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The concept of decorativeness is closely linked to that of Synthetism. Many Symbolists sought a minimalistic style that would highlight the two-dimensionality and clarity of the surface of their compositions. To achieve this, Symbolist artists favoured flat colour surfaces dominated by ascetic grey tones or strongly “Synthetist” colours and rhythmic contour lines. They had very different priorities from those of the Naturalists or Impressionists, who focused on reproducing observable realities or moments. The Symbolists sought pure, holistic and timeless expression rather than momentary and immediately experienced sensory impressions.

Decorative painting (peinture decorative in French) is indicative of the huge influence of Paul Gauguin and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes on painting towards the end of the 19th century. It also reflects an appreciation of both early Italian Renaissance fresco painting and Japanese art. Artists in this genre were particularly interested in painting monumental murals.

Symbolism and Synthetism can also be considered an important step towards the development of Modernism, as the principles of decorativeness highlighted the idea of the autonomy and independence of a work of art, i.e. pure painting. This was emphasised also by Albert Aurier, a young art critic who composed a theory of Symbolist art in 1891. In practice, however, the majority of Symbolist art focused on narrative content and literary themes.