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Wednesday, June 29, 2005


A painter of his time?

Special to The Japan Times

When Alfred H. Barr (the founder of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) was sketching out the shape of modern art in the 20th century -- its movements, influences and directions -- he drew a kind of family tree showing how all the different "isms" connected to one another in an evolutionary way.

News photo
"Les Licornes" (1885) by Gustave Moreau

It was an ingenious way of making a story of art with seamless connections between diverse movements. Van Gogh was the first on the list, so he is ultimately the beginning of modern art in Barr's view. The 19th-century French painter Gustave Moreau was working at roughly the same time as van Gogh, but in Barr's diagram, he doesn't feature at all. Van Gogh, it seems, is one of the exemplary modern artists for our time. But where does that leave Moreau?

The last Moreau exhibition in Japan was 10 years ago at Tokyo's National Museum of Western Art. This time, owing to renovations being carried out at the Musee Gustave Moreau in Paris -- allowing several very important paintings like "The Apparition" (1876) to travel -- the symbolist painter's work is now on view at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, and will move to Bunkamura, Tokyo, in early August.

At a time when art movements like Realism and Impressionism were increasingly engaging the present, a competing trend emerged midway through the 19th century that turned away from it, deploring the materialism of the surrounding culture and viewing it as spiritually debased. The artists who took up some of the latent mystical and dreamlike elements of the earlier Romantic movement (like in Caspar David Friedrich's landscapes), were labeled Symbolists, although they were never a group in any strong sense as they tended to be highly individualistic.

Symbolism briefly spread throughout Europe, and Moreau's contemporaries included Odilon Redon, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch, alongside a parallel movement of the Pre-Raphaelites from 1848, whose initial members included John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Moreau's art is often described as "decadent," and in one important sense that meant looking back to the past. In a manuscript note he claimed, "The meaning of modern art is altogether in the spirit of the Middle Ages."

It was not that Moreau was particularly out of touch with the times, rather, he was very much of them. Classical mythology and biblical and literary themes remained a cornerstone of 19th-century Salon art and culture. Works in the exhibition like "Hesiod and the Muses," (1860), "Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra," (1869-76), "The Death of Sappho," (1870), "Saint Sebastien," (1875), "Ulysses and the Sirens," (1875-80), and "Golgotha," (1870-80), represent this focus particularly well. Moreau was much against the visual cliches and habitual representation of classical and historical themes found in the French Salons. He often represented unusual moments in the well-known narratives, and evoked an atmosphere of exoticism that was decorative, sumptuous, literary, psychological, and teeming with motifs taken from medieval and Byzantine times.

A good example is "The Decapitation of St. John the Baptist," 1870. Instead of depicting the delirious dance of the 19th century's favorite femme fatale, Salome, as she rouses the dormant passions of the Tetrarch in exchange for whatever she wishes, Moreau depicts the execution of the saint as a pensive and somewhat remorseful Salome observes from the wings. It is a delightful psychological moment of stillness and horror, tinged with apprehension and sobriety.

Another image from the exhibition, "Jupiter and Semele," 1890-95, indicates Moreau's penchant for complex narrative. Semele (the goddess of fertility and growth) was the granddaughter of Agenor and daughter of Hermione and Cadmus, founder of Thebes. In the myth, Jupiter goes to Semele unseen, seduces and impregnates her, and when she demands that Jupiter reveal himself in his entire splendor, he does so in the form of a thunderbolt that burns her as she lies in the god's arms. Jupiter removes the unborn child from the corpse and sews it into his thigh -- the boy who is born is the god of wine, Bacchus. In the painting, the winged figure that curls into the torso of the burned Semele is in Moreau's words, the "genius of sensual and earthly love, the goat-legged genius."

The highly individualistic treatment of stories and themes that Moreau gave his paintings worked against him while alive and posthumously, sealing him in an artistic vacuum as various avant-garde groupings emerged, blossomed and then gave way to others at the end of the 19th century. As professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, his students included Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Georges Rouault and several others who would go on to be associated with the Fauve group. But as there did not seem to be any direction for his art to evolve in, he had no artistic heirs. He did not identify with the younger Symbolist painters and refused to exhibit at their Salons de la Rose Croix. Indeed he admired none of the emergent Parisian avant-garde in the final years of the century. "Youth does not have genius," decried the older artist.

Moreau was accorded degrees of popularity in the early mid-20th century as a precursor to Surrealism and "lyrical abstraction." In Barr's modern art map, Odilon Redon is given the place that Moreau might also share, although Barr seemed to think Redon's connection to modern art was somewhat tenuous, and dotted in the lineage rather than giving him a thick black line of causal influence.

The Symbolists were a loosely formed group and this has made them difficult to slot into a 20th century evolutionary art map with its demands for lineage and influence. Moreau's painting is both exceptional, and an exception that proves the rule that the private spirituality and mystical evocation drawn from the Middle Ages have little to do with the principal conversations in modern art.

But his work is a fascinating and engaging place in which to see and learn about a dissenting voice at the beginning of modern art. Situated within the context of his reception by his admirers in his own time, Moreau fares best for ours too. After visiting his studio and having seen the late masterpiece, "The Unicorns," 1887-88 (featured in the exhibition), Emile Straus, in the company of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, wrote to the artist and noted: "I saw one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen!" Baron Edmond was heard to repeat: "Gustave Moreau, Gustave Moreau is the greatest painter of modern times."

"Gustave Moreau: Oeuvres des collections du Musee Gustave Moreau" is at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, June 7-July 31 www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp tel: [078] 262-0901 The Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo, Aug. 9-Oct. 23 www.bunkamura.co.jp tel: [03] 5777-8600

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