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The Angel of the Bizarre

Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Francisco de Goya: Flight of Witches, 1797–1798

Is that the point after which the “Dark Romantic” gorge opened out into the light-polluted cultural lowlands we currently inhabit? A veteran ex-Surrealist, Annie Le Brun, suggests as much in a mournful “Conclusion” contributed to the Musée d’Orsay’s publicity material. Look the other way over the geography and you see all kinds of side-ravines, passages the curators didn’t explore. For instance, they insert among their Symbolists a major Bonnard canvas from 1899, L’Indolente—an overview of a lamplit bed on which his perennial model Marthe lies lubriciously sprawled. Melancholy, it’s often enough said, overhangs Bonnard’s memories of pleasure: here, the curators are asking you to read that as true “black bile,” a yearning turned obsessive and malign.

This revision might have been underlined by inviting along Bonnard’s Nabi associate Félix Vallotton, whose woodcuts and paintings probe the evil lurking in every belle époque boudoir—as noir an artist as any they could call on. Or they might have retraced the canyon to its source. Romantic and Symbolist artists often refer to prototypes from previous centuries, such as Rubens’s Fall of the Damned or the Medusa of Caravaggio. Allow the show an antechamber and Salvator Rosa, Monsù Desiderio, Alessandro Magnasco, and Giambattista Piranesi would present a persuasive hall of ancestors. It’s not as if night vision were a fresh invention of the late eighteenth century, a pictorial equivalent to the steam engine and the guillotine.

Kramer and Fabre don’t make such a move because their case is that conceptually, at least, “Dark Romanticism” (a phrase coined by the literary historian Mario Praz and now transferred to art) is indeed an aftereffect of the Enlightenment. This proposition could play two ways. One familiar aperçu is that Romantics reacted against the way the theme of reason had dominated European culture from the time of Descartes to that of Voltaire. And indeed, there are plenty of exhibited artists who subscribed quasi-politically to such a reaction—Delacroix, Moreau, and Redon, for instance, would probably have endorsed it.

An alternate interpretation, however, might be that the new cultural directions around the time of the French Revolution came from those who most wished to take the Enlightenment further. Push the theme of reason hard enough and you end up digging at reason’s roots, in the psyche and beneath it in the organism and in existence per se. Fuseli, crude workman though he was, was an intellectual sophisticate probing psychology’s boundaries. Friedrich, like his scientist friend Carus, was not so much an obscurantist when he devised bleak, privative compositions, as a deeply self-aware picture-maker exposing the limits of representation. “What Is Enlightenment?” Kant had asked in a 1790 essay. Not what you hoped, Friedrich’s fogs and rocks reply.

The exhibit that most forcibly brought this home is by an artist probably known only to devotees of German satire. Thomas Theodor Heine shaped the look of the Munich weekly Simplicissimus between 1896 and 1933, when, being a Jew, he fled Germany. His painted work was mostly lost to World War II bombing and his legacy is a wealth of ruthless and surgically sharp cartooning, slicing away at the fantasy lives of the bourgeoisie. And also: a single pair of bronze figurines from around 1906, a Devil and an Angel, the latter of which now appears at the Musée d’Orsay.

This Angel shines out among the mostly banal Symbolist sculpture (including some portentous Rodin marbles) as a precise and disturbing work of genius. He (or it, angels being sexless) cranes heavenward a pious and perfectly witless head: his feathered hands beat the air, archaeopteryx-fashion, their flight engineering pivoted on his sternum’s jutting crest; the deformed feet that dangle from his wasted, twisted torso merely skim the ground, unable to settle. He is the ultimate, etiolated extrapolation of “our higher nature,” just as the out-of-view Devil is a strutting impaction of brute body mass.

Here, evidently, was an art alert to Darwinian morphologies. They resonated around Secession-era Munich: Franz von Stuck’s viciously voluptuous Kiss of the Sphinx (1895) leans on them, Max Klinger’s prints are plagued with pterodactyls, and comparable bodily deformations run through the early drawings of Paul Klee. But also, I suspect, Thomas Heine’s contrasted mutants were oblique variations on the “Eloi” and the “Morlocks,” the diverging evolutionary futures that H.G. Wells, writing The Time Machine in 1895, projected for a Homo sapiens split by class.1 The moneyed aesthete, Wells foretold, will degenerate into a dim-witted and “indescribably frail” physical vestige, while a lumpen, “obscene, nocturnal Thing” will mutate from the nineteenth-century working man. That is what evolution will have to offer our fractious species. It might not be what a liberal imagination might wish for, but what have the dynamics of this heartless, mechanical universe to do with that? For a cool-eyed, wised-up European of the early twentieth century, here was a future based on science. Detestable, maybe—but logically possible.

Insofar as Heine’s figurine puts forward this type of suggestion, it is only, of course, in satirical play. His bronze Angel is one of several points—Cole’s geological extrapolation the Expulsion being another—at which the show comes close to what we’d now call science fiction, with an accent on the “fiction.” At a great many others, the contemporary label of “fantasy” would be apt. These are artistic genres to relish and appreciate, with their good and their bad—indeed, as I just suggested, their inspired and banal. At the same time, both genres are typically—and you might say deliciously—unrespectable. There is high art, people feel, and then over to another side, there is this. Screeching hysterical camp, you might want to call it, if confronted by Julien Duvocelle’s Skull with Protruding Eyes (circa 1904) or by Jean Delville’s Idol of Perversity (1891)—the life absent from her zombie eyes lighting up her vast staring breasts, between which a serpent winds. Farcically pretentious kitsch, I should say, confronted with anything at all painted in fin-de-siècle Brussels by the unspeakable Léon Frédéric. I own up: I was less than frank at the outset, telling you how ragged the show left me. Quite often it had me giggling, and not only from nerves.2

And yet the ridiculous gives way to the sublime, and fear wins the day. What does the dark ride communicate about that root emotion? Fear is subjective, and subjects imply objects. Anything might be such an object, such an “other.” Conceivably, it might be enough that things are other, for them to be feared: a Caspar David Friedrich or a Carl Blechen landscape seems to propose as much. Every branch and clod in their paintings bristles with a dreadfulness that might be the dread of the Lord, God being radically beyond us. Alternately, what their vistas withhold might turn out to be—though the difference feels not clear-cut—the unimaginable beyond of death.

Art often tries to pin down that great unknown: skulls, skulls, all the Symbolists’ skulls. One way, their grins announce that there is precisely “nothing” to fear and that all, for better or worse, is lightness. Another way, the grin imputes to Mr. D. the malice of an adversary. To identify a source of malice is to provide fear with an object that is itself subjective, a person such as I am. I might thereby hold fear down—in the form for instance of von Stuck’s Sphinx sinking her talons in her votary or of some bloodsucking girlfriend of Munch’s.

The more, however, that I consider the threats those she-demons pose, the more I recognize that I am vulnerable to them by reason of my own subjective desires. And by that route I back into the central fear around which Dark Romanticism revolves, which is neither that of death nor evil nor the supernatural (nor even, though the thought is tempting, of female emancipation), but rather that of madness—the fear that the subject is incoherent, that “I” is ungovernably “other.”

The art historian Johannes Grave writes particularly well about such fears in the catalog. Noting how Enlightenment reason was inherently inclined to tug away at its own underpinnings, he suggests that visual artists became active participants in that ongoing critique by questioning the viewer’s position as a subject. They started to summon up “fear for the intactness of one’s own gaze, and awareness of the fathomless power of images”: and as a sample of that fathomlessness, Grave points to the Caprichos of Goya with their celebrated frontispiece, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” More than illustrate the statement, Goya’s aquatint process physicalizes it: “The uncontrollable oscillation of the diffuse grainy background is revealed to be the true origin of the nocturnal creatures.” Grave’s pointing to a pre-mental, pre-material ground for image-creation feeds into the overview offered by Côme Fabre’s wall texts, which describe a “deceptively clear distinction between enlightenment and obscurantism” making way in post-Napoleonic times for “a new, grey, frightening and uncertain world in which no sharp lines could be drawn between good and evil.”

How is it that Goya presides over this chaos, at once the wildest and the sanest artist in the show? Even though they dangle mid-air, the bodies of the three warlocks in his Flight of Witches and of the writhing victim that they seem about to eat are inhabited with an empathy beside which other artists’ figures fade away like reflections in puddles. It is the superstitious fool beneath them, stumbling forward in darkness, who dreams up these phantasms, and yet they become more solid than he. The naked feasters on human flesh in two other small Goya canvases share the same quasi-bestial intentness. As he makes pictures, Goya plunges his hands into the animality of humans like a sure-handed butcher gutting a carcass. How gross and yielding this stuff is, so easy to squeeze and deform: how strange and yet how close, closer than our own skin. Yes, he acknowledges, I too might be that fool: so what? Goya’s rude courage as he wades his way through the mental offal, kicking it hilariously this way and that, is hideously sustaining.

  1. 1

    The novella’s first German translation appeared in 1902, four years before the approximate date of Heine’s figurines: to quote from a German book catalog, “1902 Die Zeitmaschine von H.G. Wells. Originalausgabe erschienen 1895 unter dem Titel The Time Machine, deutsche Ausgabe erstmals 1902. Ubersetzung ins Deutsche von Annie Reney.” 

  2. 2

    The Musée d’Orsay’s title straddles this emotional ambivalence. Posters in French for L’Ange du bizarre propose an experience that will be eerie and alarming. But the story whose name they translate is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Angel of the Odd,” and in that particular brief and bumpy excursion into a supernatural picaresque, “odd” really does turn out to mean “ridiculous.” 

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