In a new review in Not Even Past, Rodrigo Salido Moulinié discusses Andrei Pop’s A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full review. An excerpt appears below:
“Can art really say anything? Although it may seem like a childish question, raising it triggers some unsettling thoughts. Much of what we usually think about artists and their work, the role art plays in our worlds, and even the possibility of writing its history relies on the answer to that question. If art cannot say anything—as many writers, historians, and even artists argue—then viewers project only their feelings, ideas, values, or attitudes onto a painting or a song. Meaning becomes private. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, for example, wrote in his Autobiography that music, by its very nature, did not express anything. The idea of art as a vehicle for meaning is, then, nothing more than an illusion.
But if the answer is yes—art can convey meaning—new problems and questions arise. When we look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night, how can we know what it says? Or should we read what Vincent tried to say? How can one know if we are even looking at the same picture: is my blue your blue? In A Forest of Symbols, Andrei Pop explores how artists, writers, and scientists in the late nineteenth century approached these questions. Blurring the lines between art history, the history of ideas, and the history of science, Pop argues that this diverse group of people—painters, poets, mathematicians, logicians, philosophers—may share the label of symbolists because they had a common interest: the problem of subjectivity, of how to make ourselves understood to others despite the privacy of our consciousness.”