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PARIS — With the bloody revolutions of the late 1700s, the mood in Europe was apprehensive and brooding about the future. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that the art from that time has a certain gloominess to it as well. Yet what is unexpected is the strange beauty certain artists began to give their visions of horror, whether it was embracing the devil in the same way Milton did in Paradise Lost as an alluring prince of darkness, or portraying the apocalypse with a light that was inverted to our world, but curiously enticing. It’s this deviant use of beauty that is celebrated in L’Ange du Bizarre (The Angel of the Odd), an exhibition draped over the galleries of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris that beckons with its Dark Romanticism.
Angels, being diaphanous creatures of an intangible world, tend to be light on the corporeal and heavy on the beauty. The Angel of the Odd, titled after an Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name, is similarly much more about the aesthetic than the substance, with an absence of much context within the exhibition missing an opportunity to link together the 200 assembled works of European art into one narrative on the evolution of our affinity for this Dark Romanticism from the 18th to 20th centuries. Many of the works seem selected just because they happen to have a skull or ghost or other shadowy subject. Yet there is that beauty, and it’s powerful and potent from the start, where you’re met with a clip of the 1922 film Nosferatu directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Like pale Jonathan Harker on his wild ride up to Dracula’s castle within a carriage driven by hooded horses, you’re then pulled into a world haunted by the uncanny, and of course the beautiful.
Along the richly painted walls beneath the ornate ceilings of the Musée d’Orsay galleries is an eclectic, chronological take on the development of the Dark Romanticism aesthetic. The exhibition starts with artists like Francisco Goya’s vivid torments, William Blake reinterpreting Dante’s hell, and Henry Fuseli’s profoundly creepy “The Nightmare” from 1781 where a young lady sprawls across a bed fitfully dreams, while a devil rests on her chest, and a horse pokes his head through the curtain. Things really take off, though, in entering the 19th century, when in post-1815 France, Dark Romanticism dug in its claws.
The country was in something of a communal hangover, having experienced the French Revolution and its subsequent gruesome Reign of Terror, followed by the brutal Napoleonic wars, and there was a distrust in the previous belief in reason to guide them to a better future. There was a feeling of collective damnation, of the recognizing of how people could be reduced to beasts. Works like Théodore Géricault’s cannibalistic “The Raft of the Medusa” from 1819 ripped into those hidden, dark impulses in humans. In William Bouguereau’s strikingly carnal “Dante and Virgil” from 1850, two of the damned in hell appear to be engaged in either a fight or a lovers’ frenzy (actually a scene of cannibalism from Dante’s text), with one man biting the neck of the other, his hands gripped into the sensually painted flesh.
From there it tumults in every direction of dark fantasy, with helpless young ladies falling into the grips of evil, images of an enchanting death and specters, landscapes that try to capture the unnerving sublime, the Medusa as a symbol for beauty as a victim and a villain, and nature as a deadly temptress. The Symbolists like Carlos Schwabe and Gustave Moreau, and then Surrealists like Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer, all found an outlet in the imagery of witches, skeletons, and beautiful evil, these movements also emerging at times of confusion in the wake of wars or economic disasters.
The exhibition even throws in some films from in between the two world wars of the 20th century for good measure, such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca from 1940, where the murder and ghost of a beautiful woman haunt the widowed husband’s new wife, and even the 1931 Frankenstein where Boris Karloff staggers into the bedroom of a vulnerable young woman and leaves her prone across her bed like that poor dreamer back in Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.” Although not touched on in the exhibition, we’re still living in the drift of Dark Romanticism, perhaps spurned by our current uncertainty with the world, with vampires, the occult, zombies, and the supernatural still rooted in our pop culture.
The Angel of the Odd may be more beauty than brains in the end with its preference for imagery over explaining how each of these artists fit into a dialogue aside from their shared interest in showing how the dark can be beautiful, but it’s still a highly seductive experience with the artistic expression of darkness with desire.
The Angel of the Odd: Dark Romanticism From Goya to Max Ernst is at the Musée d’Orsay (5 Quai Anatole, Paris, France) through June 9.