One should always be drunk,” Baudelaire wrote in Paris Spleen. “With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please. But get drunk.” Today, that contempt for the sober mediocrity of ordinary existence and that commitment to the intoxicating power of dreams can be difficult to grasp. There remain rebellious contemporary artists interested in heated forms of thought, of course, but there is not much left of that beautifully besotted faith in the Imagination, that reverence for tremors of the soul, which once captivated writers and artists in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That partly explains why, in this more skeptical time, opinion is divided about the art of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Are his hallucinatory pictures just embarrassing nonsense, a form of dream-kitsch better suited to an acid-rock album cover than to a museum? Or does Moreau, like Baudelaire, present a convincing challenge to the pedestrian outlook of secular Western culture?
The exhibition that opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will not provide a settled answer, for Moreau is an artist destined to frame questions, not answers – to remain a tricky figure on the margins. That is why he is interesting. Jointly organized by the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Réunion des Musées Nationaux in France to commemorate the centenary of the artist’s death, Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream is the first substantial show on the painter in many years. It includes numerous important works from the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris (to which Moreau left most of his collection) along with some key pictures borrowed from museums in this country. Even the skeptics should take a look, if only to appreciate how very eccentric his work can be: Moreau is far stranger than those artists who made a career of the exotic, such as Gérôme. His art has a distinctive hothouse aroma – like crushed rose petals fermenting in an old vase.
At the time Moreau matured as an artist, the passion for Romantic thought was aging. Delacroix and his followers – to say nothing of Ingres in his odder moments – had already claimed much of the territory. Moreau responded to this dilemma in the way of many distinctive artists who come late to a tradition: He cultivated elaborate, extreme, and often mannered effects. A courageous artist who believed that a materialistic Western culture was suffocating the poetic spirit, he kept to his own path, refusing to follow the artistic fashions of his day. He turned his back upon both the dry, unfelt history paintings that pleased academic taste and the confrontational realism of more avant-garde painters, including the Impressionists. To a man of his temperament, there was already far too much realism in the world. Instead, Moreau hoped to bring new intensity to the inner worlds of myth, dreams, and poetry.
Moreau’s subjects were designed to fire the imagination, and he liked nothing better than a good femme fatale. His first success at the Salon was Oedipus and the Sphinx, which became the talk of Paris for a time. In this bizarre composition, the sphinx, as she poses her riddle to Oedipus, has fastened herself upon his body like a dangerously seductive cat. Her lion’s claws seem to ripple open, gripping him with erotic pleasure, and her eyes are locked implacably onto his. The staring contest between Oedipus and the Sphinx – a kind of frightful soul-sucking – is reminiscent of the great religious stares found in Giotto, only funkier. Moreau also portrayed the bewitching Salome, whose dancing led to the decapitation of John the Baptist, and many other women who fatefully stir the imagination. Although he did not use a woman to challenge his hero in Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, Moreau placed Hercules in a gothic landscape and confronted him with a serpent-monster that makes Eve’s twisted friend look, by comparison, like nothing more than a Garden-variety snake.
Moreau’s way of handling his subjects also celebrates an exotic interior world. His color seems made from powdered jewels. There is a kind of rich clotting in his paint, as with blood. Often, he juxtaposes the most elaborate details – such as densely brocaded gowns – with a misty background wash that suggests the faraway space of reverie. His most successful Salon showpiece is probably Salome Dancing Before Herod, a painting steeped in darkening-blood colors, in which the fantastical effects of light and the sumptuous palace depths symbolize the riches of the imagination. To modern taste, however – which can find such art as tumid as a Christmas pudding – the most appealing works are his remarkably free watercolors and oil sketches. As Moreau grew older, his impatience with reality led him to make increasingly abstract works. He apparently felt little need to sell or complete paintings: A quick flight of the brush or a melting of one color into another – inspirations of the moment – became enough. Some of his late sketches look like the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the fifties.
In Moreau’s art, the conventions of nineteenth-century painting seem slowly to fall apart, like a piece of overripe fruit. A mystic in a secular society, he could not satisfactorily root his art in either religion or the inherited forms of painting and became merely eccentric. He always appeared to be casting about restlessly – overreaching – for what art could not quite express. (Not surprisingly, he appealed to the decadent strain of fin de siècle symbolism.) Yet his sensibility would finally prove to be rich and fertile ground for a powerful new branch of modernism. Moreau was a great teacher who, in contrast to most academics of the day, encouraged his students to pursue their own dreams and, in contrast to most radicals of the time, emphasized the importance of studying the masters in the Louvre. His greatest student was Matisse, who often referred to Moreau as his “master” – not a word the younger painter would use lightly. In the twentieth century, Matisse, a man of the present who revered the past, would find a new form for classical dreaming. You can even see glimpses and anticipations of Matisse in the way Moreau’s later painting opens out and breaks apart. Moreau himself, often knotted up in allegorical complexities, said Matisse would “simplify” painting.