“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).
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 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 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.” ↩
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.” ↩
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.” ↩