Fantastic Beasts and Femmes Fatale

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The Guggenheim exhibits the Salons de la Rose+Croix


  • Ferdinand Hodler's "The Disappointed Souls" from 1892, like many Rose+Croix selections, presages later developments in art. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Jean Delville's "The Death of Orpheus," hung in the first Salon de la Rose+Croix in 1892. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Armand Point's "Legendary Princess" from 1895 with its elaborately carved frame and profile portrait recalls Renaissance tropes. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Poster for the first Salon de la Rose+Croix, 1892. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Charles Maurin's "The Dawn of Labor," ca. 1891. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • One of the many portrayals of Orpheus in the Guggenheim's “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix,” Alexandre Séon's "The Lament of Orpheus." Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • "The New Generation" painted by Jan Toorop in 1892. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Orpheus, this time in Hades, by Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau, was included in the final Rose+Croix salon. Photo: Adel Gorgy

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy — “Hamlet”

When Shakespeare wrote those words in about 1600 he was saying something timeless, but also of the moment. Spiritual fervor was taking hold of Europe. Secret societies emerged that promised esoteric knowledge gleaned from the past or from contact with other parts of the world. Rosicrucianism was particularly popular, and some scholars tie symbols in the bard’s work to that movement focused on alchemy, astrology and religious ritual.

Fast forward to another fin de siècle. At the end of the 19th century in Paris, the Salon de la Rose+Croix was born. It was a series of art exhibitions organized by Joséphin Péladan, the founder of the Mystic Order of the Rose+Croix, a Rosicrucian sect that embraced both occult elements and French Catholicism. Péladan, wearing long, velvet robes, a curious pointed hat and a bushy two-pronged beard, proclaimed himself a mage, bestowed upon himself the title of High Priest of Sar, and drew a cult of followers.

It wasn’t hard to do at the time. The machine age had rolled into people’s lives, and many sought an antidote. Rasputin would gather some high-level followers in Russia a few years later, and here in New York, séances and ectoplasm were all the rage.

“Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892-1897,” on view at the Guggenheim through October 4, is the first museum exhibition to explore these salons, their art and their influences. Curator Vivien Greene brings together some 40 that aren’t just symbolic of the Symbolism preferred by Péladan. Each work at the Guggenheim actually hung in one of the Rose+Croix shows.

“Artist, you are a priest,” Péladan told painters, sculptors and musicians (men only). “Art is the great mystery and, if your effort results in a masterpiece, a ray of divinity will descend as on an altar.” Incense and music filled the air, stange, exotic paintings hung on the walls, and crowds flocked to the Belle Epoque equivalents of 1960’s happenings.

“Their subject matter was allegorical, literary, mythical, or religious, replete with arcane symbols, ethereal women, androgynous beings, and monstrous creatures,” Greene explains in the wall text. “They gravitated to themes such as the Greek mythological poet Orpheus, the art and precepts of the early Italian Renaissance, New Testament narratives, and female stereotypes from the threatening femme fatale to the untainted femme fragile.”

She notes, “Chimeras, and incubi were the norm, as were sinuous lines, attenuated figures, and anti-naturalistic forms.”

Such subjects, along with blood-red walls and velvet settees, announce a departure from the Guggenheim’s typical fare. Music by Wagner, Erik Satie and Beethoven (as could be heard in the original salons) plays softly. Among the paintings on view, nimbuses and halos can be spotted on lovely young maidens, doe-eyed women gaze vacuously, Péladan poses as an artistic potentate, and figures from mythology abound.

Jean Delville’s “The Death of Orpheus” hung in the third Salon de la Rose+Croix in 1894. In it, a beautiful, androgynous, disembodied head rests on a lyre, engulfed in a sea of blue-green dotted with reflected starlight. It’s one of several appearances of Orpheus, who was, Greene points out, “a popular paradigm for the artist as enchanter, seer, and martyr whose creations transcend death. In one myth, after Orpheus is dismembered by wild female followers of Dionysus — the god of wine, fertility, and madness — his head floats downriver, still singing, and becomes an oracle.”

The works in the exhibition are arresting, wildly misogynistic, evocative of a time past and suggestive of a mindset few of us can imagine. It’s a chance to see and learn about a movement that hasn’t received much attention. But it’s the stories the Rose + Croix salons foretell that are, perhaps, most interesting.

The spiritual power of paintings was a core belief of later modernists Kandinsky and Mondrian. Jan Toorop’s “The New Generation” is painted with tiny, swirling brushstrokes in contrasting colors that create a kind of hallucinatory flower-power buzz. Jean Delville’s “The Idol of Perversity” looks like a 1950s B-movie poster. And the atmosphere created by joining music with paintings prefigures collaborations between choreographers, musicians and visual artists seen throughout the 20th century, as well as contemporary multimedia installations and performance art.

Serious artists of the day took note. Claude Debussy and Satie were associated with the movement (Satie was the official composer and chapel-master of the Rosicrucian Order). Writers Paul Valéry, André Gide, André Breton and Guillaume Apollinaire read Péladan’s tracts.

That much attention must have had countless ripple effects, some of which can be traced, while others can be wondered about. The central figure in Ferdinand Hodler’s “The Disappointed Souls,” which hung in the salon of 1892 and now hangs in the Guggenheim, is gaunt, downward looking and marked by a pale angularity. It reminded me immediately of Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.” Though the young painter didn’t arrive in Paris till 1901, four years after the final Rose+Croix exhibition, Picasso was friends with and collaborated with Apollinaire, Breton, Gide and Satie.

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