Under a Spell

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels
Jean Delville: The Death of Orpheus, 1893

There is something somber, spooky, certainly humorless about the salon originally curated by Joséphin Péladan and now recreated in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Though largely forgotten, this salon of Symbolist painting, sculpture, and graphic and decorative arts was enormously popular in the 1890s and an important step toward the modernist abstraction that was to follow, including the work of such figures as Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian (undoubtedly the reason a museum of modern art like the Guggenheim would be interested in organizing such an exhibition). Symbolism was a movement that rejected concrete reality, science, and positivism in favor of ideas that “are developed into works of art,” as Remy de Gourmont once wrote.

To get a sense of the belief in material progress against which Symbolism was rebelling, we could take a look at a novel, The City and the Mountains, by the Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós, written in the 1890s. The dandified Portuguese hero, Jacinto, born and raised in Paris, tells a rustic Portuguese friend that civilization can exist only in the city:

My super-civilized friend could not even comprehend how nineteenth-century man could possibly savor the delight of living far from the stores employing three thousand cashiers, the markets receiving the produce from the gardens and fields of thirty provinces, the banks clinking with universal gold, the factories frantically spewing out smoke and smart new inventions, the libraries bursting with the paperwork of the centuries, the long miles of streets crisscrossed in all directions by telegraph wires and telephone wires, by gas pipes and sewage pipes, the thunderous lines of buses, trams, carriages, velocipedes, rattletraps, and deluxe coach-and-pairs, and the two million members of its seething wave of humanity, panting as they scrabble to earn their daily bread or under the vain illusion of pleasure.

This is the confident, progressive world the Symbolists were rejecting, the soulless treadmill of urban life.

Although it is difficult to define a particular painting style the salon was encouraging, Péladan (who gave himself the Akkadian royal title “Sâr”) identified many things he was against, including the “theogonies” of “the yellow races,” history paintings, seascapes, landscapes, still lifes, all representations of contemporary private or public life—and of course “all humorous things.” The purpose of his Salon de la Rose+Croix was “to ruin realism” and in its place to “create a school of idealist art.” A striking afterthought: “P.S. Following Magical law, no work by a woman will ever be exhibited or executed” in the salon. Of course some women painters did submit work under male or ambiguous names—and quite a few portraits were done of Péladan himself.

The entire project was inspired as a movement against Impressionism, with its scientific color theories; its interest in everyday life, flowers, beach scenes; its practice of working…

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