A VISIONARY IN THE PLACE PIGALLE.
Genevieve Lacambre has now added a definitive study to her earlier publications on Gustave Moreau. Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream [*] is, in effect, a translation of the French catalogue of the centenary exhibition mounted at the Grand Palais in 1998, before travelling to Chicago and Washington last year. Lacambre, as well as compiling most of the catalogue of 146 pictures (all recorded in colour) and drawing up a chronology full enough to serve as a biographical study, adds a valuable essay on his taste for the exotic. The particularly scholarly guest-contribution by Marie-Laure Cortenson on Moreau's re-invention of the Middle Ages is sadly truncated from the fuller version in the French edition of the catalogue in order to make room for two articles, informative but less reliable, by fledgeling students of Moreau. The article on Moreau and the Italian Renaissance relies wildly on secondary sources and makes some untenable comparisons: it is quite silly to say that Moreau left pictures unfinished be cause Leonardo also did so. The same author, in his section of the catalogue, calls Telemachus the son of Hercules, which is particularly deplorable in a commentary on Moreau, a devoted reader of Homer.
Gustave Moreau was a visionary antiquarian whose dreams echoed with myths sometimes so arcane that we must track them down in classical dictionaries. He took his stories from writers more recondite than Ovid and Livy, the sources for the painters of the Bourbon monarchy and the Napoleonic empire. His authors were mostly Greek; authors little read now and probably not much read in Moreau's time either. He was something of a classical scholar (although he hated being called literary) who amassed a large library in addition to a copious archive of drawings, engravings and photographs. The more cryptic the myth, the more he liked it. Hesiod is visited by the Muses. Diomedes is savaged by his own horses. Hercules encounters the daughters of Thespius.
The Daughters of Thespius celebrated the bawdy thirteenth labour of Hercules, which was to impregnate all fifty of Thespius's daughters, some say in one night, so that Thespius might have heroic grandchildren. Hercules acquitted himself so well that each daughter bore at least one mighty son. So writes Apollodorus in his Genealogy. In view of this myth it is not surprising that half the royalty of medieval Europe claimed descent from Hercules. With a touch of humour unwonted in Moreau, Hercules looks in whimsical perplexity round the immense stretch of canvas crowded with deminude maidens waiting their turns, some with apprehensive eyes, some with an indifferent mien, some with tense boredom, and at least one asleep. Moreau probably assembled in one picture many of his life-drawings as a student and later. He toiled on this piece, which never left his studio, intermittently for forty years, from 1858 to 1898.
No fewer than thirteen thousand of his pictures (mostly watercolours, which are often more immediately attractive than the oil paintings, because less diffuse and complicated) remain in the studio, bequeathed to the French people, and now the Musee Gustave Moreau, not for want of willing buyers but because of his refusal to part with them, or even to allow visitors to view them before they were finished. Most of the watercolours are locked, one hopes temporarily, in a mahogany receptable to which students alone have access. He worked on his canvases for year after year, moving from one to another, adding to what he had already painted as new ideas came to him, and often leaving blank spaces for future inspiration. The double studio, in which he worked for forty-six years, with the inherited flat below, is his autobiography as man and artist. In a sense all the canvases left in 'the studio have the same date; the date of his death.
In spite of the Eldorado of his studio, the prevalence of Moreau's pictures in galleries from London, through Paris, to Tokyo and Washington (with twelve canvases, formerly in the Louvre, now in its modem annexe, the Musee d'Orsay) confirms how widely his work was admired in his lifetime. Jerome Bonaparte bought the 1864 version of Oedipus and the Sphinx. Those most discerning of connoisseurs, the brothers de Goncourt, hung one of his sketches in the dining room where they entertained Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert and Zola. Edmond de Goncourt, with his habitual felicity of expression, described Moreau as 'a poetic goldsmith'. His paintings fascinated Gautier, Fromentin, Gauguin and Redon; inspired Huysman's novel A Rebours, Wilde's drama Salome and, supremely, one of Heredia's astounding and magnificent sonnets. His shadier enthusiasts were the reprobate novelist, Jean Lorrain (later to become the character Maugis in Colette's novels) and Robert, duc de Montesquiou, who was substantially the original of both Huysma ns's duc des Esseintes and Proust's baron de Charlus. His pupils at the Ecole des Beaux Arts included Matisse and Marquet, upon whom he made no attempt to impose his style. On the contrary, several of his late ebauches, or sketches, predate in their impetuous composition and stark colour the work of these Fauve painters; although the entranced precision more characteristic of his art made the Belgian Symbolists, in particular Paul Delvaux, his true artistic progeny.
In his notes on Michelangelo's interstices on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Moreau writes of the 'self-absorbed reverie' and beautiful inertia' of the sybils and ignudi. Moreau's own figures are somnambulists who have lost their way in the winding track of their dreams. (In this respect, as in many others, Delvaux follows him.) Only in his vatic sleep is Moreau's Hesiod visited by the Muses as he tends his sheep under Mount Helicon, although they leave him a willow staff to prove that they were there. (This accords with Hesiod's own poem, The Theogony, and may have given Moreau's admirer, Mallarme, the idea for his L'Apresmidi d'un Faune, in which dream and reality converge: the nymphs vanish as the faun awakens, but have left the marks of their kisses on his person.) Moreau's Paris abducts Helen without a glance at her as he pursues the tortuous paths of fantasy Venus led him into when he gave her the golden apple. Paris pays no heed to the daughter of Jove and Leda, whose beauty would bring about the Trojan war, amazingly by his side on an ornate barge driven by winged breezes and urged on by tritons and nereids across an immense sea tinted, as if by Boucher, in silky rose and blue. Even Moreau's Christ, reverentially painted in the church of Notre Dame in Decazeville, bears his cross with an air of heroic reverie and the rapt face of a poet.
His Oedipus and the Sphinx gaze at each other in curiosity, as if wondering what chance brought them together. Paradoxically, there is resolution in his eyes, terror in hers, and pathos that she is not an entire woman but, below her thinking head and feeling bosom, a monster: perhaps why, after she had been overcome by his rationality, she destroyed herself (Metropolitan Museum, New York). In one of Moreau's pictures at Harvard University Jacob's angel merely grips his forearm as he wrestles with a phantasmic opponent evoked by himself. In the other, the vacant-eyed sirens sing only to the moon and a passing sea-bird. A spectral swan toys with Leda in her sleep in the painting at the gallery in Lille. The centaur Nessus carries off Hercules's wife as if choreographed in a ballet (Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Europa drifts in a trance against the bull's side as he bears her out to sea, whilst sly Cupid smiles behind his hand (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford).
Moreau paints his brothel-haunting friend, Degas, as a pouting, large-eyed adolescent daydreaming in a seminarist's cloak and hat; in no way like Degas's portrait of Moreau in the following year, in which Moreau is presented as a coiled intensity, his clenched fist under this thickly bearded chin, his other hand stiffly resting, fingers curled, on awkwardly crossed legs: retracted elasticity waiting to make an imaginative leap (Musee Gustave Moreau).
In making that leap Moreau heeded no limits. His stated aim was to show how the Nineteenth Century had assimilated, as its heritage, the total past of civilisation. As well as sketching in galleries and print-rooms, in the Jardin des Plantes and the little zoo attached to it and in the adjacent Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, he copied the tapestries of The Lady with the Unicorn in the Musee de Cluny; although in his paintings he substituted lavishly hatted, virginally Cranach-like nudes for the medieval demoiselles (Musee Gustave Moreau and the Hiroshi Collection, Japan).
Moreau often re-employed the life-drawings he had made in his student days at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and constantly worked from the living model; one in particular. He posed a nude model to fix the exact posture of Salome in the water-colour version of The Apparition in the Louvre. For Salome dancing before Herod he made and positioned clay models. He collected Asian costumes for his sitters, which is why Herod is wearing a Tibetan hood.
Huysmans described Moreau as 'a mystic living in seclusion amid the Parisian whirl' but, as his virile appearance in Degas's portrait suggests, he did not choose total seclusion. His mistress, Alexandrine Dureux, lived in a nearby house, and could enter his studio by a private stairway which had been installed to avoid embarrassment to Moreau's mother, who shared the flat below and acted as his business manager until her death in 1884, when he was 58 years old. After that Alexandrine seems to have occupied a boudoir in the flat and a pied a terre not far away in Passy, until her own death in 1890, which left Moreau doubly desolate. It was almost a marriage. They met when she was twenty-one years old, and Moreau twelve years older, and were together for thirty years.
Moreau sketched her in crayon during their early years together. Her heart-shaped face, large misty eyes set widely apart, heavy eyelids, low forehead, broad-bridged nose with small nostrils, and slight adolescent bosom, often reappear in his paintings. Her androgynous form traverses his art as Desdemona and Jason, Leda and Apollo, St Sebastian and Delilah, a dead poet and a peri, Helen of Troy and Ganymede, Jacob's angel and a Eumenide on the track of Orestes. Moreau perpetuated his grief at her loss in his picture of Orpheus at the tomb of Eurydice. Pathetically, during a bout of severe illness in 1886 from which he had not expected to recover, he wrote that she had been 'his best and only friend'.
His long attachment to Alexandrine is at odds with his reputation as a misogynist, which is derived from some of his paintings rather than from his copious personal writings. He is indeed overfond of female figures with their victims, such as Helen on the walls of Troy, excited by the slaughter, or Salome venomously smelling a rose as the Baptist is beheaded. But these pictures merely reflect the view, widespread in classical antiquity, that women who became conspicuous generally did so through a depravity which flouted their acceptable state of quiet semi-concubinage; so threatening manhood. The bizarre crouch of the Sphinx (which Morean borrowed from a Greek vase) upon Oedipus's thighs and torso, suggests that with one sweep of her hind claw she could emasculate him.
Affected though Moreau's art was by the Hellenistic past, by the Middle Ages and by the Renaissance, the western world did not suffice him. While he showed scant interest in the crazes of the time for Arab scenes and Japanese prints, he was, as always, an individualist in his admiration of Persian and Indian miniatures, for what he called their 'pertinent richness'. Several times he imitated their intricately peripheried concision.
Moreau loved elaboration. If he put in a column, it was Corinthian. If the floors were paved, they were paved with Ottoman faience. The ponds so frequent in his foregrounds are rife with swampy vegetation and water-fowl minutely sketched at the Jardin des Plantes. All his other birds are exotic. Sappho on the Cliff (Victoria and Albert Museum) illustrates his visionary amalgam of details from disparate sources. The basaltic grotto is Leonardesque. Sappho's robe enhances a kimono in a Japanese print. The Chimera, in which he represents the chimera, or fancy, as a winged centaur bearing a nymph from a cliff into a sky of scattered clouds, un ciel feerique et divin, minutely epitomises his hero Baudelaire's poem, Le Vin des Amants.
At one time Moreau studied Islamic architecture, so he reassembles details of a mosque and a Moorish fortress in the interior of Herod's palace as the arena for Salome's dance. At another time he recorded artefacts in Gothic churches and later used them for the throne on which Herod sits. He mingled Gothic and oriental figurations in the tattoos on Salome's body in his Salome Tatouee; turning the tattoos into pieces of jewellery in the Louvre Apparition and incising them into the paint of the background in the version he retained in his studio. Moreau's art is a reassemblage of the memory and the tricks of the memory, as thorough and as convolute as Proust's vast quest for a half-lost past that was, likewise, the lifework of a polymath spellbound by beauty.
Genevieve Lacambre. Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream. Art Institute of Chicago -- Princeton University Press. [pound]40.00. 308 pages, 162 colourplates. ISBN 0-691-00734-9.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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