Gustave Moreau & the Eternal Feminine

Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria 10 December 2010 – 10 April 2011

Reviewed by David R. Marshall

Gustave Moreau, 'The Apparition', 1874. Musée Gustave Moreau.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) has always been hard to place. To his contemporaries he was an establishment painter distracted by eccentricity, and he did not fit the grand modernist narrative that lead from Impressionism to Modernism. He has settled down to being the precursor of Symbolism, the teacher who showed the way to Redon and the Symbolists but never quite made it there himself. But perhaps what emerges most from this exhibition is less his eccentricity or Symbolism than his obsessiveness. Why did he need to make so many studies, in so many various media and styles? He reminds me of his near contemporary Facteur Cheval (1836–1924), the obsessive French postman who single-handedly built a bizarre fantasy palace at Hauterives-Drome. The fact that much of his production is still found in the house museum that he created, the Musée Gustave Moreau, reinforces the similarity: it presents a man more engaged with his private obsessions than with the public world. Therefore the exhibition at the NGV, wholly drawn from the Musée Moreau, probably presents as accurate an account of his art as any, even if (with one exception) it lacks his major public works.

The exhibition concept, catalogue and marketing present him as an artist who creates excitingly dangerous images of women, the fin-de-siècle femme fatale in particular. And yet Moreau as an artist is devoid of any interest in women as physical or psychological beings. Their poses repeat the worst clichés of French academic classicism, and their faces are schematic when not ludicrous. If we look at The Unicorns (Fig. 1), one wonders why this picture has the reputation it has. It is like a bad fashion plate: a collection of cipher-bodied women (like the cipher-bodied-nereids churned out in late antiquity) wearing silly hats, clumsily coloured. Moreau’s women are devoid both of sensuality and thought. Perhaps we have J.-K. Huysmans to blame for this mismatch between what Moreau is thought to be and what he is. Huysman’s À Rebours (Against Nature) contains extensive descriptions of Moreau’s works as perceived by its protagonist, Des Esseintes, that employ terms like ‘sickness’ and ‘delirium’. Novelists don’t need much to cue their fantasies, but a disinterested spectator who does not see this exhibition without being primed by reading Huysmans might be disappointed at what they find there. Moreau is about as unsexy as a painter can be: just compare these works to the eroticism of his contemporary Franz von Lenbach. There was a man who could paint a femme fatale!

The opening essay in the catalogue, by Musée Moreau Director Marie-Cécile Forest, deals with ‘Gustave Moreau and the women he loved’: his mother, with whom he lived until his death, and the shadowy Alexandrine Dureux, whom he never married. As Forest observes, ‘it was the feminine model of his mother that conditioned his encounter with Alexandrine Dureux’. One rather misses the over-the-top Freudian and psychological interpretations these circumstances might once have provoked. Perhaps this is why Moreau’s Salomés, Messalinas, and Helens of Troy lack realism: they are the boyish fantasies of dangerous women of a man who never escaped from mother-dominated bourgeois respectability.

If his women lack physicality, sexiness and soul, what do they have? The answer is that that they are like an acanthus plant: they are a wonderful pretext for ornamental exploration. The best passages in many pictures are to be found in the intricately rendered architecture, which is derived from illustrated magazines on India, the Middle Ages, and the whole gamut of exotic cultures that had become available to the mid-nineteenth century. A second-hand response is not usually a problem with ornament, since ornament develops according to its own internal rules. How often have ornamentalists, unless hectored to do so by Ruskin, gone back to drawing acanthus plants from life? When his women are subordinated to architectural ornament they work best, because they belong to the same order. One of the finest works in the exhibition is an exercise in what could be called proto-Art Deco. This is a drawn study for the dancing Salomé in the Hammer collection exhibited in the Salon of 1876. Unlike most of the painted studies, which can become bogged down in a laboured impasto, in this drawing Moreau develops a linear tracery that is almost purely ornamental. Engaging with the drawing, it comes as a shock to realise that this fluted Romanesque-Deco figurine is dancing on the points of her toes. As an expressive ornamental invention this figure is on a par with the dancers of the Nike parapet reliefs in antiquity, but without their physicality.

His Salomé project inspired Moreau to develop a number of variations on this dancing Salomé idea; this tippy-toed variant, with the (already ornamental) lotus-flower, which was used in the Hammer picture; the standing-on-points-but-with-legs-apart variant of the watercolour version of The Apparition (Fig. 2); and the splayed leg variant of the unfinished painted version of  The Apparition in the exhibition. These play with variations of Botticellian weightlessness and the relationship between figure and draperies, the one no more important than the other. Moreau’s concerns are with ornament, not with narrative or even iconic images of dangerous women. Yet the result could be extraordinarily expressive, as when the Salomé figure is combined with a different kind of ornamental form, the hieratic profile head of John the Baptist set within a glory, in the two versions of The Apparition. The pointing hand of Salomé in the Dance was not motivated by the desire to represent a gesture of command or response; it is an ornamental dance gesture, like those of a Balinese dancer. By the happy accident of being combined in The Apparition as surface pattern with the head of John the Baptist, the motif is transformed into a gesture of terror responding to the manifestation of a curse. In working this way, Moreau sits between Watteau, who rearranged his stock figures in different ways to suggest different narrative possibilities, and the Surrealist collage.

The trouble with Moreau is that he never quite evolved a genre that really worked and could spawn followers. One wonders whether he should not have pursued this ornamental direction rather than the proto-Symbolist one for which he is most admired. And yet when he does this, as in the Jupiter and Semele (Fig. 3) in the Musée Moreau but not in the exhibition (it is too fragile to travel), the results are awful.  His images never have the suggestive power of, say, Odilon Redon, although his Salomé compositions come close. Somewhow they are a bit too obvious. Hence, depending on your point of view, The Apparition can be seen as a powerfully imaginative vision or just plain corny. (Surprisingly, this painting does not figure much in the NGV’s marketing, given its centrality to the exhibition’s theme.) As with much adolescent art, Moreau’s pictures can look a bit painful if you are not of the right age or in the mood.

Contemporaries noticed that the problem with Moreau was that although his ideas were often highly original, he ran into difficulties in trying to carry them through. This is particularly apparent in this exhibition, because most of the big paintings there are unfinished, a consequence of their being the works that remained in Moreau’s possession at his death. Moreau’s art is probably the best argument for classicism that I know of, classicism here meaning an art that, once the shock of the perception of the image has subsided, encourages attention to shift to the absorption of its representational and physical forms. Moreau’s paintings, by contrast, tend to repel further exploration. When they are finished, they can be laboured in the unpleasant way of the nineteenth-century printed images on which he drew so heavily, and cry out for simplification. When they are unfinished, as in the exhibited The Apparition, they send confused signals about what they were intended to look like. In the finished watercolour version of the Apparition,  exhibited in the Salon of 1876, the setting is an over-literal rendering of ornamented surfaces derived from the Alhambra, while in the painted version the setting remains vague, and was gone over in 1897 with a linear tracery derived from medieval sources. The effect is intriguing, but confusing. Will the finished painting be pure surface pattern like this tracery, or will it have the deep space of the Renaissance perspective box? On the other hand, the Fairy with Griffons employs an hypnotically modelled sculptural underpainting which promises something altogether different. It is really only in the Hammer Salomé that these issues are resolved. The smoky suggestiveness of the lighting and the looseness of the handling prevents Moreau from labouring the ornament that so fascinated him. The end result is cinematic in the way the ‘special effects’ are filtered and manipulated to support the message of the figures. But, like cinematic images generally, Moreau’s image remains a transient one, devoid of the timelessness to which we are accustomed in great art, and is made more so in the oil version by its technical indecisiveness.

All of this goes to show that perhaps what this exhibition lacks is a few more  ‘finished’ Moreaus that show where all his fiddling around with studies and reworking was headed. We need to see his finished works because his unfinished works are incomplete: they lack the suggestive nonfinito of Michelangelo or the life study that is more suggestive than a completed work could ever be.

Oddly enough, this applies to the studies themselves, especially the colour studies, or ébauches. This is curious, because the landscape studies from life of French artists in Italy, from Valenciennes to Corot, are famous for their ability to stand alone as works of art. This seems to be because they are responses to a particular site, and so are complete in themselves. (It may be significant here that when Moreau went to Rome his few studies of this type are rather fuzzy  watercolours in the Delacroix manner, quite unlike those of Corot, and far less interesting.)  His ébauches, which, as compositional studies, derive their meaning from the finished paintings to which they lead, do not work very well in their own right. In the Cleopatra, Cleopatra and her attendants are a few blobs of paint, insufficiently resolved to evoke the sense of their humanness which is necessary for the study to be as story-based image. On the other hand, the setting has a Nolde-esque intensity of colour and suggestiveness of impasto that immediately attracts one’s attention. But what is going on? Is that a flight of stairs in the distance, with fiery particles raining down in front of them? Is this vast hall flooded, or is it just an over-polished marble floor? Or are we looking at that kind of painterly abstraction that works like these would inspire? With Moreau you never quite know where you are. His proto-Symbolist suggestiveness seems undirected.

The one ‘finished’ painting in the exhibition is the Jupiter and Europa (Fig. 4) of 1869. This, the painting that ended his run of early success with re-conceived mythological subjects that began with Oedipus and the Sphinx in 1864, and was savaged by the critics. It is the first major piece that you meet, and it shows both Moreau’s originality and his incompetence. In a failed attempt to reinvigorate the Renaissance and Baroque mythology, the bull is given Jupiter’s head on a columnar neck. Ted Gott reads this as a narrative device, representing a transitional moment when Zeus returns to his human form on arriving at the shore. My first impression, however, was that it was Moreau’s attempt to clarify the nature of the story, while at the same time alluding by inversion to one of the outcomes of the union of Jupiter and Europa, the Minotaur, which is normally represented as having a bull’s head on a man’s body. Whether the absurdity of the result is a consequence of the unfamiliarity of the motif or the motif itself is a matter of opinion, but the figure of Europa is even worse, with her lumpy body, wooden face, and hair that is a cross between a 40’s bang and Princess Leia. In art the novelty or otherwise of the iconographic idea matters less than they way it is realized. (Mind you, there is a long tradition of absurd bull-headed bulls in Baroque art, so Moreau is in good company here.) Similarly, the Oedipus and the Sphinx (for which there are several studies exhibited), although a critical success, is also a rethinking of a mythological subject that is more ludicrous than compelling.

The Hammer Salome hangs, a fish out of water, in a nondescript office building in downtown LA, surrounded by cool modernist works. The hang at the NGV is more sympathetic to Moreau, and is both unobtrusive and conventional. The pink and blue-grey walls set off the pieces well enough, but perhaps something more over the top might have been more fun. These are pictures that come from a cluttered and furnished house museum (examples of their usual installations are provided in videos in the exhibition), and need to be seen with the blinds drawn, in D’Annunzian gloom.

Yet this remains a fascinating exhibition. It provides lots of images to chew over and, since most of them are painted or drawn studies of great diversity, provide the attentive and curious visitor with lots of things to discover and many surprises. Feeding one’s curiosity is not, however, an easy task. The shiny catalogue, with its copper-coloured quotations, is of a smaller format that usual and has no catalogue entries; only essays and a handlist. The handlist, tucked away at the back,  is exceptionally irritating as it is only organised by exhibition section. There are no catalogue numbers and no cross-references to the illustrations, so that you can never be sure, except in the obvious cases, which items in the list matches a work in the exhibition or the illustrations (and not everything is reproduced). For a real Moreau catalogue you need to go to the one for the 1999 Chicago exhibition (Gustave Moreau. Between Epic and Dream).

Apart from the essays by Ted Gott, which are well worth reading as they lead you to a deeper understanding of particular works, which is what an exhibition catalogue should do, they are strictly occasional pieces. It seems that true catalogues are becoming a thing of the past; presumably catalogue-souvenirs like this sell better. Useless within the exhibition because there are no catalogue entries to look up, they are bought at the shop as you leave, the unopened volume sitting on one’s bookshelf as a souvenir of an exhibition once visited. This is a pity, since Moreau’s work’s need a lot of explaining. In vain will you search for matters like when and why the ornamental linework was added to some drawings, or learn much about a work like The Sirens (Fig. 5), that is not well known in the Moreau literature, let alone to the public. With its rock arch, a trope derived from actual rock arches in the Bay of Naples but almost invariably based on antique renderings of the motif, as well as the sun setting in the water, it is remarkably similar to Claude Lorrain’s Origin of Coral. It also invites comparisons with Turner’s Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus in the National Gallery, London, and makes you appreciate Turner’s confidence in letting fly with every scenographic device at his disposal. The absence of useful catalogue entries unfortunately discourages musing on such relationships for want of data.

In any case the questions one asks on viewing the exhibition are less about ‘the eternal feminine’ that is the theme of the catalogue than about process. Why did Moreau make all these drawings, sketches, ébauches, and endlessly-tinkered-with paintings? The catalogue won’t tell you this, nor will the extended labels, which are infrequent and for the most part summaries of the story or classical myth represented. Telling the story is, of course, the base level of art historical understanding, as any first-year art history lecturer knows, except that Moreau is no story-teller. His subjects are variations on the general import of the story myth – as with the Apparition, which has no textual source – and do not encourage narrative exploration in the way that contemporary Victorian story-pictures do. There is much more in this exhibition than this. It shows the range and diversity of Moreau’s art and career in a way that much bigger and more ambitious exhibitions rarely do. This makes it exceptional for a single-source exhibition, which by their nature tend to lack focus. Here is the whole career of Moreau in one place: it is just that the variety and complexity of that career needs to be teased out.

NGV Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine – website :  Musee Gustave Moreau – website

© David R. Marshall 2010

[NB Click on the thumbnails to view the full slide show. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the ‘View the latest post at’ link to the MAN website to view the show properly]

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Figure 1. Gustave Moreau, The Unicorns, c. 1885. Musée Gustave Moreau.
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Figure 2. Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, 1874. Musée Gustave Moreau.

Figure 3. Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1895. Oil on canvas, 213 x 118cm.  Musée Gustave Moreau (cat 91).

Figure 4.Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Europa, 1868. Oil on canvas, 175 x 130cm. Musée Gustave Moreau (Cat. 191). © Photo RMN – René-Gabriel Ojéda.

Figure 5. Gustave Moreau, The Sirens, nd. Oil on canvas, 89 x 118cm. Musée Gustave Moreau (inv. 13957). © Photo RMN – René-Gabriel Ojéda.