PRINT January 1999


Gustave Moreau

GUSTAVE MOREAU, WHO DIED IN 1898, has led many unexpected afterlives. Known as a liberal teacher, he slipped into modernist art history because he apparently nurtured in such students as Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and Albert Marquet a taste for chromatic impasto fantasies that heralded Fauvism. For the Surrealists, however, he would become another kind of ancestor, the creator, in André Breton’s words, of a “somnambulistic world” and an occasional inspiration for Max Ernst’s densest dream forests. And then he took on yet another guise for a generation that had just witnessed the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961-62 with two other visionary artists of last century, Rodolphe Bresdin and his pupil according to the myth, his would-be lover Odilon Redon, Moreau was reinvented through was struck dead by the mere sight of his his late unfinished watercolors and oil sketches. A work like the Temptation of St. Anthony (whose narrative is all but camouflaged by a volcano of smudges) could almost convince viewers that Moreau was a prophet of the new American chaos. It was the kind of x-ray nineteenth-century painting to discern the abstract structure beneath the legible surfaces, making an unfinished Delacroix oil sketch of a wild-animal hunt a foreshadowing of Pollock’s wild-animal hunt a foreshadowing of Pollock’s upheavals of pigment or valuing in Constable or Turner the way they prefigured the colored blurs of Impressionism.

But today, as this large retrospective comes to the United States, we will be confronting a Moreau who belongs more to the nineteenth century than to ours and who, for decades now, has been placed under the umbrella of Symbolism (though he, in fact, dissociated himself from a movement led by a generation much younger than his). After all, how could one define Symbolism’s climactic moment in the 1890s without including Moreau’s swan song, the awesome that, Jupiter and Semele, completed in 1895? This Semele opium dream of a painting makes us gasp at the splendor of Jupiter’s temple and throne, a gorgeous disclosure of such fearful symmetry that, according to the myth, his would-be lover Semele was struck dead by the mere sight of his thunderous majesty. And when we see this phantasmagoric mixture of lush vegetation, serpentine nudes, and gilded ornament worthy of Babylon, Moreau’s art pushes farther back in time to the 1870s and ’80s. The jewel-encrusted tortoise owned by Jean des Esseintes, the decadent hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel A Rebours, would be quite at home in Jupiter’s garden. And Des Esseintes, of course, adored Moreau’s art, owning as well as describing at length a painting and watercolor on the theme of Salome, the ultimate femme fatale, that the artist had exhibited at the Salon of 1876 during the very heyday of Impressionism.

Paradoxically, Moreau’s greatest successes coincided not with the fin de siècle, but with the 1860s and ’70s, when the present-tense urban world of Manet, Degas, Monet, and Renoir presumably would have obscured these morbid dreams inspired by everything from Rembrandt’s biblical browns and Leonardo’s hallucinatory landscapes to mythology’s most grotesque creatures—the flesh-eating horses of Diomedes, the disembodied head of Orpheus on its lyre, the voraciously clawed and winged sphinx, the multiheaded Hydra slain by Hercules. Given this cast of monstrous hybrids, it can come as a shock to see a contemporary earthling—Degas, no less—captured by Moreau in portrait drawings made at a particular time and place, Florence 1858, when both artists were extracting very different lessons from Renaissance painting.

Moreau, born in 1826 is really a product of the midcentury, a disciple, like the short-lived Théodore Chassériau, of both Ingres and Delacroix, whose contradictory styles—finely chiseled archaizing figures versus sensual, shadowy settings—he wedded in the 1860s, when both masters were still alive. Sticking to conventional isms, is Moreau a belated Romantic or a precocious Symbolist? His extremes of lurid sexuality and Christian redemption, his fascination for evocative veils of paint, can look both backward and forward. Like the recent retrospective given to his junior by seven years, Edward Burne-Jones, the full survey of his work is sure to challenge inherited patterns of art history as well as to offer us a full trip through his febrile imagination, which may even have cast shadows on younger artists as different as Christopher LeBrun and Alexis Rockman. At the end of his life, Moreau planned to preserve his home as a museum, a shrine that officially opened in 1902. Just north of the Gare St. Lazare, so often painted by Manet and the Impressionists, it is one of the highest ivory towers of the last century.

“Gustave Moreau” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from February 13 through April 25, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from May 24 through August 2.

Robert Rosenblum