MYSTICAL SYMBOLISM: THE SALON DE LA ROSE+CROIX IN PARIS, 18921897by Ann McCoy
GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM | JUNE 30–OCTOBER 4, 2017
Joséphin Péladan’s (1858-1918) portrait by Jean Delville (1895) as “Sâr Mérodack,” white robed and posed like a Byzantine Christ Pantocrator “ruler of all” with an arm raised in benediction, greets the exhibition’s viewer. Nearby hangs another portrait of Péladan as a dandy by Marcellin Desboutin (1891), and a third of the “Sâr” as seer in priestly purple by Alexandre Séon (1891). We see Péladan in his multiple roles: Catholic zealot, iconic impresario, scholarly prophet, and Beau Brummel.
This was Péladan’s movement, he wrote the manifesto and curated six yearly exhibitions called the Salon of the Rose+Croix (1892–1897). To dismiss this complex visionary and gender-bender as a reactionary, eccentric relic does not do him justice. The most sympathetic, complex, and nuanced portrait of Péladan can be found in Robert Pincus-Witten’s doctoral dissertation (1976), which as a body of scholarship on Péladan and the Rose+Croix has yet to be surpassed. The “Sâr Mérodack” (“Sâr” means leader” in ancient Assyrian and “Mérodack” is the name of a Babylonian king)—was a scholar of the occult, widely-published art critic, and author of over twenty books. Joséphin Péladan was an originator of multi-media happenings, art manifestos, and inspiration for later leaders of art movements. We are left to wonder if André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” (Breton read Péladan) or Hugo Ball in his cardboard priest’s outfit, or Joseph Beuys with his shaman’s hat and staff, owed the Sâr a debt of sorts. He was the first to combine art exhibitions, critical writing, music, and drama in lively public events. The first R+C Salon of 1892 had 22,000 visitors and featured a stunning selection of art, a performance of the overture to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, and the premiere of Eric Satie’s incidental music for Péladan’s Le Fils des étoiles!
Is it Péladan’s Rosicrucian and mystical Catholic beliefs that have caused critics like the New York Times’s Jason Farago to use dismissive terms like “garbage spiritualism” and “mystical mumbo-jumbo”? An excellent essay from the exhibition catalog by Kenneth E. Silver, “Afterlife, The Important and Sometimes Embarrassing Links Between Occultism and the Development of Abstract Art, ca. 1909-13,” takes its title from the 1979 Rosalind Krauss quote “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Krauss and her tired brand of atheistic dogma has always presented a far too rigid view of psyche and art production. Theodor Adorno’s 1947 “Theses Against Occultism” showed Adorno’s knowledge of actual occultism to be limited, and he tended to lump both ancient and modern occult movements together and link them to German National Socialism and “irrationalism.” This was a vast oversimplification because many occultists also ended up in concentration camps. Adorno’s argument reached an absurd end in “Stars Down to Earth” (1953), where he feared readers might receive fascist directives by reading the astrology column in the Los Angeles Times. The domination of much academic art criticism by Marxists and the Frankfurt School is giving way. Beginning with The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), international exhibitions like Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale are starting to acknowledge the influence of thinkers like Rudolph Steiner, Madame Blavatsky, and Carl Jung. Their contribution to art making is long proven and important, whether it is the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint, or a Joseph Beuys. If only we had a Madame Blavatsky, an encyclopedist of comparative religion, who once worked as a bareback rider, to gallop across today’s art world.
Even in Péladan’s time two schools of thought existed, artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres thought, “To create a work of art one must have a certain elevation of soul and faith in God,”1 while Gustave Courbet discouraged young painters from using mystical, religious, and Christian subject matter, advocating that painting should represent what the artists can observe, not the invisible and nonexistent. Hippolyte Taine (1828–93), the main historian of French naturalism, represents Positivism taken to an extreme. Standing in front of Leonardo’s Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, he declares it has no other purpose than “to represent vigorous Italians around a table.”
To fully understand the complexity of Péladan’s thought requires an examination of Rosicrucian thought, as well as the scholarship of both Péladan and his father. Francis Yates’s brilliant book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972), explores the Rosicrucian Manifestos and how the combination of “Magia, Cabala, and Alchymia” influenced a new Protestant enlightenment. Rosicrucianism owes much to the German Protestant Michael Maier (1568–1622), a German physician and counsellor to Rudolf II of the House of Hapsburg, and the Hermetic allegory, The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616). The Rosicrucian golden age is associated with the Protestant rulers of the Palatine, Princess Elizabeth (daughter of James I), and Frederick V, known as the “Winter King and Queen of Bohemia.” English alchemists like John Dee (1527–1608) were associated with this court where Shakespeare also performed plays. For these reasons, to dismiss the profound cultural influence of Rosicrucian thought is poor scholarship.
Rosicrucianism in France had different manifestations. Beginning with mysterious Rosicrucian manifestos tacked up around Paris and Lyon as early as 1623, the movement was regarded with suspicion. When the Jesuit-educated René Descartes went searching for the brotherhood during a trip to Germany, he was severely castigated by the church authorities upon his return to Paris. French Rosicrucians made more outrageous claims than their German counterparts—they could be all-knowing and telepathic—talents Péladan claimed to have.
It is surprising that Jesuit-educated Péladan and his father Adrien, an avowed Papist—who published a collection of one hundred poets dedicated to Pope Pius IX—would embrace heretical Rosicrucianism and initially Kabbalah along with Catholic supremacy, although Péladan later broke with the Rose+Croix Kabbalistique. Péladan also embraced other opposites; the salon featured painterly themes of pagan mythology and the music of Protestant German Richard Wagner. The Sâr’s obsession with the androgyne probably referenced the alchemical coincidentia oppositorum, along with his personal complexities.
The goal of the Sâr’s Rose+Croix movement was to restore the cult of the ideal. Péladan rejected contemporary movements and subjects such as Impressionism, representation of animals and flowers, rustic genre, and historical painting. Péladan preached that bourgeois materialism had essentially ruined all artistic forms since the Renaissance, mocking Rubens, Jordaens, and Van Dyke as the “vermilion of the School of Antwerp.” In his review of Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac, he referred to the artist as “the sculptor of primates, the plastician of Borneo.” As we are flooded with the market-driven work of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, Péladan’s invective rants against materialism and the bourgeoisie make amusing reading; if only we could believe “the promise of a sky fully opens the wings of the soul, and the artists, who are saints, infuse their God-laden heart into works that are clumsily sublime.”2
Péladan represents an extreme where all great art is Catholic, and all great masterpieces are based on religion, even among non-believers. Like John Ruskin, whom the Sâr called “the Saint Augustine of Art,” his sincerity resonates—the Sâr is a Don Quixote on a quest to unite art and God. Following a bloody revolution, he was a monarchist and Papist in reaction to an age of soul-killing industrialization, and Eiffel Tower steel.
Even his detractors bowed: “One can be utterly indifferent to the Sâr the sweet inoffensive Sâr, for all his manias, his costumes, and his ridiculousness, but after the smiles one nevertheless owes him a debt of gratitude for having put before the public the chance of judging so much valuable and tangible art.”3 The Sâr advocated for the beautiful against the ugly, the dream against the real, and the past against the grimy present. After the rotting baloney of Pope.L at the Whitney Biennial, it would be nice to see a space created for beauty, spirit, and the dream in all its manifestations in the art world.
The exhibition’s curator, Vivien Greene, has culled works from the hundreds shown during the salons, some not seen in decades. Greene’s excellent curatorial eye is apparent, and her catalog writing is first-rate. The beautifully hung exhibition contains some great works, like The Disappointed Souls (1892), Ferdinand Hodler’s moving psychological portrait of hopelessness. Five men in black robes sit on a bench arranged in poses that can feel choreographed, heads hung in despair. Hodler came from poverty and was orphaned at twelve; few artists can paint tragedy as well as Hodler. Although a Swiss Protestant, he shared Péladan’s despair over a 19th-century notion of progress consumed by scientific materialism. His portraits of simple people are rendered in a personal symbolist style he called “parallelism.” It is as if The Disappointed Souls are prophetic, and see the darkness that will envelop Europe in the coming first World War.
One of the most powerful aspects of this exhibition is its portrayal of piety—something we rarely see portrayed in art today. Vision (1892) by Alphonse Osbert, another salon favorite, occupies the end wall of a chapel-like alcove. A shepherdess in pale dress poses like a saint, nuzzled by the “lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.” Like an archaic Kore, she radiates calm, and we feel a heavenly order is in place. A second work, Young Saint (1891) by Henri Martin portrays an “exquisite peasant,” a young girl with halo and veil, bathed in heavenly light standing in a field of wheat. Antoine Bourdelle’s engraving Dream of a Shepherdess (Rêve de bergère) (1888–90) combines the theme of piety and dream with a sleeping figure. Chaste and pious young ladies are something rarely encountered in this age of Miley Cyrus. They are anima figures, soul guides like Dante’s Beatrice, who will walk us through an Elysian field after death. We could use a few of these radiant damsels as we march toward an environmental apocalypse, and the possibility of nuclear demise, in our scientific age.
An early masterpiece by Georges Rouault, The Holy Women Mourning Christ (1895) shows the beginning of his powerful representations of the life of Christ. Rouault experienced a “Light on the Road to Damascus” in his thirties, which was to follow him into later Fauvist works.
The Rose+Croix was a movement hoping to bring Catholic and Rosicrucian truth to conquer the future of art. A work that sums up the movement’s quest is the Spaniard Rogelio de Egusquiza’s etching The Holy Grail (1893) (from the “Parsifal” series El Santo Grial). Péladan loved the Gustave Moreau quote, “My dream is to create iconostasis rather than painting properly speaking.”4 Art was to be a portal to the divine.
Today, we see a relentless, vindictive animus reserved for Christianity and Catholicism in particular, brought in by the Frankfurt School. Any contemporary work dealing positively with Christianity or Catholicism is rejected outright. The Guggenheim exhibition is coming at a time when the parameters of the art world are undergoing an expansion after a critical and ideological inquisition. The fact that so many artists are flocking to exhibitions like this one and last year’s Language of the Birds: The Occult and Art at NYU, says something. Linda Montano, with her work on St. Teresa of Avila, or Bill Viola’s Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) show not all art has to be secular, or all Catholic-inspired art transgressive. Perhaps Christianity also needs a counter-reformation in the art world to rescue it from the far-right and the cynics. Our troubled time could use art that embraces sincere spiritual impulses when religion as the “opium of the masses” has been replaced by a real opioid epidemic. We have been presented with a critique, but nothing positive and visionary upon which to build. The Sâr as self-created Magus, at least attempted to reunite art with the divine, an idea worth bringing back into favor.
- Dora, Henri, Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, (1994), p.265
- Ibid., p.264
- Pincus-Witten, Robert, Occult Symbolism in France: Joséphin Péladan and the Salons de la Rose+Croix. New York: Garland (1976), p. 131
- Ibid., p. 179
Ann McCoy is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.