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Man of mystery: Caroline Rossiter enjoys a celebration of the broad but oddly neglected talent of Gustave Dore.

Gustave Dore (1832-1883): Master of Imagination

18 February-11 May 2014

Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Catalogue (English edition) by Philippe Kaenel et al.

ISBN 9782081316430 (paperback), 45 [euro]

(Musee d'Orsay/Flammarion)

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An uncanny painting, Entre del et terre (1862; Fig. 1), greets visitors at the entrance of 'Gustave Dore (1832-83): Master of Imagination'. The aerial viewpoint reveals a tattered kite, strangely fleshy in appearance (and reminiscent of Chardin's Skate), a frog hanging on a string and an attacking stork. In the background below, the silhouette of the artist's native Strasbourg can be deciphered, all in a pale limpid air.

Entre del et terre is a good analogy for Dore's oeuvre: mysterious and with dark undertones, it defies classification. Dore is well known for his illustrations of Rabelais, Dante, and Cervantes among others, but the Orsay exhibition--the first Dore retrospective in 30 years--reveals a multifarious body of work from illustration and caricature to history painting, religious painting, political allegory, landscape and sculpture. (The exhibition later travels to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; 12 June-14 September).

Despite the breadth of his talents, Dore remains something of an outsider. Fie was an exact contemporary of another outsider, Edouard Manet, but doesn't enjoy Manet's retrospective fame. During his lifetime the art world was suspicious of Dore's skill because he had no formal academic training. The exhibition includes two variations of a painting of a family of 'saltimbanques' from 1873 and 1874 (an evocative word with no such poetic English equivalent, roughly translated as 'street performer'). These Romantic yet marginalised people populate Dore's illustration (we see them later in the c. 1859 illustration of La Cour des Miracles from Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, as well as in Dore's Spanish subjects) and the exhibition suggests that the artist identified with such characters, even dressing up as an acrobat himself at social occasions.

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The response to Dore's foray into sculpture epitomises his broader critical reception. At the Salon of 1877 his sculpture La Parque et l'amour (Atropos and Eros) was met with withering contempt from Jules-Antoine Castagnary: 'nous constatons avec tristesse que, mauvais dessinateur et mauvais peintre, M. Gustave Dore vient d'ajouter a sa reputation celle de mauvais sculpteur. Quel benefice en tirera-t-il? ('we note with sadness that the poor draughtsman and poor painter Mr Gustave Dore has just added poor sculpture to his reputation. What does he hope to gain from it?') A year later Dore returned with La Gloire etouffant le Genie, another classically themed sculpture with a highly personal interpretation: his own artistic genius being stifled by the establishment.

The exhibition is divided into two sections: 'Intime et spectaculaire' (Intimate and spectacular) on the ground floor, and 'De la caricature au paysage' (From caricature to landscape) on the fifth floor. The division seems largely based on scale. 'Intime et spectaculaire' includes sculpture and large canvases, as well as some works on paper, while the majority of the show upstairs is made up of works on paper and smaller-scale paintings. The division makes for a jumbled overall effect, as the show is neither fully chronological nor thematic.

Dore began his career as a caricaturist. He arrived in Paris in 1847 and was taken under the wing of Charles Philipon, caricaturist and editor of satirical newspaper Le Charivari as well as Le Journal pour rire. A precocious fine-lined pen and ink drawing from that year, when Dore was just 15, illustrates the young artist's rite of passage as a caricaturist. Tetes depression, devant la vitrine de Philipon looks like a caricaturist's toolbox, with a line of faces in a variety of contorted expressions. Below them, Dore depicts an eager crowd gathered outside Philipon's print shop.

Among Dore's social satires is a rare sheet of caricature wallpaper with printed designs by the artist (as well as Charles Vernier, Henry Emy and Edmond Morin), on loan from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. At the time, it was suggested the paper be used to decorate 'a games room or country house'.

Dore's grounding in caricature feeds into his illustration--for example the grotesque features of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel--and mingles with something more tenebrous. In 1861, the artist illustrated Dante's Inferno, as well as painting a scene of Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of hell for that year's Salon (Fig. 2). The painting is a terrifying misty scene of fire, ice and writhing forms. This darker side is emphasised here by juxtaposing blown-up projections of Dore's illustrations of Dante with early film: Giuseppe de Liguoro's interpretation of Dante's Inferno from 1911, inspired by Dore's illustrations, and Harry Lachman's 1935 screen adaptation.

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Film clips appear again later in the exhibition. Terry Gilliam's 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has very clear parallels with Dore's Munchhausen (Fig. 3); Dore's illustrations for Blanchard Jerrold's London: a Pilgrimage, a volume published in 1872, are compared to scenes from Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd (2007) and Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist (2005). It seems a bit of a leap to state that these smoggy Victorian street scenes were directly inspired by Dore (many others chronicled the city), but interesting visual connections are made nonetheless.

Dore's imagination was brought to bear on real life events in 1870 and 1871: France's defeat at the hands of the Prussians, the siege of Paris and the Commune. As a volunteer for the National Guard, Dore was witness, in his own words, to 'many dramas and episodes of ruin'. Observations and imagination are combined in sombre colours to create his nightmarish allegories of contemporary events. Prussia becomes a black eagle (the loss of Dore's native Alsace was a particular blow to the artist); France is per- sonified and mounts a hippogriff to lead her people to the aid of Paris; and a sphinx and angel embrace among dead soldiers while Paris smoulders in the background (Fig. 4).

The exhibition ends with an unexpected room of landscape paintings--views of the Alps and dramatic post-storm vistas of Scotland. Like Courbet's studies of the Franche-Comte region, there is a real rawness to these paintings. But there is also something mystical in Dore's sublime mountainscapes: in keeping with the other works in this exhibition, these landscapes are infused with a literary imagination.

There is an other-worldly feel to Dore's oeuvre that pervades this display. Many of his illustrated volumes have set a standard for great literary characters that are engraved on the collective imagination (the Puss In Boots from Shrek could be lifted directly from the Chat botte of the exhibition poster). The beauty of the Orsay's new exhibition is that it displays the lesser-known Dore too. An artist who produced a diverse and enchanting body of work, from the macabre to the sublime. A true master of imagination.

Caroline Rossiter is a writer based in Paris.
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Author:Rossiter, Caroline
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Apr 1, 2014
Words:1139
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