Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door upon Myself, 1891, oil on canvas, 28 5/8 × 55 1/2".

Robert Pincus-Witten on the Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door upon Myself, 1891, oil on canvas, 28 5/8 × 55 1/2".

MY DOCTORAL DISSERTATION, submitted to the University of Chicago in 1968, was published in 1976 as Occult Symbolism in France: Joséphin Péladan and the Salons de la Rose-Croix. Back then, these salons were all but absent from the accepted narrative of modernist development; half a century later, I am stunned to discover them as the focus of a handsomely grave exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum organized by the museum’s senior curator, Vivien Greene, who gratifyingly acknowledges my early work. This weird experience sent me back to the memory of copying somniferous citations by hand from obscure publications onto 5 x 7" index cards. Today, I googled Joséphin Péladan—the salons’ leader—and some sixty thousand references appeared. Back then, Symbolism was largely understood to be a literary movement. In the arts it meant Paul Gauguin, a member or two of the Pont-Aven School, and a smidge of Odilon Redon—a stunted view shaped by the powerful influence of John Rewald’s History of Impressionism (1949) and his Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956).  

Now we recognize that Gauguin was all but unknown at century’s end, while the myriad figures of Rose+Croix of the Temple and the Grail were all the rage. These salons, presided over by the thaumaturge Péladan in his magnificence as “Sâr,” keyed into the period passion for the esoteric—a moment when artists (and the public, too) were drawn to a classical myth anticipatory of Freud, to a syncretic Catholicism that allowed for certain “Asianisms” to drift in, and to a new quattrocentism hyperbolized in the androgynous angels depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s two variants of Virgin of the Rocks. All were lured by Péladan’s trumpet call for a new art of the ideal, tradition, and hierarchy and to his thumping for aristocracy, Catholicism, and originality.

Péladan endorsed this rich miscellany in his suggestive novels Le vice suprême (1886), La gynandre (1891), and De l’androgyne (1891). He was formed in the suffocating atmosphere of mid-nineteenth-century provincial Catholicism. (His elder brother’s appetite for Kabbalistic Hebrew, Babylonian-Assyrian mythology, and sinology fortified a family strain of prickly quirkiness.) Just as Pius IX had promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870, so would Péladan absorb the doctrine into his role of Sâr, when he, too, declared his views on art ex cathedra. At the Guggenheim, the impresario’s striking presence was visible in portraits by Marcellin Desboutin, Alexandre Séon, and Jean Delville. As would be expected, the period japes directed at this easily caricatured Hierophant of the Beyond beggar count. 

It is now possible to admit that some of the hundreds of works shown in the six Salons de la Rose+Croix are quite exceptional. On display is laudable work by the lesser Pont-Aven figure Charles Filiger; a markedly significant painting by Fernand Khnopff (perhaps the last of the major underknowns of nineteenth-century painting); and work by the Swiss Carlos Schwabe, whose poster for the first salon (which shows three women sloughing off materialist realism as they ascend from base impurity to ideal insight, their garments changing color from dark to light) captivated the public imagination. A showstopper by the Belgian Delville depicts the beautiful head of Orpheus (a favored theme) nestling in blond tresses as it floats out to Lesbos upon the musician’s lyre following his decapitation by the Thracian maenads. Delville in time would become an important figure for Pour l’Art and the Vingtistes, progressive Belgian groups that helped shape secessionist taste. 

The quattrocentizing figures of the group included Séon, Armand Point, and the more sentimental Alphonse Osbert, whose Vision, 1892, (portraying Saint Joan) has long been a favorite at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. These artists took serious inspiration from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose vast public murals spurred the move away from academicism toward modernist flatness and linearity. 

In his mystical ambitions, Péladan was also part of the larger world of now forgotten, Parsifal-like Knights of the Holy Grail, joining such adepts as Stanislas de Guaita, Papus, Léonce de Larmandie, and Édouard Schuré, not to mention more famous theosophists such as Madame H. P. Blavatsky. Their ideas infused early abstraction with arcane potential: This move was partly compensatory, since at the beginning of the twentieth century no one yet believed that abstraction alone could induce empathy, a sense of aesthetic transcendence—not even geniuses like Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky. As a consequence, the pioneer abstractionists of the early twentieth century may now be seen as partial beneficiaries of the Rose+Croix zeitgeist. 

Robert Pincus-Witten