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Having declared himself sick of “the incessant deluge of human stupidity,” Jean Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (À Rebours, 1894), enters into an extravagant self-quarantine in a house outside Paris. There, he engineers sense experiences more affecting than anything he’s known in society. He remakes one room to look and smell like a ship’s hull; he tragically encrusts a pet tortoise with gemstones; he hybridizes exotic plants with colors so original they resemble artificial flowers. His homemade perfumes and cocktails are so invigorating they activate multiple senses at once, simulating poetry and music.
Against Nature riveted an up-and-coming generation of European writers and artists, further liberating them from realism by showing it to be as artificial as any other artistic approach. The novel distilled ideas Huysmans had been developing in extensive writing about contemporary art; this writing formed the basis for the exhibition Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which wrapped up this past March.
Following an April postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a modified version of that exhibition is slated to open in October at the Musées de la Ville in Strasbourg; Huysmans’ Eye: Manet, Degas, Moreau centers on Huysmans’s evolution as a novelist. Meanwhile, Huysmans’s Modern Art, which first appeared in 1883, was recently released in a snappy English translation by Brendan King (Dedalus 2020), with copious notes and a glossary on the over-200 painters covered by the critic. Though the artworks under review suffer from thumbnail black-and-white reproductions, the critic’s prose brings them into sharp focus.
In hindsight Huysmans’s turn to art writing was timely. In 1878, he was a 30-year-old poet and fledgling novelist. Following the lead of other French authors — from Stendhal and Charles Baudelaire to his friend and mentor, Émile Zola — he hoped to raise his profile by covering the annual state-sponsored Official Salon curated by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and by reviewing exhibitions mounted by the “Independents” group, run by non-academic artists like Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, and Édouard Manet. (Huysmans, in a characteristically prescient footnote, laments some Independents’ labeling as “Impressionists” as more confusing than helpful.)
Lacking formal training in art (he studied law and held a post in the Ministry of the Interior) he had a knack for seizing on the unanticipated, the gritty, and the revelatory in painting — values aligned with Zola’s literary Naturalism, which called for unfiltered attention to the fast-paced, often untidy new industrial era. But Huysmans was also a flâneur, drawn to walks on the wild side. His prose poems, collected in Parisian Sketches (Dedalus, 2014), prefigure a critic with unpredictable, often contradictory tastes who imagined himself capable of multisensory apprehensions in real life as well as in works of art.
Most of the art Huysmans sees in the Offical Salons he finds formulaic or pedantic. And his essays form a cautionary tale. Credentialed academic French artists favored by Salon jurors placated patrons and the public during unstable social periods with “relevant” subjects through pictures of cross-cultural contact in French colonies, political and military martyrdom, and close-knit community rituals. That control on prized subject matter exerted by schools like the École des Beaux-Arts mirrors a similar pattern today, as esteemed artists cull formulaic content from timely sociocultural issues like global warming and endemic racism or sexism as these are framed and analyzed in college seminars. While those problems metastasize in the actual world, “consciousness raising” academic art often offers chicken soup for the civic soul.
Surveying such ineffective, doctrinaire, and pompous dreck at the Salons, Huysmans calls bullshit. He excoriates “sentimental” genre paintings incorporating “tedious contrivances” and “hackneyed scenes,” often inflated by ancient or Far Eastern settings; countless canvases that are as lifeless as “painted window blinds”; pretentious portraits that render individuals as “mannequins” and “illuminated puppets”; and “cardboard cut-out goddesses” ginned up by “the devotional trash of the past.” He’s not above mockery. Pierre Lehoux’s “St. John the Baptist” (1878) “holds his shell full of water like an athlete holds his dumbbells.” In another religious painting by Lehoux, Christ appears “with what looks like a fried egg on his head.”
Patriotic paintings are subject to the same treatment. Alphonse de Neuville’s group portrait depicting a scene from the Franco-Prussian War features a “frozen puree of combatants.” Reflecting on art by hacks like Jules Bastien-Lapage and Hippolyte Delanoy, Huysmans wonders “when will we see Robespierre’s chamberpot or Marat’s bidet in the Salon?”
He recognizes lousy technique, too, slamming French painters who illuminate Paris interiors using “blue-green skies” copied from Dutch Renaissance paintings; he loathes artists’ soft-porn renditions of the female nude and he’s had it with pseudo-Romantic landscapes, noting that the artists “put fewer nymphs and fewer ruins in them, but they still refine them, they tart them up, they make them sweeter […] as if it [the painting] were a dish of broad beans.”
In subsequent Official Salons, he passes over hundreds of French paintings, instead directing critical attention to foreign artists and new architects, with lengthy, laudatory takes on British illustrators Thomas Rowaldson, Walter Crane, and Kate Greenaway and deep dives into the modernist achievements within new Parisian constructions like Les Halles market and the Reading Room at the National Library.
As he cold-bloodedly separates wheat from chaff, Huysmans emerges as a prophet on behalf of art and artists who are today recognized as the revolutionary guard of modernity. Covering such “troublemakers” who made it into the Salon of 1879, he expresses guarded hope about and admiration of skilled colorists such as Camille Pissaro and Alfred Sisley, who challenge viewers to see the world anew even when their work occasionally suffers from “indigomania” that often produces “vague motley covered canvases.”
He’s most eloquent on those he finds equal parts methodical and imaginative: artists, like Henri Fantin-Latour and Gustave Caillebotte, who “grasp and render life” by taking as their subjects modern Paris’s working- and middle-class bustle in all gradations of visibility — indoors and outdoors, alone and together, at work and at play.
Huysmans holds the bar high; he’s often openly searching for the next Rembrandt. At one point, a young Paul Gauguin is one potential heir, but in a subsequent exhibition the verdict is, “No progress, alas!” Édouard Manet, the elder statesman among the Independents, elicits fanboy excess, quiet scrutiny, and blunt disappointment. “Manet preaches insurrection and aims at nothing less than the ripping off of the pathetic sticking plasters this nursemaid of antiquated art has applied!” But, after scrutinizing in granular detail the groundbreaking “A Bar at the Folies Bergère” (1882), Huysmans decides it’s a flawed masterpiece; elsewhere he’s less ambivalent, tweeting, “Manet is going downhill!”
Alongside the sometimes snarky fun, Modern Art showcases a poet-turned-critic retooling language to give voice to the compelling new art. As he tracks knotty ambivalence about Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the subtext shows how beguiling and elusive a painter he is.
And though the crisp, poetic descriptions of Degas’s scenes revitalize those familiar portraits of ballet dancers and bathers for today’s readers, the prose never quite pins down the greatness Huysmans claims for him. He’s more convincing when restrained, as in laconic insights into new artists championed by Manet and Degas respectively: Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.
Morisot’s “excellent” portraits convey “a special provision of the eyelid that allows her to grasp the finesse of the most tenuous movement of the body on the ambient air” while Cassatt’s portraiture outdoes her French counterparts by capturing psychological depth, especially in her images of family and children, sustaining “the joyous quietude [of contemporary life]. The calm good-naturedness of an interior.”
Visionaries like Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon cast heavy spells on him. As a painter who specialized in Biblical and classical subjects that Huysmans found tiresome in other French artists, Moreau gets more than just a waiver and rises to the level of a muse. He wraps up a text on Moreau’s “Galatea” (1880) by describing the scene as a “jewel box in which, under the light falling from lapis-lazuli, a strange mineral flora weaves its fantastic shoots and intertwines the delicate lacework of its incredible leaves.”
And Redon’s inimitable, uncanny art is more akin to the work of “musicians, and certainly poets” as “we [viewers] can lose our footing and float in dreams, a thousand miles from any school of art, antique or modern.”
That impulse — to lose our foothold on ground that culture dictates to be most significant and most “real” — is exactly what motivates Huysmans’s Des Esseintes into his extreme social distancing in Against Nature. Misanthropic and in frail health, he’s sequestering against a lethal psychosocial pandemic, spread for years by the “aristocracy of money” who were enabled by an “enlightened” liberal intelligentsia composed of “greedy, shameless hypocrites.” The novel winds down with Des Esseintes reluctantly leaving his quarantine, aware that the virus has already spread like wildfire, sickening and ravaging Paris, including its artists:
Now it was a fait accompli. And once the job was done the proles had been bled white as a preventative measure, while the bourgeois, reassured and content, lorded it over everyone through the power of his money and the contagiousness of his stupidity. The result of his accession to power had been the crushing of everything intelligent, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art, and, what was worse, artists and writers demeaned themselves, down on their knees, covering with ardent kisses the stinking feet of the high-placed double-dealers and low-born despots whose hand-outs allowed them to live.