On the Drawing Cases at Musée Gustave-Moreau, Paris

In the study of ideas, it is necessary to remember that insistence on hard-headed clarity issues from sentimental feeling, as it were a mist, cloaking the perplexities of fact. Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions.

—A.N. Whitehead

Escalier de l'atelier de Gustave Moreau, Albert Lafon architecte, 1895, Paris, musée Gustave Moreau (c) RMN / Franck Raux

“I dreamed of breaking into it at night with a lantern,” wrote André Breton of the Musée Gustave-Moreau, which to this day remains as the Symbolist painter designed it in 1896. Moving up the narrow stair, past the apartment areas preserved with their original decor, one enters a two-storey atelier. The walls are covered with overwrought framed works hung on deep salmon walls and braced by extensive dark wood paneling. Stepping into the space one faces the longest wall—actually a series of solid interludes between expansive windows that let in the even, muted light reflected off the stone face of a neighboring building. A yard-long bronze-colored curtain, hung off a slender brass rod, runs the entire width of the wall, separating the bottom of the windows from the remaining four foot stretch to the floor. Short wooden stools that meet the bottom hem are placed periodically below. What at first appears to be a continuous band of fabric can in fact be drawn open. If you sit on a small stool and part the curtain you see a number of Moreau sketches arranged on two panels side by side—each under glass and held in place by mahogany frames. These drawing panels are hinged and can be pulled open to reveal similar arrangements of mounted sketches on the backside of the now perpendicular panels as well as a new pair facing out. The two original panes become partitions on both sides of the viewer, temporarily creating a private space within the larger room. The freshly exposed pair are also hinged and also open to reveal another and another, so that, all told, there are some 15 sets, each double-sided and covered with drawings. Because the panels are not always equally sized, the center break from where they swing open shifts from layer to layer, which also helps the group hold together once closed. In order to accommodate the continual opening of these leaves, the internal structure of the cabinet, to which these hinges are attached, is a trapezoid shape, receding about two feet to lie flush against the wall, just below the window.

On each panel there are four or six sketches held in place by matting that varies from cream to gray blue. The aged papers, colored pale rose, dull robin’s egg, amber, dingy shades of off white and light slate, create their own rhythm moving deeper into each the cabinet, and then down the line. On display are some 4,800 obsessive studies, fragments of the mystic images that predominate Moreau’s work. One cabinet holds hundreds of studies of thinly lined flowers; others catalogue torsos, knees, claws, feathers, and abstract ornamental motifs. The same motifs, symbols, archetypes are manically iterated and the sensibility alternates between an overly rough naïve hand and the too-precious lines of a jeweler—an unstable polar opposition always threatening neutralization. The display cases structurally engulf the visitor, bringing one too close to truly see the images, but allowing them to be felt as marks, gestures, surfaces—outside of time. 

14 Rue de la Rochefoucauld // Paris, France


Jarrett Earnest


SEPT 2012

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