Jean Delville, “The Death of Orpheus (Orphée mort)” (1893), oil on canvas, 79.3 x 99.2 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SABAM, Brussels. Photo © Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium, Brussels: J. Geleyns-Ro scan)

Looking at the paintings in Mystical Symbolism: The Salon of the Rose+Croix, 1892-97 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, it is clear that 19th-century France had an infinitely more interesting fin-de-siècle flip-out than we did in the 20th. We had Y2K and The Celestine Prophecy, while they had Josephin Péladan and the Salon Rose+Croix.

Péladan was a writer whose novel, Le Vice Suprême, which advocated the benefits of the occult religions of the Ancient Near East, was the publishing phenomenon of 1884. The next seven years were a rush of events: he cultivated a daring hairstyle, and with some like-minded confrères, formed a mystical brotherhood — the Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose+Croix. Then came disagreements, the dissolution of the brotherhood, and the creation of a competing order, Ordre de la Rose + Croix du Temple et du Graal ou de la Rose + Croix Catholique, in 1890. He named himself “Imperator” and “Super Magician,” and, in part to distance himself from his former brothers, sponsored its first salon two years later.

In his call for participation, Péladan rejected the art of the officially sanctioned École des Beaux-Arts as well as its increasingly successful Impressionist challengers. As the rules for the participating artists in the Salon asserted, “The Salon de la Rose + Croix wants to ruin realism, reform Latin taste and create a school of idealist art.” The strain of art that most answered these demands was Symbolism. Symbolism emphasized the spiritual (if not religious) in art, music, and literature and favored a hermetic sensibility of art for art’s sake. As Péladan wrote in the catalog of the first salon, exhorting its participants: ‘Artist, you are priest…Artist, you are king…Artist, you are magus.’

Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, “Orpheus in Hades (Orphée)” (1897), oil on canvas, 194 x 156 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille (© Claude Almodovar/Collection du Musée des Beaux-Arts, Marseille)

Péladan’s rules explicitly banned all humorous, patriotic, or banal topics, so the resulting tone of the works selected — some 40 paintings and drawings — is heavy with portent. If you are female and wearing clothes, then you likely have your hands clasped and your eyes either modestly downcast or raised ecstatically to heaven. If you are male and not Péladan himself, portrayed in sumptuous robes, it is likely you are Orpheus.

If you are female and not wearing clothes, while you may also clasp your hands, you are free to take other poses as well. In Charles Maurin’s “Dawn of Labor” (1891), for instance, a variety of nudes loll and stride about, clutching their breasts. To symbolize Liberty, one woman, impressively, rides a rearing white horse bareback, backwards, clutching a knife and a hammer.

Charles Maurin, “The Dawn of Labor (L’aurore du travail)” (ca. 1891), oil on canvas, 79 x 148 cm, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Saint Étienne Métropole, France (courtesy Yves Bresson, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Saint Étienne Métropole, Franc)

This sense of artists as visionary magi who are the only ones paying attention to the deeper sensations of life, which apparently include buxom women whose motives and morals are uncertain at best, combined with an illustrational devotion to idealized figures, lends itself to an aesthetic that would be best characterized as Heavy Metal. Two of Jean Delville’s works would make excellent album covers, and in fact, “Idol of Perversity” (1891), a meticulously rendered drawing in graphite on paper of a semi-nude woman crowned with snakes, already has. One serpent strays into the cleavage of her gravity-resistant breasts, en route to her rounded belly. Her face is in shadow, but her eyes gleam balefully from their sockets — though not nearly with the intensity of the slightly cross-eyed gaze of her nipples.

In “Death of Orpheus” (1893), another work by Delville, Orpheus’ severed head, nested in his lyre but still singing poetry, floats down the river Hebrus after having been torn from his body by maenads. Orpheus’s head, as richly maned as a lead guitarist’s, glows greenly against the water, which ripples in neat folds to the edge of the canvas. In the foreground, at an improbable angle, a few exotic mollusks gleam beneath the water. The waves are scattered with the reflections of stars that shine so brightly they seem to rise above the surface of the water.

Whatever his strictures on content, Péladan was agnostic about surface. Delville’s smoothly detailed approach, for instance, keeps company with that of Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, who studied with Gustave Moreau. Marcel-Béronneau also depicts Orpheus, this time playing his lyre for Hades, with a rich and toothsome surface. (Concealed in the darkness among the textured brushstrokes are seemingly endless anecdotal details of underworldly miseries, all gaping mouths and dripping blood). Jan Toorop’s painting “The New Generation” (1892), although painted in oil on canvas, seems to be carved from wood. Alphonse Osbert’s “Vision” (1892) and Henri Martin’s “Young Saint” (1891), meanwhile, use short, opaque, almost Impressionist marks.

Henri Martin, “Young Saint (Jeune sainte)” (1891), oil on canvas, 65.4 x 49.3 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest, France (photo © Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest, France)

The latter two paintings bring us into the territory of the clothed and pious female, which instead of album jackets, would go well on the covers of Thomas Hardy novels. Osbert’s “Vision” is hung particularly successfully: its pale, cool palette against the red walls of the exhibition space seems to gush light. The young woman with clasped hands in the center of the canvas makes religious visions seem accessible: just stand very still in a misty, dawn-yellow meadow in the company of an adoring sheep and look up.

Nearby is another ambitious canvas, “The Disappointed Souls,” by the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, who was probably the most prominent of the artists to exhibit at the Salon Rose+Croix. Neither the shape nor the subject for the cover of a book or album (though its long and narrow format might go well wrapped around a coffee mug), it also taps into a different, more desperate mood than the other works. If part of fin-de-siècle anxiety yields from uncertainty about the future (Paul Gaugin’s painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” dates to 1897) part of our interest in it has to do with our awareness of how events actually turned out. By the last of the Salons Rose+Croix in 1897, the ascendance of Modernism was less than ten years away, with World War I not far on its heels. The Hodler, with the flat, mottled color of its landscape not unlike the Cubist earth tones of Picasso and Braque, and the tragic expressions of the black-robed, refugee-like figures, seems the most prescient.

Ferdinand Hodler, “The Disappointed Souls (Les âmes déçues)” (1892), oil on canvas, 120 x 299 cm, Kuntsmuseum Bern, Staat Bern (courtesy Kuntsmuseum Bern, Staat Bern)

This sensation is underscored by the exhibition’s location at the top of the nautilus swirl of the Guggenheim’s concretized eschatology of modern art, currently embodied by Solomon R. Guggenheim’s original collection, hung chronologically. Visiting the show thus is like stepping into a magical and mildly histrionic cul-de-sac of history. Its pleasure is in appreciating a range of little-seen paintings, all held together by the thread of Péladan’s taste. The importance of Péladan as the mastermind behind the Salon is emphasized visually by several portraits of him in assorted mystical and majestic poses, but the curators do not elaborate on the origins or details of his philosophies. This is perhaps because of the fundamental anti-Semitism of his Catholic splinter group and the more overt racism of one of his rules (he excluded art relating to Asian religions and philosophies — in less polite words). Perhaps they were merely daunted by the task of expressing it all in words concisely enough to print on a wall. Either way, the sense of his voice, if not his eye, is strangely lacking without reading the catalog. The Super Magician would be disappointed.

Mystical Symbolism: The Salon of the Rose+Croix, 1892-97 continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 4.

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Natasha Seaman

Natasha Seaman is a professor of art history at Rhode Island College with a specialty in 17th-century Dutch painting.