Ed­mund White

Mys­ti­cal Sym­bol­ism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897 an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Solomon R. Guggen­heim Mu­seum Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Vivien Greene

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Mys­ti­cal Sym­bol­ism:

The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897 an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Solomon R. Guggen­heim Mu­seum, New York City, June 30–Oc­to­ber 4, 2017; and the Peggy Guggen­heim Col­lec­tion, Venice, Oc­to­ber 28, 2017–

Jan­uary 7, 2018.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Vivien Greene.

Guggen­heim Mu­seum, 112 pp., $65.00

There is some­thing somber, spooky, cer­tainly hu­mor­less about the salon orig­i­nally cu­rated by Joséphin Péladan and now recre­ated in New York’s Guggen­heim Mu­seum. Though largely for­got­ten, this salon of Sym­bol­ist paint­ing, sculp­ture, and graphic and dec­o­ra­tive arts was enor­mously pop­u­lar in the 1890s and an im­por­tant step to­ward the mod­ernist ab­strac­tion that was to fol­low, in­clud­ing the work of such fig­ures as Kandin­sky, Male­vich, and Mon­drian (un­doubt­edly the rea­son a mu­seum of mod­ern art like the Guggen­heim would be in­ter­ested in or­ga­niz­ing such an ex­hi­bi­tion). Sym­bol­ism was a move­ment that re­jected con­crete re­al­ity, sci­ence, and pos­i­tivism in fa­vor of ideas that “are de­vel­oped into works of art,” as Remy de Gour­mont once wrote. To get a sense of the be­lief in ma­te­rial progress against which Sym­bol­ism was re­belling, we could take a look at a novel, The City and the Moun­tains, by the Por­tuguese writer Eça de Queirós, writ­ten in the 1890s. The dan­di­fied Por­tuguese hero, Jac­into, born and raised in Paris, tells a rus­tic Por­tuguese friend that civ­i­liza­tion can ex­ist only in the city:

My su­per-civ­i­lized friend could not even com­pre­hend how nine­teen­th­cen­tury man could pos­si­bly sa­vor the delight of liv­ing far from the stores em­ploy­ing three thou­sand cashiers, the mar­kets re­ceiv­ing the pro­duce from the gardens and fields of thirty prov­inces, the banks clink­ing with uni­ver­sal gold, the fac­to­ries fran­ti­cally spew­ing out smoke and smart new in­ven­tions, the li­braries burst­ing with the pa­per­work of the cen­turies, the long miles of streets criss­crossed in all di­rec­tions by tele­graph wires and tele­phone wires, by gas pipes and sewage pipes, the thun­der­ous lines of buses, trams, car­riages, ve­loci­pedes, rat­tle­traps, and deluxe coach-and-pairs, and the two mil­lion mem­bers of its seething wave of hu­man­ity, pant­ing as they scrab­ble to earn their daily bread or un­der the vain il­lu­sion of plea­sure.

This is the con­fi­dent, pro­gres­sive world the Sym­bol­ists were re­ject­ing, the soul­less tread­mill of ur­ban life.

Although it is dif­fi­cult to de­fine a par­tic­u­lar paint­ing style the salon was en­cour­ag­ing, Péladan (who gave him­self the Akka­dian royal ti­tle “Sâr”) iden­ti­fied many things he was against, in­clud­ing the “theogo­nies” of “the yel­low races,” his­tory paint­ings, seascapes, land­scapes, still lifes, all rep­re­sen­ta­tions of con­tem­po­rary pri­vate or pub­lic life—and of course “all hu­mor­ous things.” The pur­pose of his Salon de la Rose+Croix was “to ruin re­al­ism” and in its place to “cre­ate a school of ide­al­ist art.” A strik­ing af­ter­thought: “P.S. Fol­low­ing Mag­i­cal law, no work by a woman will ever be ex­hib­ited or ex­e­cuted” in the salon. Of course some women painters did sub­mit work un­der male or am­bigu­ous names—and quite a few por­traits were done of Péladan him­self.

The en­tire project was in­spired as a move­ment against Im­pres­sion­ism, with its sci­en­tific color the­o­ries; its in­ter­est in ev­ery­day life, flow­ers, beach scenes; its prac­tice of work­ing out­doors rather than in the stu­dio; its in­clu­sion of fe­male

painters such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cas­satt; its com­mit­ment to ob­serv­ing rather than mor­al­iz­ing. Péladan, by con­trast, saw artists as “saints” who “put their hearts full of God into works that are . . . sub­lime.” Péladan was only thirty-four when he be­gan or­ga­niz­ing mys­ti­cal artists. He had grown up as the son of an oc­cultist in Lyons, which was the cen­ter of re­ac­tionary oc­cultism. His brother be­came an al­chemist and advanced a Taoist-sound­ing be­lief that spir­i­tual de­vel­op­ment de­pended on never ejac­u­lat­ing. Joséphin was a con­ser­va­tive Catholic who joined a Rosi­cru­cian sect but broke with them over loy­alty to the Church (“Out­side the Church, no sal­va­tion,” Péladan de­clared, echo­ing church doc­trine). The Rosi­cru­cians were se­cre­tive odd­balls who traced their ori­gins back to an­cient Egypt or some­times to a four­teenth-cen­tury knight called Rosenkrenz; their mod­ern move­ment, loosely linked to Ma­sons and Theosophists, was re­vived in 1888 by the Abbé Boul­lan, who re­port­edly sac­ri­ficed his own new­born baby dur­ing a Black Mass.

Af­ter Péladan left the Rosi­cru­cians, he es­tab­lished a sect of his own, L’Or­dre de la Rose+Croix du Tem­ple et du Graal, and be­tween 1892 and 1897 or­ga­nized in its name the six ex­hi­bi­tions of art and mu­sic from which the Guggen­heim ex­hi­bi­tion is drawn. Rosi­cru­cian­ism has al­ways been kept a mys­tery, but it is a pseu­do­science that com­bines alchemy, the Kab­bala, and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of words and vis­ual sym­bols. What the mys­ti­cal Sym­bol­ists de­rived from it was a re­jec­tion of real life in fa­vor of an in­ner, se­cret mean­ing, oc­cult yet uni­ver­sal.

Although the mys­ti­cal Sym­bol­ists were misog­y­nis­tic, they fa­vored an­drog­yny. They saw men as too an­gu­lar, women as too soft and un­struc­tured; the an­drog­yne was the ideal com­bi­na­tion of both. Jean Delville’s wife, for ex­am­ple, is said to have mod­eled for the face of Or­pheus in his The Death of Or­pheus (1893) in this ex­hi­bi­tion.

Or­pheus was a pop­u­lar mytho­log­i­cal fig­ure in this pe­riod, rep­re­sent­ing the seer who tran­scends death, a no­tion that ap­pealed to the mys­ti­cal side of the Sym­bol­ists (Cocteau was ped­dling his ver­sion of Or­pheus into the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury).

The Sym­bol­ists revered Pu­vis de Cha­vannes (who ex­e­cuted the mu­rals for the Pan­théon in Paris—with their bleached col­ors, clas­si­cal scenes, and sim­ple, rhyth­mic com­po­si­tions) and Gus­tave Moreau (who turned his house into a tem­ple of his own art, with thou­sands of ex­am­ples full of bib­li­cal fe­male sadists like Salomé and Ju­dith and male masochists like the cru­ci­fied Je­sus and Saint Se­bas­tian). These ear­lier painters had noth­ing in com­mon in tech­nique but shared a taste for re­mote sub­jects. Cha­vannes stood for a melan­choly pa­gan­ism, whereas Moreau rep­re­sented a hec­tic cast of bib­li­cal char­ac­ters.

The late, Poly­ne­sian Gau­guin was also an in­spi­ra­tion, partly be­cause his images and their writ­ten cap­tions were lit­er­ally sym­bols, drawn from a mythol­ogy ap­prov­ingly deemed “prim­i­tive,” and partly be­cause of his use, af­ter his re­turn from his first Tahiti trip, of wood­cuts. This long-for­got­ten tech­nique, quickly taken up by other Sym­bol­ists, re­duced the il­lu­sion­is­tic de­tails of an im­age to the bare min­i­mum—flat­ten­ing per­spec­tive and sim­pli­fy­ing color—and openly an­nounced its work­ing meth­ods. No longer was an im­age a creamy im­i­ta­tion of na­ture but rather the harsh in­ven­tion of the artist.

The vis­i­tor will dis­cover many un­fa­mil­iar names among the painters rep­re­sented at the Guggen­heim; some of these will en­joy a re­vival, based on their orig­i­nal­ity and tal­ent. The strong­est can­vases are those by the Swiss painter Fer­di­nand Hodler (The Dis­ap­pointed Souls), Jean Delville (The Idol of Perver­sity), Henri Martin (Young Saint), Alphonse Os­bert (Vi­sion), and es­pe­cially Charles Mau­rin (The Dawn of La­bor). Hodler, usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with his moun­tain­scapes, in this in­stance gives us five de­feated-look­ing men, ren­dered with Michelan­ge­lesque mus­cu­lar­ity. Hodler didn’t re­ally have much in com­mon with the oth­ers and he may have joined the group as an act of self-pro­mo­tion. Delville’s Idol of Perver­sity has a ra­di­ant crown, trance-like eyes, dan­ger­ously pointy breasts—inar­guably a fa­tal femme fa­tale. If she is pure evil, then Martin’s and Os­bert’s young women are pure peas­ant good.

Mau­rin’s paint­ing, the best in the show, is a vast al­le­gory—but of what is not cer­tain (venge­ful min­ers is one pos­si­bil­ity). There are many fig­ures in the mys­te­ri­ous Dawn of La­bor—in­clud­ing naked men, women, and chil­dren. The largest is a woman strid­ing for­ward, squeez­ing her own breast, a child cling­ing to her. Be­hind her is a woman seated back­ward on a horse, hold­ing tools that look like a ham­mer and a dag­ger. A green­ish, full-fleshed woman with her hair in an an­drog­y­nous bob seems to be ris­ing out of the swamp. The min­ers in re­volt are on the crest of the hill in the back­ground; the red flag they hold aloft was a sym­bol of an­ar­cho-com­mu­nism dur­ing this pe­riod. (See il­lus­tra­tion on page 68.)

The Sym­bol­ists prized ob­scu­rity. The poet Jean Moréas, who first named Sym­bol­ism, said “the fun­da­men­tal na­ture of sym­bolic art means never go­ing so far as to conceive di­rectly the Idea it­self.” Mau­rin, like Hodler, was Swiss. He taught Félix Val­lo­ton; they were both in­ter­ested in print­mak­ing, which ob­vi­ously in­flu­enced Mau­rin’s paint­ing, with its in­tri­cate mar­quetry of de­tail. He was also un­der the spell of the painter and poster-maker ToulouseLautrec. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Mau­rin im­i­tated the way Ja­panese prints cropped their sub­jects (as the man gnaw­ing his own hands is trun­cated at the waist in the lower mid­dle of the vast al­le­gory). Mau­rin, like other Sym­bol­ists (and un­like the Im­pres­sion­ists), was in­flu­enced by lit­er­a­ture; in sub­ti­tles to his mys­te­ri­ous paint­ings he cited Rim­baud and Baude­laire.

What is clear is that all five paint­ings listed above present large, bold, un­for­get­table images and that in all five line pre­dom­i­nates over color—none could be ac­cused of re­cre­at­ing ev­ery­day re­al­ity. No won­der the Sâr de­clared, “A night­mare out of Poe, that’s art,” and, given all the sym­bols of evil and sanc­tity, he an­nounced, “Mas­ter­pieces are all re­li­gious, even those done by non­be­liev­ers.” If Im­pres­sion­ism sug­gests (er­ro­neously) that France is a coun­try of end­less sun­shine, pop­u­lated by

ten­der moth­ers and rosy-cheeked ba­bies and bright flow­ers or young, happy cou­ples dancing, boat­ing, or pic­nick­ing, then mys­ti­cal Sym­bol­ism would have us be­lieve that its images come out of an aus­tere, win­try land of cruel fa­nat­ics and deca­dent roy­alty. (“Make room for hys­te­ria, make room for neu­ro­sis!” de­clared the first is­sue of a Sym­bol­ist mag­a­zine in 1885.)

Péladan was a man of strong opin­ions. For in­stance, in one vol­ume called Is­tar of his twenty-vol­ume novel, Latin Deca­dence, he be­rates peo­ple from the French prov­inces as scarcely hu­man com­pared to the en­light­ened Parisians:

The pro­vin­cial never be­comes civ­i­lized: in his land-owner’s belly he lodges the rudi­men­tary soul of a bar­bar­ian. With­out mean­ing to, you dis­turb his few ideas; and too skep­ti­cal to be­lieve in the moral su­pe­ri­or­ity of some­one who’s not like him, in not ad­mir­ing you he will de­spise you.

Here he sounds like Eça de Queirós, but for op­po­site rea­sons; the Sâr is tout­ing the Parisian’s spir­i­tual value, whereas Jac­into feels he is ma­te­ri­ally advanced. Péladan was an amaz­ingly pro­lific au­thor, writ­ing nu­mer­ous plays and ha­rangu­ing French pub­li­ca­tions that ig­nored or crit­i­cized him. When he pub­lished his “Nov­el­is­tic Drama in Five Acts,” The Prince of Byzan­tium, he was care­ful to point out—bit­terly, one sup­poses— that it was turned down by the Odéon Theater and by the Comédie-Française, two state-run the­aters. Wag­ner was his idol, whom he ranked with Bach and Beethoven. He pub­lished a book on Wag­ner, giv­ing ex­ten­sive syn­opses of all eleven op­eras, and ded­i­cated it to Ju­dith Gau­tier, the daugh­ter of the Ro­man­tic poet Théophile Gau­tier and, briefly, Wag­ner’s mis­tress. (Her paint­ings were shown with the Sym­bol­ists un­der a male name.) The Sâr in­forms us that in Wag­ner “po­etry and mu­sic for the first time form a sin­gle ex­pres­sion,” which nat­u­rally is “an­drog­y­nous.” To a French arch­bishop is at­trib­uted the re­mark that the pre­lude to Lo­hen­grin was brought to earth by angels. The pro-Sym­bol­ist Re­vue wag­néri­enne, the best of the era’s nu­mer­ous, short-lived “lit­tle magazines,” was pub­lished in Paris from 1885 to 1888.

Péladan’s only crit­i­cism of Wag­ner con­cerns Die Meis­tersinger, since it is a com­edy (“this Ger­man re­al­ism, a lit­tle heavy”): “For an aes­thete, com­edy is an in­fe­rior art.” Of course the sum­mit of Wag­ner’s art—or any­one’s, Péladan ar­gues—is Par­si­fal, which Péladan links to the Rosi­cru­cians (the Good Fri­day Spell from Par­si­fal is the mu­sic play­ing in the back­ground of the Guggen­heim’s ex­hi­bi­tion). Much as he ad­mired mu­sic, he thought it was in­fe­rior to words, which are bet­ter suited for ren­der­ing ideas. (Péladan con­tended that Wag­ner had been led astray by Schopen­hauer’s the­ory that mu­sic, be­ing a pure ex­pres­sion of Will, is su­pe­rior to lit­er­a­ture.) In the 1880s and 1890s, Wag­ner­ism had be­come a re­li­gion through­out Europe, much to Ni­et­zsche’s cha­grin, the art that had re­placed tra­di­tional re­li­gion. Par­si­fal even had the Holy Grail and the spear that pierced Christ’s side, Tris­tan und Isolde had a love philtre, and the Ring Cy­cle had Nordic he­roes, war­rior maid­ens, a magic ring, and the fall of the gods. At the Rose+Croix salon, a fan­fare by Erik Satie was per­formed; Satie also wrote the in­ci­den­tal mu­sic for one of Péladan’s plays, though soon enough the two men fell out (per­haps Péladan didn’t at first sus­pect Satie’s satir­i­cal side). Some Sym­bol­ists were so taken with mu­sic that they gave opus num­bers and dy­namic mark­ings to their can­vases.

Wag­ner was pre­sented by Péladan and his as­so­ci­ates as a cor­ner­stone

of Sym­bol­ism, es­pe­cially ow­ing to his idea of a to­tal art­work, Ge­samtkunst­werk, one that would com­bine lit­er­a­ture, paint­ing, mu­sic, and all the other arts. Cer­tainly his reimag­in­ing of mythol­ogy, as if it were a liv­ing coun­ter­part to our ex­pe­ri­ence rather than a long-for­got­ten cu­rios­ity, had an in­flu­ence on these pic­tures of angels, the Holy Grail, demons, and Hades. The idea of the Ge­samtkunst­werk may have met a cul­tural dead end in the 1890s, but it has been suc­cess­fully re­vived by Robert Wil­son and vis­ual artists like Rebecca Horn, who works with sound, lights, struc­tures, per­for­mance art, and po­etry.

Dec­o­ra­tive arts acquired a new sta­tus among the Sym­bol­ists. Sev­eral of them (like Ge­orges de Feure) went on from mak­ing their own in­ge­nious hand­painted pic­ture frames to cre­at­ing fur­ni­ture and porce­lain in the later Art Nou­veau style. Ville Vall­gren, also rep­re­sented at the Guggen­heim, de­signed a fu­neral urn in bronze. In gen­eral, the evo­lu­tion to­ward the dec­o­ra­tive and or­na­men­tal re­vealed the Sym­bol­ists’ in­ter­est in what was broadly hu­man rather than quirk­ily per­sonal, in the tribal rather than the in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic. (Their fig­ures are rarely rec­og­niz­able peo­ple.) The ban on por­trai­ture and the anec­do­tal erased the bor­der be­tween paint­ing and dec­o­ra­tion, just as it had in clas­si­cal Mus­lim in­te­ri­ors and an­cient Egyp­tian tombs. The dec­o­ra­tive was no longer sub­sidiary to the fine art of paint­ing; the two do­mains blended into each other in what was seen as a tri­umphant unity. It seems the pen­du­lum is al­ways swing­ing back and forth be­tween the ide­al­is­tic and the re­al­is­tic, be­tween the spir­i­tual and the ma­te­rial, and in the nine­teenth cen­tury the two of­ten get in­ter­twined in pseu­do­science (mes­merism, phrenol­ogy, Lom­broso’s pos­i­tivist crim­i­nol­ogy, spir­i­tu­al­ism). The en­thu­si­asm for sci­ence, in­dus­try, and in­ven­tion give way to spir­i­tu­al­ity, arts and crafts, and me­dieval­ism. In the nine­teenth cen­tury dandy­ism, deca­dence, and sym­bol­ism were usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics, though of­ten the wires got crossed. Huys­mans, the au­thor of the bible of deca­dence, Against the Grain, the very book Do­rian Gray is read­ing in Os­car Wilde’s novel, started out as a nat­u­ral­ist, fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of Zola, but once he em­barked on his “sci­en­tif­i­cally”

doc­u­mented por­trait of his pro­tag­o­nist, Jean Des Es­seintes, he was be­witched by his sub­ject and be­came a Deca­dent him­self (and con­verted to Catholi­cism). The poster for the fifth Rose+Croix salon showed a tri­umphant fe­male fig­ure hold­ing aloft the sev­ered head of Zola, an em­blem of the vic­tory of the imag­i­na­tion over doc­u­men­ta­tion.

In Amer­ica, per­haps be­cause of pu­ri­tanism, Sym­bol­ists avoided femmes fa­tales, hags from hell, and over­ac­tive devils. Nostal­gia and dream-like states pre­dom­i­nated, a sub­jec­tiv­ity made ob­jec­tive, and artists be­came fas­ci­nated by the un­con­scious. Al­bert Ry­der, for ex­am­ple, seems to have been a gen­uine Amer­i­can ec­cen­tric, mostly im­mune to out­side in­flu­ences, but he did travel to Europe four times, and his paint­ings of ships at night and sword-wield­ing horse­back riders do seem an Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent to the mys­ti­cal Sym­bol­ists in Bel­gium, Eng­land, and France. The doc­trine of “art for art’s sake” and a cor­re­spond­ing re­jec­tion of “mes­sage” was advanced by Sym­bol­ism, an im­por­tant step to­ward ab­strac­tion.

The Sym­bol­ists were as­so­ci­ated with Féli­cien Rops, Ed­vard Munch, Gus­tav Klimt, and other ma­jor artists. Re­sis­tant to in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and tech­nol­ogy, the end of re­li­gion, and the de­cline of the agri­cul­tural past, the Sym­bol­ists re­treated into the realm of mythol­ogy and dreams. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, they made ad­vances in the use of pho­tog­ra­phy and print­mak­ing. Though this im­por­tant show at the Guggen­heim, cu­rated by Vivien Greene, seems like a re­turn to the Deca­dent past, in re­al­ity it marks a tran­si­tion to­ward mod­ern art.

Jean Delville: The Death of Or­pheus, 1893

Charles Mau­rin: The Dawn of La­bor, circa 1891

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