Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through April 25

By Bertha Husband

We don’t usually expect great surprises from exhibitions of 19th-century painters well-known in their day; what we expect are the originals of works familiar to us through mass reproduction. But Gustave Moreau is different. Before he died, 101 years ago, Moreau was fully aware that modern art was set on a course that would exclude him. He’d already suffered from what he called “this unjust and absurd opinion that I am too literary for a painter.” Yet he remained dedicated to his inner vision.

The usual practice at the death of an artist was to auction off the contents of the artist’s studio–possibly hundreds of works–which would then be removed from their context, changing hands from one private collector to another and perhaps finally arriving at a museum, an object of market speculation. A few years before his death, foreseeing this problem, Moreau began to organize his studio and apartments into a museum that would keep together all the finished works he still owned plus numerous unfinished works and thousands of sketches, notes, studies, maquettes, and variant versions. He spent his last years working on this project and starting several large-scale works that he never completed.

Moreau bequeathed his house and its contents to the French state, saying that he wanted this collection “forever to bear witness to the sum total of labor and effort of an artist during his life.” But looking at this work today and thinking of the philosophy behind it–an aesthetic that was to become even more unfashionable as the 20th century progressed–I can’t help feeling that Moreau’s museum was intended to be not only educational but a hedge against the market, a bet on future vindication and understanding. It’s as if Moreau set the alarm for a hundred years in the future, and now, when perhaps the illusion of progress is becoming deflated, we come to the perfect moment in which to open his time capsule: this exhibition of 180 works, many from the Musee Gustave Moreau in Paris, most of which have never been shown or reproduced.

What was it about Moreau’s work, based in history and myth, that pushed it to the margins even in his own lifetime? The failed revolution of 1848 can now be seen to have caused a rupture in art, as the dominant form of classical history painting became increasingly irrelevant. Avant-garde painters addressed modern life instead, in the manner of realists like Courbet or impressionists like Monet. For such painters, the landscape in which they grew up was often a significant influence. For Courbet, it was the Jura mountains; for Monet, the cliffs at Le Havre. But Moreau said, “I believe in neither what I touch nor what I see. Only my inner feeling seems eternal to me”; the “countryside” that influenced his art was an inner landscape based on intense readings of the classics. It was not simply that he’d read the Greek myths–he was immersed in the ancient world’s philosophy and poetry and their origins in the East and North Africa. And for him, as for all initiates in the ancient mysteries, the central image was that of the inspired poet.

It is therefore a perfect curatorial decision to open this exhibition with an anteroom containing only one major painting, Hesiod and the Muses. In Moreau’s painting, the eighth-century BC poet-shepherd stands naked in front of a thicket of tall trees surrounded by the nine Muses and the sacred swans of Apollo. Behind him is Pegasus, the winged horse, symbol of poetic inspiration.

This introductory painting tells us something about Moreau’s work habits: he frequently returned to old paintings, reworking them, yet often felt they weren’t done. Cataloged as unfinished, this painting was apparently begun in 1860 and worked on until 1868, then taken up again after 1883. Hesiod and the Muses also indicates Moreau’s overriding concern with the poet and poetic inspiration, particularly the moment of revelation, involving a flash of illumination, when gods, heroes, and poets come face to face with their destiny. Moreau described this moment of revelation as le reve fixe (“the fixed dream”), and Douglas W. Druick writes of Moreau in his catalog essay, “He consciously wanted to provoke a kind of awakening from ‘the sleepwalking of life’ to a contemplation of higher, more spiritual realities through the creation of visual situations that are more evocative than descriptive.”

This introductory painting also gives us a clue to modernity’s dismissal of Moreau’s work. Halfway through this century critic Clement Greenberg, champion of abstract expressionism, dismissed Moreau as academic and illustrative and charged him with bringing painting to an “all-time low.” Greenberg went on to refer to Moreau’s work as “a realistic illusion in the service of sentimental and declamatory literature.” But the fact is, we materialist and prosaic moderns can no longer grasp the meaning of inspiration, because it’s a concept that belongs to the intellect and not to the senses. We have become suspicious of anything we cannot see or touch and have therefore lost the ability to distinguish between inspired poetry and good but mechanical versification.

The word “inspiration” as Moreau understood it had not changed its meaning since Homer: it signified the working of an inner spiritual force. This is what Dante meant when he personified Love as the being who inspired him; the poet then simply set “the matter forth even as He dictates within me.” To experience this exhibition as revelation rather than merely appreciate Moreau’s technical skill, it is necessary to grasp this meaning of “inspiration,” and to do that, all logical positivism and 20th-century prejudices against visual art about literature have to be checked at the door.

The first gallery is devoted to Moreau’s apprenticeship in the 1850s, particularly a selection from the hundreds of copies he made of Italian primitives and the Renaissance masters during his travels in Italy from 1857 to 1859. But it was in the second gallery, standing before Oedipus and the Sphinx, that the meaning of the “fixed dream” took my breath away. This painting evokes the immediacy of truth, the moment of confrontation. As Oedipus–young, beautiful, and naked–steps lightly down the mountain road between Thebes and Delphi, the winged Sphinx, half cat, half woman, leaps onto his chest, pressing his back against the rock, her claws gripping his flesh. Filling the canvas, their faces inches apart, Oedipus and the Sphinx stare each other down. The riddle is presented; the riddle is answered in a fixed moment of silent communication.

According to 19th-century anthropologist Johann Bachofen, the Sphinx belongs to a world governed by the earth goddess, Tellus, and “represents the feminine right of the earth in its dark aspect, as the inexorable law of death.” According to myth, the Sphinx killed all those who couldn’t solve her riddle, “What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four and is weakest when it has most?” And at the bottom of Moreau’s painting we see the clutching hand and extended foot of one of the Sphinx’s previous victims. But Oedipus solves the riddle, answering “man,” whom the Sphinx considers in only one transient aspect: mortality.

Moreau’s central concern is not illustrating this story but revealing the myth’s allegorical essence, the confrontation between the dualities of good and evil, spiritual and material, male and female. This painting is not psychological, illustrating the individual emotions of the two protagonists, but philosophical, revealing the eternal yet invisible truth of these dualities’ interactions. It doesn’t tell the story but conveys the unchanging mystery at its center.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is the center of one of two “dossier” rooms; that is, it’s surrounded by the artist’s preparatory sketches and studies in pen and ink, chalk, and watercolor. Another brilliant curatorial decision, it gives us a glimpse into the experience of the Moreau museum in Paris and carries out Moreau’s intention not to exhibit the work in isolation but in the context of the developing thought behind it.

The other dossier room is devoted to Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, a finished work owned by the Art Institute. It’s exhibited with some of the hundreds of studies and alternate versions (all from the Paris museum) Moreau produced during the seven years (1869-1876) that he worked on it. The painting’s subject is the second of Hercules’ 12 labors, the destruction of the monster at Lerna. In the myth, a many-headed snake terrorized the fertile, holy area at the source of the River Amymone and haunted the unfathomable Lernaean swamp. The number of heads on the Hydra varies in different written accounts; the written word may lend itself to exaggeration, but the plastic arts tend to greater economy. In Moreau’s painting the Hydra has seven heads, the main, immortal head and six auxiliary ones. This number is no doubt a reference to the seven outlets of the River Amymone.

Moreau does not depict the battle between the two, which ended with Hercules cutting off the immortal head and burying it. As in Oedipus and the Sphinx, the artist is concerned with the frozen moment when the dualities face each other, before the battle begins: his true subject is the confrontation between the philosophies of Apollo and Dionysus. Moreau’s Hercules represents the Apollonian metaphysical ideal of universal harmony while the Hydra represents the Dionysian mystical ideal of death and resurrection.

As early as 1870 Moreau had acquired a reputation as a recluse: apparently he never traveled outside of Europe, and in fact, apart from his two-year trip to Italy, he hardly left Paris. But although he never traveled to the East, the East came to him. He was familiar with the collection of Mogul miniatures in the Louvre, he saw two major exhibitions of Asian and Middle Eastern art that came to Paris (one in 1869 and the other, 1873-’74), and friends who traveled in the East brought him images and costumes. These formed a research base for a series of works on the theme of Salome, which he began in 1874, and for The Triumph of Alexander the Great, which he began the same year and worked on sporadically until 1890.

The settings for the confrontations in Oedipus and the Sphinx and Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra are rocky landscapes modeled on those in Leonardo da Vinci’s works. But in Salome (Salome Dancing Before Herod) and The Triumph of Alexander the Great, Moreau’s moments of inspiration occur against the backdrop of architecture containing layers of hieratic ornament.

Salome, the sorceress, dances as if in a trance; she seems to represent the triumph of the spiritual over the limitations of the physical, for otherwise how could she move forward on the tip of one big toe, as she appears to do in this painting? King Herod sits in his throne at the center; Herodias, barely visible, observes from the left; and the executioner at right prefigures the beheading of John the Baptist.

The Triumph of Alexander the Great is almost abstract; it resembles no other painting I know in its mixtures and overlays of techniques and images. It seems to be set in a city in India, traced onto a landscape that recalls the perspective systems of Chinese painting. Ornament and architecture are linear, as if drawn in ink in areas of oil color, giving the impression of a ghost city; the setting dwarfs the figures of Alexander and the defeated Porus and the countless numbers of their entourages. Moreau has chosen not to depict the moment before the battle of the Hydaspes but the moment after: Alexander’s victory, just before he magnanimously declares the wounded Porus the ruler (on Alexander’s behalf) of the territories he’s captured.

In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, Moreau was a learned man, a scholar–or an initiate. Genevieve Lacambre–director of the Moreau museum and one of the curators of this exhibition–describes Moreau in her introduction to the catalog as a “magician, master sorcerer, and poet to those who adulated him during his lifetime.” From this and the evidence of the paintings, he seems an initiate into the Orphic mysteries. Orpheus predates all other known poets and most of our myths and religions; Fabre D’Olivet, in The Golden Verses of Pythagoras, places the epoch of Orpheus in the 16th century BC. Though his poetry and the details of his life are lost to us, it’s believed that he brought his theology to Greece from Egypt and that he reconciled the opposing camps of Apollo and Dionysus. Moreau’s contemporary Nietzsche wrote that “the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality–just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.” Orpheus represents the strife and reconciliation between the contemplative dream of the poet and the intoxication of the musician.

In Orpheus (1865) Moreau depicts the moment just after the Maenads have torn the poet limb from limb in an intoxicated fury. His head has been placed on his lyre; later it would float down the river and become an oracle. In Moreau’s painting, a Thracian woman holds Orpheus’ head and lyre in her arms, perhaps indicating remorse after a moment of particularly intense strife. Most interpreters have argued that the woman has just discovered the head in the river, but it seems more likely this is one of the Thracian women swept away by the rites of Dionysus–someone who participated in the killing. In that case this would be another of Moreau’s moments of revelation, when one of the Maenads recognizes the result of her actions.

A beautiful watercolor from 1890, Dead Poet Borne by a Centaur, may return to the same theme. The centaur often symbolizes Dionysian violence and intoxication, and here he bears the dead poet in his arms. Some have interpreted this image not as the union of warring opposites, however, but as a pessimistic reflection on the artist’s lot in modern times. As turn-of-the-century writer Ary Renan said about this work: “How many have perished without funerals at the bottom of solitary streams? To be sure, sometimes a charitable centaur gathers up the victim.”

In our century we’ve turned our backs on the ancient world. We no longer read the classics because we no longer believe they have any relevance for us. Painting has been reduced to the self-expression of isolated individuals. And the lone individual can represent his emotions, his feelings, or his psychology only in a vacuum–a self-absorbed and mawkish occupation.

Even in 20th-century terms, however, it seems critic Greenberg missed the point when he called Moreau’s work illustrative. Moreau once wrote, “One thing is uppermost for me: an impulse of the strongest kind towards abstraction.” Devotees of abstraction like Greenberg, who would eschew all perspective, illusions of space, and references to recognizable images, will find many small oils and watercolors in this exhibition that could be read as abstractions. But to discuss Moreau’s work in the simultaneously limiting and mystifying language of modern sensory aesthetics and its reductions to color, shape, and line would be wrongheaded. Moreau tried to give ancient truths a contemporary meaning, believing that art springs from the intellect and communicates to the intellect and not merely to the senses.

Surrealist Andre Breton has been almost alone in this century in his appreciation of Moreau’s significance; now, with this exhibition, we can understand what Breton meant when he wrote, “My way of loving was eternally conditioned by my discovery of the Gustave Moreau Museum when I was seventeen. It was there that beauty and love revealed themselves to me in certain faces, certain feminine poses….There, as nowhere else, the myths were fanned once more into flame.” Breton recognized in Moreau’s androgynous figures a basic tenet of surrealism: the unity of oppositions expressed in the overcoming of the duality of male and female. Through Moreau’s imagination and skill we, like Breton, are reminded that myths are allegories that are reenacted even today.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Dead Poet Borne by a Centaur”.