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Paint Is the Language of God: The Gospel According to Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau, “Self-Portrait” (1850), oil on canvas, 16.1 x 12.6 inches (via Wikipedia)

What’s Gustave Moreau doing hanging out with John Currin, Wade Guyton, and Damien Hirst?

Moreau, the most inventive old-school artist of nineteenth-century French painting, would likely be baffled by the company that eight of his paintings are keeping in Nahmad Contemporary’s current show, Les Fleurs du Mal. But more on that unfortunate commingling later.

For now, the happy news is that the general public can get an intimate look at Moreau’s miraculous works — some rarely exhibited Stateside.

Taking its title from Charles Baudelaire’s 1855 volume of poems, Nahmad’s Les Fleurs du Mal reiterates that Moreau, like Baudelaire, paved the way for Modernism and its various progenies, from Symbolism to Fauvism to Surrealism. Far less than the sum of its parts, this haphazard show is best taken as an opportunity to reconsider Moreau’s close kinship with literary models and his convoluted relevance to the shopworn concept of “modernity” itself.

Nahmad’s Baudelaire-Moreau association makes sense, up to a point. Just as Baudelaire was a writer who befriended and championed visual artists to validate his aesthetic theories and poetic objectives, Moreau is best understood as the most poetically inclined visual artist of any era. In Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism (Oxford University Press, 2014), scholar Peter Cooke sums up the painter’s aesthetic in terms that sound like the agenda Baudelaire shared with many French poets of the time: “Rejecting theatricality, Moreau invested an essentially narrative genre with static interiority, ambiguity and polysemy while countering naturalistic austerity with ornamentation, obsessive facture and subtle idiosyncratic colour.”

By representing ancient figures like Hercules, Orpheus, Bathsheba and Diomedes in sequestered, concentrated poses transfixed by sudden visions and sensuousness, Moreau introduced into the politically and civically minded genre of history painting an unnerving eroticism and elevated art-making into secular religion. Familiar Greco-Roman characters, Old and New Testament figures, and Christian saints are, in Moreau’s grandly painted heresies, converted into poets, muses, musicians, sirens and assorted collaborators or patrons in the martyr-making cause of high art.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (photo by Dornac, via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

Moreau collected subjects from contemporary literature as well. François-René de Chateaubriand’s Les Martyrs (1809) and Vie de Rancé (1844) and Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874) have been cited by Moreau scholars as direct or indirect influences on his paintings. The painter and writer Eugene Fromentin was a close friend, as was the prolific writer Robert de Montesquiou. The Cuban-born French poet José-Maria de Heredia wrote sonnets inspired by Moreau’s paintings.

And the painter’s influence on French literature was correspondingly impactful. Joris-Karl Huysmans’s seismic 1884 novel A Rebours (translated variously as Against the Grain or Against Nature) might be the most “painted” novel ever written. In his account of the hedonistic and fascinatingly twisted aristocrat Jean des Esseintes, Huysmans devotes a whole chapter of the novel to Moreau’s “Salomé (1876) and “L’Apparition(1876), using prose to commandeer the painter’s craft:

With a withdrawn, solemn, almost august expression on her face, she begins the lascivious dance which is to rouse the aged Herod’s dormant senses; her breasts rise and fall, the nipples hardening at the touch of her whirling necklaces; the strings of diamonds glitter against her moist flesh; her bracelets, her belts, her rings all spit out fiery sparks; and across her triumphal robe, sewn with pearls, patterned with silver, spangled with gold, the jewelled cuirass, of which every chain is a precious stone, seems to be ablaze with little snakes of fire, swarming over the mat flesh, over the tea-rose skin, like gorgeous insects with dazzling shards, mottled with carmine, spotted with pale yellow, speckled with steel blue, striped with peacock green.

Gustave Moreau, “Salome” (1876) (via Wikipedia)

To this day, the significance of Moreau’s problematical association with Huysmans’s perennially popular novel can’t be overestimated, despite his discomfort with Huysmans’s depictions. And although Moreau was sixty years old by the time the Symbolist manifesto was published, the painter became the patron saint of the Symbolist and Decadent art movements, mainly in the wake of Huysmans’s novel. And as the Nahmad show’s forced attempts to link Moreau to late-twentieth-century ersatz postmodernism demonstrates, art historical expediency is as misleading now as it was back then.

That’s because Moreau, like Baudelaire, was a classicist. Like Baudelaire, Moreau sought to undo mid-nineteenth century epistemologies of history, science and mechanization through an idealizing art that was formal and traditional in materials, method and execution while being radically imaginative and evocative — trained on what Baudelaire, in his sonnet “Correspondances” (1857), calls “une ténébreuse et profonde unité,” “the harmonizing of the shadowy/sensible and the deep/spiritual.”

But unlike Baudelaire, who moved within the underside of Parisian life about which he wrote — cemeteries, drug dens, brothels, hovels — Moreau was, by comparison, relatively ascetic, ignoring contemporaneous urban life entirely even as he pilfered magazines and photographs for models.

While he paid close attention to ongoing developments in painting, Moreau’s pictures seem fueled by a sort of erogenous Catholic mysticism, and Cooke’s recent study is rife with such testimonials that underscore this: “I love all ecstasies, all aspirations, all humanity’s needs,” the young Moreau writes, “Everything that makes me believe that man suffers and that in this vague suffering of the soul he seeks to raise himself up, delights and moves me. Religion, poetry, art in all its forms, prayer, meditation, love; all the varied forms of ideal love and the needs of the suffering soul.” Though he said of himself, “I am not a believer [in God],” he told his students that “the career of painter is a true Priesthood,” and famously declared that paint is, “The language of God!”

Where did this Frenchman’s fervor come from? The answer is, most likely, Italy.

Gustave Moreau, “Le Christ et Madeleine (Noli me Tangere)” (1889), oil on wood, 32 x 25.5 inches (courtesy Nahmad Contemporary)

Born in 1826, Moreau was committed to art making in advance of his formal training. In 1841, he traveled throughout Italy with his family and kept a sketchbook. Italian art would draw him back to that country time and again. He tried twice to win the Prix de Rome with its coveted award of a five-year residency there. Undeterred, he lived in Italy from 1857 through 1859. In Pisa and Siena, one of his fellow travelers was the young Edgar Degas.

Though he had trained as a history painter at École des Beaux-Arts, learning under the neoclassical academician Francois Edouard Picot, Moreau steeped himself in the imaginaries of Italian Renaissance masters and eventually broke with Picot’s orthodoxy. By the time his work began to enjoy hefty commissions, along with exhibitions in the Salons of the 1860s and 1870s, Moreau was unmistakably more aligned with Sandro Botticelli and Andrea Mantegna than with Eugene Delacroix or Théodore Géricault.

And Moreau’s rough-hewn, obscure landscapes harken back to the shadowy backdrops in Leonardo da Vinci’s portraiture, especially “The Virgin of the Rocks (1483–86) and “The Mona Lisa” (1503-6; 1517). Writing on Moreau’s uncanny locations, novelist Marcel Proust notes that the landscapes are “natural and yet seem full of awareness,” containing allegories wherein “mountains resemble temples” and “birds [are] gods in disguise.”

Moreau’s painstaking representations of familiar iconic figures confound an intelligible sense of time or place. The pictures provide no recognizable context and therefore no stabilizing historicism — real or fictive. Moreau identifies his subjects by name — Apollo, Suzanne, Christ, Salomé — and transplants them into weirdly lit phantasmal settings in which natural formations are indistinguishable from architectural structures, and vice versa. Even his sunlight and moonlight seem manmade.

Moreau’s work is charged by an “awareness” of an especially modern kind — the psychodynamics between a viewer and an image. His scantily clad figures are secluded, implicating the viewer as a voyeur. Again and again, we become unwitting participants in Moreau’s sado-masochistic spectacles, his beatific and brooding reveries.

And finally the language of paint — color for its own sake, and for the sake of its infinitesimal patterns, tonalities, gradations – is Moreau’s definitive subject. The more closely you look at the Moreau paintings hanging at Nahmad, the more you appreciate his vision of painting as a means to transcend or overpower any other plane of reality. In Moreau, the modernist dream of an absolute form of art is realized by fusing hard-earned subversions of traditional iconography with unrelenting attention to minute details and free-floating variations of color and line until fantasy and reality converge, conveying alternating currents of alienation and recognition. Unable to interpret a given scene’s meaning in literal terms, the viewer relies on its inexhaustible concrete particulars to make sense of the whole.

In “La Source Surprise par un Satyre” (1872–73), the recumbent figures of the pale, fleshly nymph-like female and the bronze-skinned satyr provide little guidance on the meaning of this pagan annunciation. The painting’s exploitation of negative space and the verdant, watery landscape invite the viewer to wonder whether the image is the woman’s dream, or a spell cast by the satyr on the slumbering nude. The landscape bristles with frozen cascades of green, blue, brown, and white, crystalizing here and there into visible figures — a sinuous, levitating swan, an anthropomorphic dove — while the gloomy crags and vegetative draperies, playing with colors and shadow and light, give off faint hints of coalescing human faces and forms.

In “Suzanne et les Vieillards” (1896), the female figure stands alone, casting the painting’s viewers into the role of the leering old men who, in the apocryphal Old Testament story, spy on Suzanne and rape her under the threat of blackmail. Here, however, Moreau presents a constellation of details that commemorate Suzanne’s beauty and autonomy before her demise. She wears a bejeweled, imperial headdress, her luxuriously colored cloak pulled back to reveal one of her breasts as her ringed fingers rest on her naked thigh. The ancient bath’s structure, with blue and gold columns and climbing vines and multicolored flora, rises all around, like a temple dedicated to herself, while red, weed-like growths connote the violence of her impending victimization.

Gustave Moreau, “Le Poète et La Sirène” (1893), oil on canvas, 38.25 x 24.5 inches (courtesy Nahmad Contemporary)

In “Le Poète et La Sirène” (1893) Moreau conflates Homeric and Ovidian literary icons. A laurel-bedecked musician-poet, in the figure of Orpheus, lies half-naked in a craggy cove, dazed and confused, his robe floating below his leg like a red snake in a shallow, blue-green stream. A giant, nude Siren coldly gazes down at him, touching his scalp in a gesture that seems both to tyrannize and revive him. Meanwhile her golden hair, adorned with profligately spreading bright green leaves, spills around her, merging with her golden cloak. Behind her, the dark columns of rock formations, striated with arbitrary colors, give way to a sun-drenched vista of open waters, as if the seascape were the taunting Siren’s invitation to a voyage.

Though the wan-faced Orpheus, whose form glows like a figure in a Masaccio fresco, seems aware of the Siren’s malediction, his fate is sealed by the gold lyre strapped to his back, Moreau’s pagan equivalent of Christ’s cross. The lyre’s gleaming colors are captivatingly painted, and ominous. Like the cross, this instrument, a symbol of both Oprheus’ artistic power and his martyrdom at the hands of the Bacchae, casts the poet as the new Savior.

Absorbed by such a polyvalent painterly language built upon bravura draughtsmanship and nearly trompe l’oeil renderings of enamel, engraving, arabesques, and jewelry, the visitor to Nahmad might be excused for passing rather quickly over the twelve modern and contemporary paintings set among Moreau’s, almost none of which match his layered intensities.

The bold primary colors and the sacred-and-profane mélange of transhistorical figurations of Marc Chagall’s dream-like “L’exode du village au ciel vert” (1969) might remind the viewer of Moreau’s innovations, but they more likely derive from Chagall’s childhood experiences in Russian villages, as well as his student encounters in Paris with the works of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Henri Matisse’s “Nu au drapé” (1918) with its Orpheus-like interplay between clothing and nakedness, is probably included because the young Matisse studied under Moreau at École des Beaux-Arts, while Max Ernst’s “Le Cimetière des oiseaux” (1927), a moody abstract work depicting a sort of skyline-forest of impenetrable browns and reds, certainly echoes Moreau’s russet-colored natural-artificial landscapes.

Works by Francis Picabia, Salvador Dali, and René Magritte are also on hand, presumably to represent Dadaism and Surrealism, movements that were so antagonistic toward traditional art that their presence seems jarring next to Moreau’s quietism.

(Left) Marc Chagall, “L’exode du village au ciel vert” (1969), oil on canvas, 21.65 x 18.11 inches (© 2016 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / ADAGP, Paris) and (right) Damien Hirst, “Leprosy” (executed in 2003), flies and resin on canvas, 54 x 40 inches (© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd, all rights reserved / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2016) (both images courtesy Nahmad Contemporary) (click to enlarge)
Les Fleurs du Mal also tries to shoehorn contemporary American and British works into Moreau’s legacy; these works at best are incongruous and diminished beside Moreau’s paintings. Richard Prince’s “Prison Nurse” (2003) with its pink-skinned blonde in a surgical mask – ideal and spleen — looks like a flatly painted gimmick compared to Moreau’s refined and layered epics.

John Currin’s “Two Germans” (2014) features a young, smiling nude set against a pink backdrop of two over-scaled older women, grinning in what seems like approval. Currin coopts the kitschy appeal of midcentury pinups and retrofits it to make what purports to be a quasi-feminist statement about the female body, but like many of Currin’s nude portraits, once you cash in its cheap sociology, you’re left with little else.

Damien Hirst’s black, monochromatic “Leprosy” (2003), consisting of hundreds of dead flies glued to canvas with resin, is about as meaningful, in terms of content and materials, as a high school art class prank. Wade Guyton’s attempt at evoking Hell, “Untitled” (2005), is a product of “an Epson Ultrachrome inkjet printer” that features two large letter U’s set over flames printed on linen. Included because it presumably relates to Moreau’s underworlds, the painting is about as nuanced as a Division I college basketball team’s March Madness poster.

If, through this exhibition, Gustave Moreau is being figuratively awarded a lifetime achievement award for his role as Spiritual Forebear of Modernity, it’s a safe bet he’d skip this ceremony.

But the rest of us shouldn’t pass up the chance to visit Les Fleurs du Mal and engage, up close and personally, with Moreau’s inimitable language.

Les Fleurs du Mal continues at Nahmad Contemporary (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 9.

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