Rediscovering Maurice Maeterlinck and his significance for modern art



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This thesis examines the impact of Maurice Maeterlinck’s ideas on modern artists. Maeterlinck's poetry, prose, and early plays explore inherently Symbolist issues, but a closer look at his works reveals a departure from the common conception of Symbolism. Most Symbolists adhered to correspondence theory, the idea that the external world within the reach of the senses consisted merely of symbols that reflected a higher, objective reality hidden from humans. Maeterlinck rarely mentioned symbols, instead claiming that quiet contemplation allowed him to gain intuitions of a subjective, truer reality.

Maeterlinck’s use of ambiguity and suggestion to evoke personal intuitions appealed not only to nineteenth-century Symbolist artists like Édouard Vuillard, but also to artists in pre-World War I Paris, where a strong Symbolist current continued. Maeterlinck’s ideas also offered a parallel to the theories of Henri Bergson, embraced by the Puteaux Cubists Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. Bolstered by new scientific discoveries that legitimized the existence of unseen realms, and intrigued by the idea of the fourth dimension as infinite higher space, Cubists such as Metzinger responded to Maeterlinck’s highly popular 1908 play L’Oiseau bleu, finding there an analogy to the Cubist quest for higher realities.

Despite Maeterlinck’s popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he has been largely ignored, especially with regard to twentieth-century art. By examining the responses of artists and contemporary critics to Maeterlinck, as well as the intersection of his theories with the larger cultural context, this thesis aims to bring Maeterlinck back into focus.