New York

Sven Sandström and more

Rousseau, Redon and Fantasy, Thomas Messer baldly forewarns, is “a summer exhibition organized around a broad and admittedly imprecise theme which, while providing a degree of unity, serves primarily as an occasion to gather . . . a group of beautiful paintings.” Insofar as a large body of Rousseau, Redon and Ensor (who got short shrift in the credits) was assembled, not to mention a legion of works of more or less Symbolist, Dada and Surrealist lineage, the Guggenheim exhibition may be regarded as a success. The problem lies not with the pictures, which are indeed very handsome, but with a serious abdication of responsibility. The museum must (as it pretends to do), at least in part, organize selective thematic overviews and then, in turn, it must properly elucidate these selections—otherwise the pictures become no more than handsome spreads in no way different from the exhibitions of solvent commercial galleries.

As with several past shows of this nature, the Guggenheim published a handsome catalog replete with eight color plates in nifty business envelope octavo. Printed in a conservative face on glossy paper—no mean shakes economically even if it is put out in Vienna—the series aims at popular instruction and is broadcast under the title “educational commentaries.” Precisely because the series aims at public education its generalizations must be all the more solid since, for a large body of visitors (of whom there are many, considering the Guggenheim’s place as a New York sightseeing requirement) the guide will remain the single source of reference long after the paintings are shipped back to their respective lenders. How discouraging therefore that Curator Louise Averill Svendsen did little more than reiterate the stalest, the shallowest, and possibly the falsest platitudes about the so-called fantasy tradition of modern art. “Fantasy,” she writes, “the expression of the marvelous(?), the fabulous(?), the irrational(?), has fascinated man from the very beginning. . . . It has no history, as we understand history to be either cause and effect or graduated development. It has no ancestry except as mystics and dreamers claim kinship in their visions of inner reality(?).” The metaphors selected by Dr. Svendsen beggar argument; they are only insightful in terms of our curiosity about their author. The single notion open to examination is Dr. Svendsen’s contention that fantasy art is devoid of history. To my view fantasy does not lie in an historical limbo. It may even be said to possess an iconography—one which is perhaps less exact than those explored by Ripa or Mâle, but which is nonetheless strongly apparent in terms of motival obsessions. In the late 19th century, from which the heroes of the catalog come, these preoccupations included the themes of decapitation, the poet (especially Orpheus), the Grail, Le Grand oeuvre (that is, the cabalistic transmutation of metals), not to mention the polarized conception of the female either as Vampire, Salomé and La Femme damnée or as the virgin bride of man and the nun bride of Christ. There is also the important theme of rumination, meditation and “the secret.” Not only are these desiderata standard for the visual arts, they are equally central to the literature and music of the period. It becomes increasingly clear—as our documentation becomes surer—that the late 19th century fantasist worked at the fabrication of variant forms of fixed themes, and out of this field of set inquiry he created his “visions.”

In this connection Dr. Svendsen’s zephyrous phrases—“in its broadest sense, fantasy is imagery which springs unbidden from the inner creative being of the artist which is beyond our power to comprehend rationally”—only serve to demonstrate what an ill-informed and weak prosecutor of her thesis she is. Her genteel banalities about Redon, for example, cite as the subjects of the lithographs and fusains, “grotesques, ogres, fools, skulls, masks, plants with human faces, eyes floating in the firmament” and ignore that these obvious clues relate not only to the complex and extravagantly admired productions of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes but to the expansion of French awareness of Darwin and to the contemporary strides in physiological biology made by Claude Bernard and his positivist successors as well. Redon himself insisted that “The supernatural is not congenial to me; I love external nature too much.”

It seems that a perusal of Sven Sandström’s Le Monde imaginaire d’Odilon Redon (1955) would have facilitated discerning Redon’s attachment to his own time. This, at Feast, would have expanded the single source of Dr. Svendsen’s four footnotes on Redon —John Rewald’s essay for the Museum of Modern Art catalog, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rudolphe Bresdin (1963). I am startled that a curator could countenance the publication of such a grammar school travesty of scholarship, however popular its intention. That the compositional sources for the Andromeda, one of the few works that Dr. Svendsen touches on in her paragraphs, should make no reference to Ingres’ versions of Roger et Angélique or, at least, to the Vénus Marine of Chasseriau is to leave the viewer ignorant of much of what is essential to the understanding of the work. And that the format of the Andromeda is not seen as a compilation of actual landscape, gothic ogive and oriental carpet is equally casual. Instead Andromeda is placed outside of history (I suppose) with the phrase that she “seems to be dreaming of her rescuer Perseus, untouched by the possibility of any fate other than love.”

I have yet to signal the worst. Having assembled a laudable array of Rousseau, Dr. Svendsen then subjects him to her extra-historical category and the ideological retrenchings this view engenders. Even were it so, that fantasy belonged to some absolute unanalyzable type, certainly Rousseau would be the artist farthest from this injunction. He is perhaps the most factual artist to come down to us from the salad days of the Indépendants. His naïve means were eminently suited to a close enumeration of the facts of empirical nature. Even Dr. Svendsen tells us that there is a desire on his part “to grasp concretely all of the minute details with repetitive realism.” She resolves the contradiction caused by this patent evidence with the guileless evasion that “in his case, the pictorial habits of a self-taught style serve rather to implement his poetic vision. In his world, toy boats in full sail drift down improbable rivers . . . artillerymen stand like rigid tin soldiers, unblinking as if posed before a camera . . .” That they are, in fact, posed like a photograph is of course the point and like a photograph they are intended to be real and not fantastic. As in a photograph, Rousseau provides us with exact documentation, down to uniform cut, weaponry and the number of the division. For Dr. Svendsen to observe that this implacable factuality was an attempt to equal the realism of the academic Salon painters Rousseau admired—Bouguereau and Gérôme particularly—is quite right (although this too subverts her theory). But for her to solve the inconsistencies with the divination that “subconsciously (my italics) he must have realized the limitation of the folk style of which he would always be a part” is merely to confuse poetic license with curatorial responsibility.

Robert Pincus-Witten