Special Exhibition: The Talisman, A Prophecy of Color
The Symbolist painters, circa 1888 - 1920, were a definitive break from the state-sanctioned academy painting of French establishment. It can be useful to understand the artistic desire which promoted such developments as a progression of aesthetics, as well as a push towards new moral and social ideas. Not only today’s artists, but the progressiveness of our present culture, at least in part, reaches back to their pursuits.
In the works by Symbolist artists, Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and others, there are consistent references to religion, nature, respite, tranquility, love and the bourgeoisie life, as well as city-life. All of this subject matter was used to create new ideals which subverted the establishment constructs of acceptable beauty and meaning — if only partially.
Opposing this intensification of individual style, modern tastes and sensitivity to new ideas, there was, loosely speaking, the other sect of Symbolists, associated with the Rose + Croix. Gustave Moreau is the prime example of this in the latest exhibition at Musée d’Orsay. This group’s work has less influence today and is markedly schizoid in their perfectionism, as well as in the moral and truth ideals, which reach back towards conservatism and tradition — the hallmarks of which are often explicitly sexist.
The curators placed works by Puvis de Chavannes in this same gallery as Moreau, a beautiful pairing. This, despite the fact that chronologically and analytically, Chavannes was a predecessor, with one-foot still in the academy. Regardless, Chavannes’ “Jeunes filles au bord de la mer” completely unraveled me. Yes, he employs traditional modes of beauty, but his chalky pale paint conveys the quality of a dreamscape, and the ambiguous imagery evokes loose associations, compelling the psyche to fill in the blanks.
Paul Gauguin often wrote of Chavannes as a master in his journals. Gauguin, the “Savage” (as he liked to call himself), was who I hiked a couple flights of stairs to see next.
Leaving behind my tendency towards in-depth exposition on the topic of Paul Gauguin, at the Orsay, I mused:
What intensity there is in Gauguin’s self-portrait. Is he looking back at me with a fierce gaze, or am I projecting, and the intensity I feel is my psyche looking back at me?
You can taste and smell the pungent odor of his rigors. Gauguin had a totally obsessive output — carving wood when he wasn’t painting. Paul Gauguin was a man utterly possessed by the immortality fantasy and the need to return into his sexual drive. That is, he followed a desire to explore his instinctual self, which had been lost by dint of European morays.
Stylistically, Gauguin applied few tropes, trademarks (as with the celebrity, Van Gogh!). Yet, still, his works are graphic, typical of the Symbolists. His later works benefit from the heavy burlap canvas, which adds to the mystery, the dream he wished to convey (ancient in feeling, littered with colonialism still).
The influence of Gauguin, Van Gogh and the Symbolists today is made apparent by the crowds which gathered in the galleries devoted to such movements. Meanwhile, almost totally empty, the traditional, academic painting, grand in scale sit in almost empty galleries, ironically, directly across from the Post-Impressionists.
It is interesting how Salon painting (1860 - 1870) exhibits tradition, male power so brazenly. This Benjamin-Constant “Odalisques’ portrays the trope of the male-gaze, still evident today in American pornography, and in the Moulin Rouge district of today’s Paris.
The two paintings, Lefebvre’s “La Vérité” (Truth) and Bouguereau's “Birth of Venus”, represent ideals of establishment Europe. I believe them to be “schizoid,” (in the Deleuzian sense of the word). They are, or course, the male psyche’s fantasy of woman, as a beauty ideal. But, more to the point, they are painstakingly detailed, strict and more like science than artistic expression. In this way they lack any true or meaningful connection to the feminine, to eros, and this is what is meant by “schizoid.” I intend to elaborate elsewhere on this “schizoid” (read: hyper-logical, or lacking-eros) European art.
Why to come see paintings?
There is a basic human need, like food, for images. This has been as true in the past as it is today. Today our devices offer endless images, but many still come to see the concrete object. They take photos of the images, and share these images to other eyes. I wonder what they see, as seeing is reflective of truth and beauty ideals; it reflects the culture and humanity that consumes them.