Art Essays

Gustave Moreau

Published January 15, 2011
Gustave Moreau, The Sirens, Oil on Canvas, 89 x 118 cm

In Hollywood’s version of the past the critics were always hostile and blinkered, while the misunderstood genius struggled for a recognition that it is now given freely. We’d like to believe that a great artist is always ahead of his or her time, making work for future generations, but this romantic idea rarely survives close scrutiny. With amazing frequency the blinkered critics seem to have written with flair and insight, while the misunderstood genius turns out to have been no genius at all.
This brings us to the strange case of Gustave Moreau (1826-98), one of the nineteenth century’s most problematic artists. Moreau must have had something, because he has inspired passionate admiration both in his own age and today. He was a friend and mentor to artists such as Degas, Rouault and Matisse, but exerted little influence on their mature work. To come upon Moreau cold is to discover such obvious flaws and excesses it seems astonishing that so many commentators have been so indulgent with him.
I’ve been twice to the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris and saw a large retrospective in Chicago in 1999, but visiting Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine at the National Gallery of Victoria, reminded me of all the reasons this artist is so very hard to like. Moreau’s colour is either acidic or murky, and frequently both within the same composition. His drawing resembles the languid, boneless figures sketched by teenagers practicing their fashion design. Worst of all, his predilection for subjects from classical mythology and the Old Testament finds expression in a style as histrionic as a comic book.
“These are opium dreams,” wrote Albert Wolff, one of the critics who failed to appreciate Moreau’s exotic concoctions. Today we might say it looks as if the artist was completely stoned.
Moreau was an unusual talent and an unusual personality. He was the adored son of wealthy and cultivated parents who had lost a daughter and came to lavish all their affection on the remaining child. In 1852, his father purchased a house at 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, which would remain Moreau’s studio and residence for the rest of his life. In later years he decided to convert the building into a shrine to himself. The Musée Gustave Moreau opened in 1903, and remains one of the most impressive one-man museums in Paris.
Moreau never married, but was devoted to two women: his mother, Pauline, and an intimate friend, Alexandrine Dureaux. His correspondence with Pauline often reads like a series of love letters. He asked for his letters to Alexandrine to be burnt, but never wrote a word about her without stressing her saintly qualities. The gentleness and kindness he prized so much in his mother and Alexandrine, stands in vivid contrast to the females that populated his paintings.

In the studio Moreau’s leading ladies were Salomé, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Delilah, Lady Macbeth, Messalina, Bathsheba, and Hercules’s jealous wife, Deianira. He also had an affection for tragic heroines such as Sappho, Galatea and the Shulamite woman who escaped King Solomon’s clutches. Treacherous, lustful, murderous: women who drove men mad – these were the objects of Moreau’s undying fascination. If this is “the eternal feminine” it is a very jaundiced version.
One suspects this is the view of someone with a deep-seated fear of women or a severe lack of experience. “All bitches, apart from Mum and Alexandrine!”
Perhaps the exaggerated virtues of his mother and his close friend made Moreau pine for those vamps that plagued his waking dreams. It was a model that corresponded to a contemporary fantasy of the femme fatale – the dangerous woman whose sexual power lured men to their doom. This was the time of Rider Haggard’s “She who must be obeyed”, which made its first appearance in 1887. Sigmund Freud recommended Haggard’s novel to a patient as a study of “the eternal feminine”.
If She is the crystallisation of every secret fear the Victorian male may have held about womanhood, Salomé inspired both lust and horror. She was given a suitably sinister treatment by Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and later, by Richard Strauss. In the catalogue, curator Ted Gott quotes one of Moreau’s critics who praised his version of Salomé, with the words: “she is feminine beauty itself, eternally fatal and cruel.”
Moreau produced numerous images of Salomé, one of them being vividly described by J.K. Huysmans in his decadent novel, Against Nature, in a passage that helped make Moreau’s reputation. The most memorable rendition in this show is The Apparition, in which John the Baptist’s severed head floats in space, confronting the scantily clad temptress. The scene could not be more lurid if were borrowed from a Hammer horror flick. What makes the painting so disconcerting, apart from the subject, is the way Moreau has traced the outlines of elaborate architectural details into the surface. Parts of the picture are reminiscent of Gothic ornamentation, while other bits suggest a Hindu temple. Salomé is dressed like a Harem girl and holds a lotus in one hand, but her hair is blonde.

This is an example of what Moreau called “necessary richness”, but to his detractors it was the mark of an overexcited imagination. My sympathies are with the detractors because Moreau tends to pile on bizarre, incompatible motifs in a way that undermines the drama of his images.
It is no fluke that the idea of the femme fatale should have coincided with the rise of ‘the New Woman’, who demanded the vote and her rights in the workplace. But the sociological explanation is too banal to do justice to the way Moreau depicted his heroines. His work has the quality of a deep-rooted obsession.
Unlike many of his peers Moreau did not take classical subjects as an excuse for mere titillation. He was unimpressed by the smooth-skinned nudes produced by Cabanel, Bougereau, Gérôme, and many lesser artists. There was nothing cynical or commercial in his approach. In fact, he was broadly experimental, and his work often prefigures movements such as Surrealism and Abstraction.
Moreau is known as one of most readily identifiable members of the Symbolist movement. This loosely defined tendency was described by the critic Albert Aurier in terms of a willingness to seek a higher reality beyond mere appearances and to treat the work as an embodiment of an idea. As such, it was the antithesis of Impressionism, which was preoccupied with capturing the physical sensation of light.
The high-minded quality of Moreau’s Symbolism was recognised and widely appreciated. At the Salon of 1864, his Oedipus and the Sphinx was a sensation. The praise that was heaped on this work probably made it all the more intolerable for Moreau when his next Salon entries were derided. It was partly because tastes were changing towards a more naturalistic style of art, partly because he seemed to be pursuing novelty and sensation for its own sake.
“Seemed” is the operative word, because Moreau was an artist of integrity, whose sensational works were the results of inspiration rather than calculation. Nevertheless, we may still recognise him as a pioneer of those shock tactics modern artists would bring to a state of perfection.
Moreau’s chief innovation in Jupiter and Europa (1868) was to put a human head on the neck of a bull. Some commentators were impressed, but others felt that his love of novelty had led him astray. Most of the discussion seemed to concentrate on Moreau’s subject matter, but the composition is so stiff, the figures so wooden, that to contemporary eyes the work hardly deserved the attention.
Today it is undeniable that Moreau was a maestro of distraction. His mind teemed with ideas and images that he set down on canvas in feverish haste. His true subject was ‘The Exotic’ – which we may define as everything that was not part of European – and more specifically, French – civilisation. His vision of the world is the kind of multicultural fantasia one might expect to find in a B movie or pulp novel. His heroines were larger-than-life symbols of grand concepts and powerful emotions. Yet it is a vision that belongs to the days of European colonialism, when Parisians and Londoners could savour their own virtues in contrast to the savagery of life elsewhere. A touch of that savagery was seductive, but it came from the museums, and from the books Moreau gathered in his library in the rue de la Rochefoucauld.
His interests ranged from India to Africa, from the Middle East to Japan, from the ancient Greeks to Medieval times. In this, he is reminiscent of Causabon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, who spends his days trying to compile a Key to All Mythologies. After the pedant’s death, this dazzling but impossible project is left in pieces. The same might be said about Moreau’s life project, which looks today like a series of glittering fragments shored up against the ruins of the nineteenth century.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, January 15, 2011
Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Until 10 April.