“Dark Romanticism: From Goya to Max Ernst,” a survey first conceived and mounted by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, has been retitled “The Angel of the Odd” by the curators of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it runs until June 9. Ambitious and forceful, the exhibition plunges you in a giddying aesthetic abyss. There are a great many bats in the images on display, and it is perhaps batwise that the whole enterprise is best approached. Winding your way through the cave- system of galleries, with their soot-and-stormcloud decor and their isolated spotlights, you bounce your feelings off the walls and listen for the echoes they return: there’s no clean linear diagram to help you locate yourself. To admit that the logic of the exhibition is hard to articulate is in fact to pay it a compliment. Rather than a rationally organized thesis on the art of the irrational between 1780 and 1950, you get something less paradoxical and more primal, a dark ride powered on instinct. It feels as though the curators’ eyes and feelings have led the way, with their historical justifications coming along after.
What, then, stayed with me, as I emerged blinking from my long—perhaps a little too long—meander through the gloom? I remember, in succession: a dazzling portal, abutting a stone arch stretched over a chasm; plains of lava beneath titanic palaces and a lightning-struck night sky; devils, incubi, and witches, cackling and lunging. Cannibals hacking at human flesh, and a fair young woman stone-cold on her deathbed. Ghost-riders; mutants; fluttering bats and owls. Owls perched by ruinous casements; clouds across a moonlit sea; dim mists, more ruins; more chasms. Femmes fatales, medusas, sphinxes, vampires. More mutants and monsters, trans- or post-human. Psychic emanations, skulls, skulls, skulls. A cloud that crossed the moon and a razor that sliced an eyeball. A mother thrusting a hank of raw meat at her son and hands rising to snatch it away. Birds with bloody savaged breasts, dropped dead from the sky.
I was left ragged at heart and lowered. And in some sense I was glad to be so. I had come to resent those very rare moments in the show at which there had been cues to remember health and sunlight. I don’t know whether I exactly needed it, but I found myself cherishing this sensation that was like running my finger along a keen blade or turning the volume up to max on a screaming guitar solo: except that here, the cumulative effect had been more deeply in-turned. It was more as if my ears had been alerted to the thud of my heart inside my ribcage, the precarious motor on which all else depends. And yet at length, that thudding had begun to turn banal. Desolated had shaded into nullified and then into numb. The exit did not arrive too soon.
Outside the door, the language of art criticism steps forward and gathers up all this emotional sonar within the formula of “the sublime.” Clearly, it says, Felix Krämer in Frankfurt and Côme Fabre in Paris, the curators behind the show, share a well-attuned taste for this favorite theme of eighteenth-century aesthetics, the pleasures prompted by fictive cues for pain and fear. They understand how to orchestrate such sensations, using instruments that range from canvases and lithographs to bronzes, photographs, and film clips. They shift the focus deftly to and fro between baleful landscape vistas and blackhearted melodramas, between demonic icons and arcane pictorial enigmas. The groupings of their hang are done with a sympathy that allows stronger works to pull up the weaker: without this persuasiveness, I don’t suppose, for instance, that I should ever have noticed the quaint charms of a farrago of moonlit monks, painted by Franz Catel in the late 1820s.
The fine scenography of the Paris display overrides the project’s notional guidelines. In principle, the field of inquiry is the visual art of Central and Western Europe from around 1780. But in practice the first painting you see, featuring that dazzling portal and chasm, is Expulsion, Moon and Firelight, dreamt up by Thomas Cole in Catskill in 1828. The power of its placing is inexorable. Cole’s geological variation on chapter 3 of Genesis, dispensing with Adam, Eve, and the sword-bearing angel, leaves us suspended over fathomless depths, outside the gates of a paradise that is no more to be entered. The poetic proposition is that from this point onward, we are fallen and have yet further to fall. It is fitting that the canvases that follow are of Milton’s Satan and the volcanic plains of Hell, as imagined by Henry Fuseli and by the impresario of the nineteenth-century apocalyptic blockbuster, “Mad” John Martin. All the same, this exhibition is not simply a work of epic poetry: its sequence of spectacles is couched in the intellectually accountable language of the cultural historian. What is the narrative to take us from these artists to Max Ernst?
In outline, the curators’ story appears to fall into three separate chapters. The first covers the Romantic era proper. Leaving aside literary developments such as the vogue for the Gothic novel, it identifies Fuseli (or Heinrich Füssli, in his native Zurich) as the pioneer of a radical new visual sensibility when he exhibited The Nightmare in London in 1782—the surging white form of a spectre-ravished female slathered convulsively on black, cut free from all narrative or anatomical coherence.
Fuseli’s phantasmagorias, which influenced William Blake as well as John Martin, seem a long way from the chill, foreboding landscapes that Caspar David Friedrich started showing in 1807, yet both artists, well read in contemporary German thought, dared the viewer to leave behind all stabilizing compositional handrails and to experience the image as a sudden shock to the psyche. In Germany, Friedrich’s discomfiting, no-footholds manner—bare rocks and branches, baffling mists and cloud-swathed moons—would get taken further by his Dresden friend Carl Gustav Carus and in the jagged, vivid oil sketches of Carl Blechen.
West of the Rhine, however, the curators suggest, the catalysts of a new art of aggression and distress were the French Revolutionary terror and the Napoleonic wars. More wall space is given to Goya than to any other single artist, with Los Desastres de la guerra of the 1810s turning his earlier painted visions of missionary-munching Cannibals into black-and-white reportage. Géricault becomes the tragic barometer of the France defeated in 1815. There isn’t room for his full-scale Raft of the Medusa—on view at the Louvre—but there’s a hardly less blackhearted canvas of a Deluge; and then there are essays in histrionic malice—a Medea, a Mephistopheles—by Delacroix, who after Géricault’s untimely death in 1824 seemed to be carrying on where Géricault left off.
By this stage “Romanticism,” the con- cept launched in Germany at the century’s turn, was becoming the conversational rage in Paris, an open-ended invite to the ghoulish and the ruinous and every form of aesthetic deregulation. The show features some of the wildly exciting free-form ink fantasias of its literary luminary Victor Hugo. It also, sensationally, brings in Paul Delaroche—often derided for schmoozing the Salon public with high-definition historical genre—delivering his own form of extremism: a close-up painting of his young wife lying dead on her pillow, copper locks spilt over her jade-cold shoulders: an image as uncompromisingly eerie as any on view, for all that a redemptive halo glistens against the blackness around her head.
The cause of darkness suffered its own eclipse during the mid-nineteenth century. Fact, palpability, and “Realism” had long been in the ascendant in Paris by 1861, when Paul Huet exhibited The Chasm—with its bat-haunted crags and storm-scared horses the very last of the show’s “Romantic” landscapes, a deeply poignant rethinking of the work of Delacroix and Constable. It would not be until 1886, when the critic Jean Moréas identified a new artistic movement called “Symbolism,” that the second chapter of the story got fully underway.
It is true that by then, Gustave Moreau had been sending emphatically nonrealistic antique reveries to the Salon for over two decades, followed not long after by another antipositivist malcontent, Odilon Redon. In the public eye, their defiant position was some form of “Decadence,” probably linked to the scandalous Baudelaire and, through him, to the louche diabolism of the Belgian printmaker Félicien Rops. Moréas’s epithet suggested instead that there was something intellectually honorable about the impulse to simmer these fantastical stews, with the studio curtains shut tight against Impressionist daylight.
The Janus faces of the incoming trend—was it idealistic or insanitary?—blurred the more that Parisian and Belgian Symbolism joined with associates elsewhere, for instance the Swiss Arnold Böcklin or Franz von Stuck and Max Klinger in Munich. From the evidence on show at the Musée d’Orsay, Symbolists looked toward a common distant destination, something “beyond” daylight vision, beyond scientific positivism, and very likely beyond life itself: but the high road to reach it, employed with monotonous predictability, was an image of a cruel, implacable, eternal female. The technical vehicles they employed were legion: from the smear-and-scratch of Gustave Moreau’s oils to the furious slap-and-thump of Edvard Munch’s, from the fine-hatched etching of Max Klinger’s obsessive dreams to the annihilating black ink of Alfred Kubin’s nightmares. We also see photographs and canvases relating to the lugubrious vogue for Spiritualism, and a few pictures, such as those of Léon Spilliaert, which reach for an uncanny that arises out of modern, electric-lit urbanism.
The question is where to cut off this episode and move to chapter 3. Art history has no more to do with fin-de-siècle dreaming once Cubism and Futurism have hit the headlines, by about 1910. But one trail mapped by the curators locates Paul Klee as a legatee of Munich Symbolism—some of his ghostlier riddles help secure the connection—while in other trails, the 1920s Expressionist films of F.W. Murnau—Nosferatu and Faust—carry forward the German Romantic burden, and we are shown the debt that Hollywood’s 1931 Frankenstein owes to a Goya print (the design of the monster’s head, to be precise). You might also read René Magritte as updating Belgian Symbolism when he renders an image of mutilated pigeons (The Murderous Sky, 1927) in that consciously callous brushwork of his: a nastier form of nasty, for a less illusioned age.
The trouble is that in the Musée d’Orsay, Magritte’s fellow Surrealist painters, the supposed dream-mongers of the twentieth century, come across as little more than a distracting section 2b. The airy joyfulness of a 1930 Painting by Joan Miró veers sideways from the rest of the hang, while some minor-key Dalís and unchallenging moments from the chance-your-luck picture-making of Max Ernst do little to strengthen it. Either, you would think, the best Surrealist pictorial ideas had already been spoken for—in those Victor Hugo drawings, for instance, or in the wild innovations of Moreau’s painting technique—or they had migrated to film. The last great moments of the show belong to Luis Buñuel: the famous sliced eyeball from Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the mother-with-the-meat nightmare in his Los Olvidados (1950).