century, pioneered by the likes of Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur and Jean-Marie Charcot, nurtured a generation for whom nothing was certain any more. Rejecting realism as too crude, they embraced subjectivity as the only truth. “To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment to be found in the poem … suggestion, that is the dream,” as Mallarmé put it.

For painters, Symbolism was less a movement than a state of mind. Many artists associated with the style, such as Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, James Ensor and Gustav Klimt, made work that fed on their inner fears and fantasies. Consequently a typical Symbolist exhibition will feature a cast of poetic or Christian heroes, femmes fatales and anthropomorphic monsters, who encounter each other in the dislocated territory of myth, allegory and dream.

The decision to devote an exhibition to Symbolist landscapes – the first of its kind – is bold and rewarding. It allows for a wide assembly that encompasses both lesser-known northern European painters such as Finland’s Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Norway’s Harald Oskar Sohlberg and top-flight artists including Monet, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Whistler and Kandinsky. It uncovers gems such as “The Lake, Evening” (1910), by the French painter Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, a tour de force of blue harmonies to rival Whistler at his best, and reminds us of the talent of Vilhelm Hammershoi, who leapt to public attention at the Royal Academy retrospective in 2008.

Yet it also thrusts us into some of art’s most fascinating territory. Do the best paintings look inwards or outwards? How is the subject tempered by the object? Why can certain artists create emotion without sacrificing reason, or surrender to angst yet avoid narcissism?

Landscape painting was rescued from its place on the bottom rung of art’s hierarchy by the Impressionists in the mid-19th century. For the most part, they adhered to Monet’s commitment to making their pictures “directly in front of nature”. But when Mallarmé exhorted “Don’t paint the thing itself, paint the effect it produces”, it was a clarion call to painters to trust their feelings rather than their eyes. As a result, Symbolism is often seen as a rupture with Impressionist naturalism.

Edinburgh offers an opportunity to see how much overlap there was between the styles. Painted in 1891, as part of a series Monet devoted to haystacks near to his Giverny home, “Grainstacks: Snow Effect” transforms a humdrum cone of hay into a shimmering pyramid of coppery, arctic-blue shadows spilling into the frost-pink earth. Rooted in the rustic yet gesturing at the transcendent, it is easy to understand why Kandinsky found the series an inspiration as he moved towards mystical abstraction.

Monet’s Neo-Impressionist heirs strove more consciously to capture mood over matter. A canvas by Paul Signac on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art – “Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 221 (Adagio) 1891” – distils a view of fishing boats into pointilliste dots of Mediterranean blue and flame-hot pink and yellow whose rigid refusal to merge their hues acts to suspend the scene in time, transforming a picturesque daily event into one freighted with portent.

As Signac’s title suggests, artists seeking to express rather than chronicle were often inspired by music’s flair for evoking emotion without a concrete subject. No paintings embody this rapport more eloquently than the Nocturnes of Whistler, three of which are present here. Painted in 1880, “Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark’s Square, Venice”, summons the basilica out of the mist like a spectre anchored into the real by no more than a sprinkling of silvery gas lights. Little could be more ephemeral, yet Whistler’s gift lay in his sharp eye for detail. A fellow painter recalls that he spent hours gazing at the scene before returning to his room to paint it.

A fidelity to naturalism, however suppressed, tethers the visions of Monet, Signac and Whistler into a healthy, resilient tension with the real world. Other artists chose instead to pursue pure, perilous sensation.

Few displays anywhere could deliver more spine-tingling intensity than the small gallery devoted to the theme of “Dreams and Visions”. Here Gauguin and Bernard provide the metaphysical stepping-stones towards the unsparing intuitions of Van Gogh and Munch. “The Sower” (1888) dispenses with sacred imagery yet sears the senses through intoxicating colour: “An immense lemon yellow disc for the sun … the field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian blue,” wrote Van Gogh with typical feverish enthusiasm to his brother Theo. Using radiant lime and emerald to bind the farmer into the rhythms of field, tree and sky, he transfigures a country morning into a cosmic miracle.

Munch never walked the tightrope between horror and hope that ultimately exhausted Van Gogh. Scarred by childhood illness and family griefs, the Norwegian had a vision that was unremittingly bleak. Painted a year before his nervous breakdown in 1908, his “Man and Woman on the Beach” could be a bitter riposte to Matisse’s 1905 seaside masterpiece, “Luxe, Calme et Volupté” (not on show here). Where the French artist, a famously grounded character, slips free of realism to create a high-keyed Arcadia of collective felicity, Munch uses flayed pinks, watery blues and, for his male protagonist’s complexion, a cadaverous yellow, to depict an isolated couple washed up on the shores of misery.

There’s no doubt that the curators have taken a liberal approach to their definitions of both symbolism and landscape. Often, such free-and-easy selections backfire badly. Here, they deliver an unlikely and illuminating triumph.

‘Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910’ continues until October 14, www.nationalgalleries.org

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Masterclass: Anthony Dod Mantle

Anthony Dod Mantle is a British cinematographer. He was the director of photography on three Dogme 95 films. He won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire. He is the cinematographer for Dredd 3D premiering on September 21. Films in the pipeline include Danny Boyle’s Trance and Ron Howard’s Rush.

Being a cinematographer is a privilege I take seriously. I have brushed with enough professions to know how amazing a life in the film industry can be. I can’t stand people who take this for granted – even less those who abuse it for power or money. I fraternal with the passionate storytellers, the poets of our world.

The worse the world gets, the more people are born, the more complex our societies become and the less space we have, the more the need for cinematic voice. As long as we have electricity, then the future is bright for cinema.

Working and training in still photography, I knew that I should try to communicate through images, but I was attracted to the group or crew aspect to filmmaking more than the solitude of still photography. It has always been about looking at a space, a place, a face – taking it, refining it and throwing it back at the world with the aim to encourage people to look twice.

The best cinematographers can be found anywhere apart from in those groups who study cinematographers on a daily basis. Or, for that matter, even those who study films. It is a matter of technique to a certain level. After that it’s more about conscience, inspiration, personality and love for the world we abide in.

Tell the story whatever the format. I have been saying this around the world for many years. Great films possess great spirit. It has absolutely nothing to do with resolution, definition or A list stars.

Above all, you need to comprehend the collage potential of sound to image. Some film cultures are obsessed with word bombardment, whilst underestimating the human capacity to sense and read images at an intuitive level.

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