A Day at the Salon

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

No character embodies France at the turn of the 20th century better than Des Esseintes, the protagonist of J.K. Huysmans’s 1884 novel, À Rebours. Holed up in a chateau in the French countryside, suffering from some unspecified sickness, Des Esseintes grows obsessed with aesthetic perfection, something he tries to achieve through endless redecoration. In one scene, he buys miniature statues of a sphinx and a chimera, and has his mistress ventriloquize a conversation between them; in another, he buys a rug, then, feeling it is too dull, he buys a turtle to walk on it. When the turtle fails to have the right effect, he encrusts its shell with jewels, which proves to be too much: “Doubtless accustomed to a sedentary existence, to a humble life spent underneath its poor shell,” writes Huysmans, “it had been unable to support the dazzling luxury imposed on it, the rutilant cope with which it had been covered, the jewels with which its back had been paved, like a pyx.”

Although Des Esseintes is an extreme case, his fetishistic obsession with beauty was one shared by many of the finest French artists of the Belle Époque. Known as the Symbolists, these artists shunned mundane depictions of nature and human perception for phantasmagorical scenes inspired by mythology, religion and dreams. Art was a powerful spiritual force for them, something that could inspire new feelings and ideas. In this regard, the Salon de la Rose+Croix, held from 1892 to 1897, was one of the most unique events of the era. Following in the tradition of the Salon put on by the Académie des Beaux-Arts throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Salon de la Rose+Croix was an annual public art exhibition, led by the writer and self proclaimed “Babylonian Mage” Joséphin Péladan. Dedicated as much to Péladan’s interest in the occult as they were to art, these Salons emerged out of the 19th century French revival of Rosicrucianism, an esoteric tradition that first arose in the 17th century. With its emphasis on mystical revelations and alchemical explorations, Rosicrucianism played an important role in the development of philosophy and science during the Enlightenment. And with its emphasis on knowledge gained through arcane, creative rituals, its influence on artists was just as profound.

Now, Péladan’s salons are being resurrected for “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix, 1892–1897,” a magnificent new exhibition at the Guggenheim. Tucked into the museum’s fourth floor tower galleries, the exhibition recaptures the feeling of those salons. The walls have been painted red, blue velvet couches litter the room, and music like the salon’s participants would have listened to is piped in over the speakers. It’s not completely faithful to Péladan’s Salon, but in transporting visitors out of the museum and into a different space, it does the trick.

The exhibition begins with Carlos Schwabe’s poster for the Salons. Compared to other posters from the era—Toulouse-Lautrec’s smoke-filled cafés, say, or Alphonse Mucha’s radiant gamines—Schwabe’s poster, featuring a spectral woman leading a corporeal one up a staircase toward a divine ray of light, sets a very different tone. It establishes a mood: enlightening, ethereal and slightly spooky.

It’s a tone that appears throughout, whether in depictions of visitations or through metaphorical scenes taken from myths. Figures like Orpheus, who through his art alone conquered the laws of life and death, and the Virgin Mary figure prominently.

Armand Point’s The Annunciation is a good example of the latter. Mary, her brocaded robe spilling out onto the exquisitely-tiled floor, sits in a columned portico. In front of her, a peacock stands on a fence; above her float a dove and the Angel Gabriel. It’s so overstuffed with adornment, so imitative of earlier art, that it seems ridiculous; like Des Esseintes’s turtle, it has trouble walking. Yet it still has a mystical grandeur that other art of the period lacks.

Other works on display are less over the top. Alphonse Osbert’s Vision is nothing more than a painting of a ghost-like young woman with a sheep by her side, in the middle of a moment of religious ecstasy. Unlike other pieces in the exhibition, it has a distinctly impressionistic influence, with short, Monet-like brushstrokes. Yet the scene it depicts is deliberately unrealistic, its subject bathed in an unearthly periwinkle light, a hazy yellow halo around her head.

In their interest in spiritual transcendence, the Symbolists were hardly unique. From Aleister Crowley in England to the many writers and artists swept up in the Spiritualist movement in America, plenty of otherwise learned men and women were captivated by the idea of communing with the divine. It was an impulse that went beyond mere fetishism. Hidden within all of these pieces—even the more titillating ones that seem to lack any obvious spiritual content—is a longing for some more vivid mode of existence. There’s a reason that every visitation seems to take place in some bucolic setting, with a milkmaid or some other character straight of a fairy tale as its subject, or apes medieval and renaissance art, or illustrates lurid scenes of death and defilement. By the last decade of the 19th century, from the vantage point of soot-covered, slum-filled cities, it was hard not to look at all of that as being more exciting and more suffused with emotion than the real world. Charles Maurin’s The Dawn of the Dream and The Dawn of Labor illustrate the divide between the symbolists’ art and the real world, contrasting classical nude figures with the dark satanic mills of modern Paris.

What makes this art so unique is the way that it seems to be about something tangible—unlike the impressionists, concerned as they were with depicting the world as it was perceived, it focuses on the peculiar emotions that a canvas with paint on it can conjure. Perhaps even more importantly, it does so by drawing on easily-accessed, culturally resonant imagery and themes.

In that regard, it seems decades ahead of its time. It anticipates the Surrealists, with their phantasmagorical imagery, and the Abstract Expressionists, with their evocative, quasi-spiritual canvases. But it also seems to anticipate much of post-modern art, in the way that it uses recognizable symbols and repurposes them to comment on its own era. Although it coincides with a survey of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection—pitting these works against roughly contemporaneous art by Kandinsky and Picasso—this exhibition of self-consciously old-fashioned work feels as fresh as ever.

“Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix, 1892–1897” is on view through October 4.


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