PRINT September 1968

Ideal Interlude: The Salons de la Rose+Croix

IN APRIL OF 1967 I received a phone call from Mr. Godfrey Pilkington, who had heard from Robert Isaacson, the historian of Simeon Solomon and Gérôme, that I had researched the Salons de la Rose+Croix extensively, and was wondering whether I could consider the possibility of arranging an exhibition in his freshly renovated Piccadilly Gallery in Cork Street. In September I went to Europe to see if enough works connected with this forgotten episode could be resurrected. A sufficient number turned up, despite great difficulties in locating them, and in time an exhibition of more than a hundred works—paintings and sculpture; not to mention an extensive bibliographic array of period catalogs, invitations, photographs and the like—was presented.

The hanging, which took place in the first weekend of a splendid London May, reminded me of Count Léonce de Larmandie’s descriptions of the three-day hanging of the first Salon de la Rose+Croix of 1892. He wrote in L’entracte ideal (1903) that one ate as one could but added that, “I am mistaken. The true, the only food was an immense enthusiasm, an unshakable faith in the certainty of an apotheosis, the deeply rooted conviction that a new life was opening for art and that we were the predestined workers of this unprecedented regeneration.” These exalted phrases, which grate so on contemporary sensibility, were natural to a disciple of the flamboyant and esoteric Joséphin Peladan, who intoned, his Sâr’s robes trailing, the sacerdotal duties incumbent upon the artist at the opening of the first Salon de la Rose+Croix: “Artist, you are priest . . . Artist you are king . . . Artist, you are magus.” These injunctions, favoring spiritual and moral revitalizations, were a last ditch attempt to reinfuse art with an adventitious Idealism—Peladan’s specious antidote to the objective pictorial and literary values of Impressionism and Naturalism. This Idealism proposed an art filled with hermetic symbols and an imagery and composition imitating those of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes who were, for Peladan, the supreme contemporary masters. Incidentally, neither Moreau nor Puvis exhibited at the Salons in question, but both were extremely sensible in the productions of many artists, some of whom were direct students while others were blatant copyists.

Facilely and indefatigably, Peladan called for the revival of an Italianate art, that is, of linear values, amidst the prevailing painterly predispositions of the day. Among the Rose+Croix artists representing this type were Armand Point and Alphonse Osbert. To this Italianism, Peladan added a mystical and ethical argument. He was, after all, born in Lyon, a city of mystics, and grew up the son and brother of locally celebrated occultists and ultramontane reactionaries. The new art, according to Peladan, was not only to be Italianate, it was to be androgynous—the perfect fusion of two opposing forces, and it was to be Catholic. During his long career as art critic, Peladan attempted to stem the tidal developments emanating from Courbet and Manet—the suppression of half-tones, the rise of Impressionism, attention to themes from contemporary life, devaluation of history painting and the hierarchy—in a vituperative flow which found outlets in art reviews such as L’Artiste, as well as a range of pamphlets and books. Peladan’s art criticism in the 1880s is closely linked to the circle of admirers which had sprung up around Barbey d’Aurevilly, the dandified novelist. The esteem in which Peladan held Barbey was high. He devoted long critical articles to the author, whom he regarded as the “Constable of Letters.” Barbey reciprocated by contributing an epistolary introduction to several of Peladan’s collected art reviews of the 1880s published under the title L’Art ochloratique, that is “mob-art” (from the Greek ochlos), as well as a preface to Peladan’s novel, Le Vice suprême (1884), the first in the series of La Décadence Latine which in time would encapsulate twenty volumes. These introductions launched Peladan brilliantly. In them Barbey recognized Peladan’s perfervid pleading in favor of “aristocracy, Catholicism and originality.”

Stanislas de Guaïta, who would become the ranking Kabbalist of the late 19th century, overwhelmed by the esthetic argument and mock-Byzantine exoticism of Le Vice suprême, was drawn to Peladan. Together the two thaumaturges determined to revive the Rosicrucian mysteries which since the time of Christian Rosenkreuz, a 15th-century visionary (if, in fact, he ever existed), had grown thick with Kabbalistic and Masonic embellishments. They were enthusiastically joined in their effort by several figures of note, including Huysmans, Jules Bois, Count Léonce de Larmandie and the young aristocrat, Count Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, who matched his mystical ardor with his financial support. The revival of the Rose+Croix+Kabbalistique took place in 1888, spurred on by the circle’s fascination with the infamous activities of l’Abbé Boullan, who at this moment of his career had assumed control of the Vintrasian cult in Lyon. Boullan, as the common enemy, strengthened the bonds between Peladan, Guaïta and La Rochefoucauld, although by 1892 the strongly dissimilar characters of these men had diverged into distinct factions. These various quarrels were experienced on two levels, one esthetic, the other theological. Guaïta was reluctant to renounce the Jewish, antique, Masonic and Eastern overgrowths of Rosicrucianism which he felt had emerged from a single and forgotten impulse. Peladan, on the other hand, fixated by his strong Church of Rome bias, saw Rosicrucianism as a symbolic facade disguising Catholic truths. This difference led to the schism which later was referred to by occult enthusiasts as The War of The Two Roses, that is Guaïta’s Kabbalistic Rosicrucianism versus Peladan’s unyielding “Catholic Occult,” or Rose+Croix+Catholique. During this internecine conflict, Peladan elevated himself to the rank of “Sâr” in a parody of Roman Catholic ritual.

Though the core of the argument between the two factions was theological, the surface erupted in other ways determined by Peladan’s Italianate esthetic. In order to announce to the world that there were now, in effect, two Rosicrucian groups, the Sâr organized the Salons de la Rose+Croix, a series of exhibitions sponsored by his followers. The Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite implications of this idealistic stance were from the outset admitted.

Not only did the Salons de la Rose+Croix, exhibit painting and sculpture—that of approximately 230 artists throughout their six year span—but they also presented renditions of Wagner, new compositions by César Franck, neglected music by Palestrina, and the production of pseudo-Babylonian and Sophoclean tragedies (written by Peladan with original Rosicrucian music by Eric Satie). Antoine de La Rochefoucauld (called the Archonte), was placed in a highly tenuous position. As a painter his work indicated precisely the method which Peladan most mistrusted and reviled—the optical mixture of pure broken color. To his Sainte Lucie, for example, he gave the naïve features and patterned order he observed in the work of Charles Filiger and the young Emile Bernard, and which ultimately received its most important realization in the Breton production of Gauguin. During the run of the first Salon at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in 1892, La Rochefoucauld withdrew his support to favor instead the Nabis, Indépendants and divisionist groups. Among the Rosicrucian affiliates of the Archonte were the aforementioned Filiger and Bernard, both significant contributors to the Salons de la Rose+Croix, and Paul Sérusier, one of the important painters and theorists to emerge from the School of Pont-Aven. He was also a practicing Rosicrucian—a signal fact which was not a necessary prerequisite for exhibiting in the Salons de la Rose+Croix. Rule X of the Salons is very clear on this point: “The theocratical nature of the Order of the R-C in no way entails the artists; their individuality remains outside the character of the Order. They are only the Invited, and consequently are in no way in solidarity with the Order from a doctrinal point of view.”

The first Salon is of course the most interesting to contemporary sensibility since artists of the stature of Filiger, Valloton, Khnopff, Hodler, Tooroop and Bourdelle were represented. The remaining exhibitions were spared mediocrity by the continued participation of Osbert and Point, a large group of Belgian Idealists, as well as the students of Gustave Moreau, notably Georges Rouault. The withdrawal of La Rochefoucauld left Peladan in straitened circumstances but the lack of funds was made up for in enthusiasm and celebrity. Because of the wild reception that greeted the first exhibition, a portion of the central dome of the official Salon held at the Palais du Champ de Mars of 1893, was reserved for the Rosicrucians. It included a large section devoted to the drawing and sculpture of the young Bourdelle. But for lack of funds, the subsequent events dwindled, with fewer collaborators, less prestigious hired quarters and a markedly diminished elegance.

A very clear picture of the faltering health of the Salons de la Rose+Croix is afforded by the souvenirs of Count Léonce de Larmandie (known as the Commandeur de Gebural), in L’Entracte ideal, the only history of the exhibitions until Jacques Lethève’s article in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts of December 1960, John Rewald’s coverage of the first manifestation in his monumental history of Post-Impressionism and the present retrospective exhibition. In 1896 Larmandie was related to Peladan through marriage of his niece the widow Countess Le Roy de Barde, to the Sâr. This short-lived union, which excited as much interest as derision, added considerable fascination to the Salon of 1896. Responding with sound business judgment to what was topical and salesworthy, Georges Petit agreed to handle the sixth and final Salon the following season, lending his sumptuous quarters to the numbered days of the manifestation.

The London retrospective is notable for its inclusion of the three known posters of the Salons. The first, by the Swiss artist Carlos Schwabe, is one of the celebrated documents of the movement. Its influence is visible in the Art Nouveau graphics of Alphonse Mucha. The theme of the poster is Initiation. A nude female, sunken into the mire of daily existence, regards two celestial females of a distinctly Burne-Jonesian evanescence who mount the stairs which lead away from life’s pollution. Several other important watercolors by Schwabe such as La Vierge aux Lilas, with its startling floral proliferation is also included. The second poster of 1893 by Aman-Jean represents Beatrice floating within simple Italianate arches. She turns her back to an unseen figure, obviously Dante, and hands him a quaint outsized lyre, a motif cribbed from Puvis’s Sacred Grove of 1885. The third poster for the fifth Salon was a joint effort by Armand Point, easily the most Ruskinian among the Rose+Croix artists, and Léonard Sarluis, a young Dutch religious artist. It depicts a Rosicrucian hero, part Perseus, part Saint George (drawn by Point), who holds in one hand the severed head of Emile Zola (drawn by Sarluis) and who brandishes in the other an avenging sword: Rosicrucian Idealism triumphing over rampant materialism and realism. These three documents from the critical decade of poster-making set the scene for several other curious works of the late 19th century to be seen at this exhibition.

The most important alcove was dominated by Alphonse Osbert’s La Vision. An intriguing figure, Osbert may be regarded as the most representative painter of the Rose+Croix. He sensitively combined the bucolic ordinances of Puvis with the refined color-sense of his intimate friend, Georges Seurat, with whom he had been linked since student days in the studio of the academician Lehman. In a granulated atmosphere of acidic blue, yellow and white tints, Sainte Geneviève, the patroness saint of Paris, illuminated by a glowing halo, her eyes irradiating light, stands transfixed as if by a vision. Despite its sentimental clues from Millet and Bastien-Lepage, the pointillism from Seurat and the balanced composition from his teacher, Puvis, it conveys a considerably sharper artistic experience than is indicated by the black and white photograph.

Another remarkable section of the exhibition focused on the Rosicrucian femme fatale. The most exquisite pictures were those by the anglophilic Fernand Khnopff, one of the great, if still little known, Belgian Symbolists. Khnopff, long associated with Peladan both as an illustrator to his novels and as a collaborator in the Salons de la Rose+Croix, frequently took for his ideal female the lean, long-jawed features of his sister—she appears in various guises in many of his paintings. Partially inspired by the sterile perfection and over-elaboration of Gustave Moreau, Khnopff, better than any other, achieved that static, emotionally depleted art aimed at by a large group among the Rose+Croix.

An even more disconcerting vision is the portrait by Jean Delville of Mrs. Stuart Merrill (the wife of the American poet), who appears like a sphinx above a trinity-inscribed Kabbala. Perhaps the most androgynous solution is Delville’s Orphée. In honoring Gustave Moreau, this work also followed the Sâr’s androgynous dicta, as Orpheus is cast in the features of the artist’s wife.

The Salons did not only die because of the diminution of the talent of its adherents but it also suffocated under the sheer pressure of imitation. At the same moment we discover the emergence of Les Artistes de l’âme and other frankly imitative groups, such as those occurring in Belgium under the aegis of Jean Delville. Confronted by a host of rank imitators, encumbered by the hollow magnificence of his theocratic pose, disappointed in the material expectations of his marriage, beset by driving financial necessities and tempered by middle age, Peladan slowly withdrew from the field. The final image we have of him is that of a scrivener critic, out of gear with the 20th century, still unselfcritical, earning a hard franc for his rich appraisals of Florentine art and mystical androgynism. Falling ill from seafood poisoning, he succumbed in 1918, amidst a European blaze he laid squarely at the feet of the “Boche.” His last writings were marred by racist invective against the Germans, a reversal of his earlier and considerable contributions towards the French awareness of Wagner’s musical and theatrical achievements.

It is my contention that the London retrospective, with its focus on the inception of the movement as well as the art theories which inspired it, was important in several respects. Although one cannot claim that all the work shown was of a singularly high order, it nevertheless shed light on the careers of several distinguished artists. Moreover, Denis, Serusier, Filiger and Vuillard did not grow out of the primitive escapism which animated the genius of Gauguin. Their world view was much more intimately connected with a petty-bourgeois and Catholic insularity which either responded in gape-jaw fascination or outrage before the intellectual and mystical permutations of the Rosicrucians while deeply marking their own performances. The exhibition explored regions of late 19th-century art history which are rarely charted, such as manifestations of later Pre-Raphaelite sensibility in French Symbolist art. It brought into sharper focus the hitherto neglected group of Belgian Idealists, headed by Fernand Khnopff, while it also illuminated the career of one of the most remarkable art critics of the Symbolist movement, whose eccentric postures ultimately were of greater interest than his esthetic propositions. Last, the retrospective exhibition demonstrated that these “esthetic gestures” served a highly therapeutic function. For many young artists, the decade of the nineties brought the problem of abstraction to the forefront, an issue which they still preferred to evade. Only the most radical figures could imagine an art no longer predicated on representational values. Peladan could not. Most progressive artists hid behind the brilliant insight of Albert-Aurier, the ill-starred critic of the Mercure de France, who recognized that art was to be decorative since decoration bridged the gap between representational and abstract components. The Salons de la Rose+Croix provided a scaffolding for the pronounced failure of nerve endemic in the period.

The new generation of the 20th century scorned their immediate antecedents, dismissing their multiple and brilliant symbolist evasions out of hand. A recalcitrant witness to the triumph of Impressionism, Peladan was to be even further distanced-out by the inauguration, not of the reign of an Italianate and seductive ideal, but of a brutal and theoretically uncompromising abstraction to which he had unknowingly played agent provocateur.

Robert Pincus-Witten