The Salon de la Rose+Croix, a magical, mystical proto-modernist art event of the 1890s, is recreated in an eye-opening show at the Guggenheim.
In the Paris of the 1880s and ’90s, some strange figures strode the stage of culture, and none was stranger or more eye-catching than the mysterious being who called himself Sâr Merodack. He was inclined to go about his business dressed in the sort of floor-length purple robes that might clothe a king of mythology, and his topiary-like bush of hair and pointed beard were trimmed in a fashion reminiscent of an ancient Mesopotamian ruler. That was in keeping with his self-given name—“Sâr” means leader in Hebrew and Assyrian, while “Merodack” was likely adapted from Baladan-Merodach, a Babylonian king. The name his parents gave him was Joséphin Péladan. Born in Lyon in 1858, the son of a devoutly Catholic journalist, the future Sâr failed out of two Jesuit colleges and in 1882 moved to Paris, where he established himself as a novelist, literary critic, and art critic.
He also became an enthusiastic student of the occult. One of his novels, Le Vice Suprême (1884), dwelt on the Rosicrucians, a supposed group of ageless initiates, spoken of in Europe since the early 17th century, who guided the world in secret and preserved mystical doctrines for mankind’s benefit. This book found its ideal reader in a figure only slightly less outré than Péladan, the Marquis Stanislas de Guaïta, an opium-addicted poet from an Italian noble family who was converted to occultism by reading the novel. The two men became close friends and studied together to increase their knowledge of magic, the Kabbalah, and the Tarot. Before long, they decided to found a secret brotherhood of their own and teamed up with a well-known occultist and author, Dr. Gérard Encausse (known to readers as “Papus”) to start recruiting members.
This group, which was launched in 1888, was called the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix (Rose-Cross). As such bodies are prone to, it fell victim to schisms, and in 1891 Sâr Péladan split with de Guaïta and formed a new entity, more explicitly Roman Catholic traditionalist and with himself as sole chief, called the Catholic and Aesthetic Order of the Rose-Croix of the Temple and the Grail. The addition of the word “aesthetic” is telling; while the internecine squabbles of warring occultists may seem merely risible at a distance of more than a century (and in fact were also risible at the time, fresh meat for newspapermen who wrote mockingly of the “War of the Roses”), Péladan’s order ended up having a major impact on the development of modern art.
In 1892, Péladan decided to do something more public than a secret order could—he extended his hitherto-covert brand by organizing an art exhibition, to be called the Salon de la Rose+Croix. In typical 1890s style, he put out a manifesto that aggressively stated the artistic tenets of the project. It read, in part, “Art is man’s effort to realize the Ideal, to form and represent the supreme idea, the idea par excellence, the abstract idea, and great artists are religious, because to materialize the idea of God, the idea of an angel, the idea of the Virgin Mother, requires an incomparable psychic effort and procedure. Making the invisible visible: that is the true purpose of art and its only reason for existence.”
Trim away the Catholic religious language, and Péladan’s statement sounds almost avant-garde, as if he were anticipating the creation of abstract art, an art of ideas rather than an art of naturalism. But since it was still the 19th century, the group of artists the Sâr invited to participate in his Salon weren’t abstractionists, they were Symbolists—painters of mythical creatures, androgynes, femmes fatales, scenes of horror, and other decadent delights. Some, such as Georges Rouault, Fernand Khnopff, Jan Toorop, Jean Delville, and Félix Vallotton, are now famous names; others are more obscure, such as Alexandre Séon, Armand Point, Rogelio de Egusquiza, and Pinckney Marcius-Simons. The first Salon, backed by a wealthy collector and artist (and Rose+Croix initiate), Count Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, and hosted at no less a venue than the Galerie Durand-Ruel, was a sumptuous affair that attracted a great deal of media attention. Émile Zola attended, as did Puvis de Chavannes, and for once, Péladan found himself being taken seriously by the media. Over the next five years there were five more Salons, none of which achieved the positive reviews of the first one, but Péladan, firmly entrenched in his role of art impresario, soldiered on, in the process showing some truly great art.
An exhibition opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York at the end of this month showcases about 40 works that were exhibited in the six editions of the Salon, along with documents and printed ephemera that chronicle this cultural moment. “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897,” which goes on view on June 30 and runs through October 4, is curated by Vivien Greene, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of 19th- and early 20th-century art, with the help of curatorial assistant Ylinka Barotto. The show is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Greene, independent scholar Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, and NYU art historian Kenneth E. Silver.
One of the hallmarks and greatest strengths of Péladan as a curator-impresario was his openness, which seems at odds with his doctrinaire nature as a religious leader. He wrote that “for the Salon, the word foreign did not exist,” and accordingly he cast a wide net throughout Europe, not just France, in his search for visionary talent. Also, there is great artistic diversity in the Salon’s roster of contributors. While some, such as Séon—who portrayed Péladan himself in full Sâr regalia, with a background of interlaced roses and crosses and recurring images of an Assyrian lion-sphinx (a painting on view at the Guggenheim)—bought into Catholic Aesthetic Rosicrucianism without reservation, most were more independent in their mystical quests, and a few, most notably Vallotton, were not mystical at all.
Vallotton, a French Swiss, was primarily a printmaker who specialized in fine-grain monochrome woodcut, was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e, and often worked in a naturalistic vein. He was introduced to Péladan by Schwabe—who created the killer poster design for the first Salon—and Péladan provided Vallotton with the opportunity to display his woodcuts publicly for the first time. Vallotton himself seems to have been slightly nonplussed by his inclusion in this ethereal company, and in an article he wrote for a Swiss art magazine spoke critically of the Sâr’s inconsistency as a curator. It is possible that part of Vallotton’s appeal for Péladan lay in the fact that he had made woodcut portraits of several cultural figures of importance to the Symbolists: Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Richard Wagner (Marcius-Simon, the only American-born participant in the Salon, eventually moved to Bayreuth to work as a full-time set designer for Wagner). A Vallotton print shown at the first Salon, Le Beau Soir (1892), which depicts a man looking across a body of water toward the sun setting behind black mountains, could easily be interpreted either naturalistically or mystically.
Jean Delville, on the other hand, was an easy fit with the Salon’s official manifesto. The Belgian artist met Péladan during a trip to Paris in 1887 or 1888 and as a result abandoned Realism for Symbolism. He participated in four out of the six Salons. One of his most striking works is The Death of Orpheus (1893), which shows the Thracian musician-magician’s severed head floating in the water, framed by his lyre. While according to the Greek myth Orpheus’ head continued to utter prophecies after his death, Delville’s Orpheus has fallen silent, though he seems to be more in a trance than dead, with an eerie light transfiguring his face. That face is said to have been based on that of Delville’s wife, evincing the Rose+Croix belief in the spiritual importance of androgyny (a belief, it might be noted, that peacefully coexisted with an absolute ban on female participation in the Salon). The entire painting is drenched in a blue-green tone that is strangely prevalent among the works in the Salons; this cold color, often deployed where it is not natural, in particular on human flesh, seems to represent morbidity, abnormality, or otherworldliness, depending on the emotional climate. Schwabe’s poster, appropriately enough, is two-color only, blue and white.
Fernand Khnopff, also a Belgian, specialized in the enigmatic, a trait he shares with the modernist generation, though he deployed it differently. I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1893), one of his greatest works, was exhibited in the second Salon. Khnopff’s debt to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (an earlier group of mystical-minded seekers after artistic authenticity) is evident in the female figure’s features and her long reddish hair, as well as in the pseudo-medieval details of the room. The painting’s title (given in English) comes from a poem by Christina Rossetti, sister of the PRB’s co-founder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The architecture of the room is indecipherable, if not spatially impossible, and the flowers could symbolize either impermanence or wickedness. The head of the woman is almost twinned by the marble head of Hypnos, the god of sleep and dreams. The whole composition could be saying that by retreating into one’s room, a private space designed for contemplation, the artist communes with the imagination in a non-rational manner. Whatever the interpretation, Khnopff’s works met with the wholehearted approval of the Sâr, who called the artist “the great argument of my thesis, in defense of the ideal.” The two men’s association began back in the mid-1880s, when Khnopff designed the frontispiece for Le Vice Suprême.
Other artists in the Salon (and in the Guggenheim show) demonstrate the coexistence of mystical religion with proto-modernist technique. French painter Henri Martin’s Young Saint (1891) presents us with a rural French girl in a veil standing in a field; she might be Joan of Arc or Thérèse of Lisieux. Her head is encircled by a thin gold halo in the style of the quattrocento. However, the overall style of the painting is heavily influenced by Divisionism, and the young saint seems to exist in a limbo between the Middle Ages and the twilight of the 19th century. Dutch artist Jan Toorop’s The New Generation (1892) combines a bizarre profusion of imagery in a magical forest with a realistic portrait of a child (the artist’s daughter), an image of the Buddha, and railroad tracks and telegraph poles. Péladan disliked this painting, but it was included in the first Salon and nicely encapsulates the Janus-faced nature of Symbolism, looking back to a world of myth, religion, and magic, and forward to modernism.
As Kenneth Silver points out in his catalogue essay, there is a definite connection between abstract art and spiritual thought, and many of the key figures of avant-garde modernism, such as Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and even Marcel Duchamp, were indebted to mystical and occult writings. None of the artists included in the Salon de la Rose+Croix ever achieved true abstraction, and Péladan’s traditionalist outlook deplored the kind of leftist radicalism that inspired so many of those who made 20th-century art. Nonetheless, the Rosicrucian impresario and many of his artists continued the 19th-century experiment, which began with the Pre-Raphaelites, of looking forward by looking back, and in their quest for an “ideal” in art that would be independent of the senses and untethered from the mundane, they helped prepare the way for what was to come.
By John Dorfman