Sunday, February 01, 2009

More on Moreau

My long connection with Gustave Moreau began in Art History classes, lounging in the pleasant darkness watching slides of paintings flash past. Back then I would probably have just given myself over to the mythological dreaminess of the work. Only later would I have resisted Moreau’s use of mythology and Medievalism, thinking it the very traditionalism – Academic was the word used then -- that the painters and poets I admire resisted. But would that have made sense? It is a central problem of A Tonalist actually – how to engage in or be in relation to lyric and include beauty without – well, without what? Perhaps without reproducing a surface of poetic language that takes no risks but craftily fulfills the desire of the reader for – but, again, for what? For a mutual celebration of smartness and artiness or a charming retelling of familiar stories with comforting advice or a moral. But what’s wrong with that? Ah, but what’s not wrong with it? More on this.

The word Symbolist must have come up back in my art history swoon. It would have been either after a long ride through centuries starting with say Giotto or at the beginning of the modern period, but no, not modern. Moreau is firmly anchored in the 19th century, born, the same year as Tolstoy in 1826 and died in 1898, the same year as fellow Symbolist, okay Decadent, Aubrey Beardsley died. Tolstoy lasted until 1910. Moreau’s dates are similar to Walt Whitman’s strangely and, more apt, to Tennyson’s. Emily Dickinson’s short life 1830-1886 (she died when she was my age) falls well within Moreau’s. More to the point is Baudelaire 1821-1867 who wrote about Eugene Delacroix and Eduard Manet but not so much about Moreau. Moreau knew Delacroix and would have learned from him. Manet’s work famously leads to the Impressionists who paint light but Moreau and his ilk lead to those who paint or write of something like the inner life or stillness or dread. There is a stasis to it that doesn’t seem modern. The original Tonalists (from early in the 20th century) painted gloomy landscapes that are not about the land. Moreau said “I believe only in what I do not see and solely in what I feel.”

Older than other painters who are called Symbolist, Moreau seems more like a Romantic. He was on that cusp. That I enjoy this sort of art historical categorical astrology is no doubt partly what drove me to create A Tonalist. Certainly the Symbolists, from whom a direct line leads to the Surrealists (Breton used to ‘haunt’ the museum Moreau made of his house before he died) are the logical precursors to A Tonalist which I think of as having a mystical side or at least of not being completely unfriendly to such claptrap. Okay, you can see that I can go both ways. No sooner am I surrounded by the fauns and damsels of Symbolism than I long for the upside down urinal of Duchamp. And this then draws me to Jack Spicer’s work which is mythological and yet divests itself of any sort of decorative artfulness. Spicer seems caught in myths he wrote in a way I also often feel caught.

I can see that these considerations should become more of an essay or, better, a PowerPoint presentation, because there are a lot of amusing directions to go in from here and some very fun visuals. And I haven’t even gotten to Huysmans' novel A Rebours which refers to works by Moreau and Redon and is entirely foundational for Surrealists as well as for A Tonalists.

But to go back to me and Moreau. I used a Moreau image in a talk I gave in the 80s called the “Interrogation of Pleasure.” Then, not long after, when Susan Bee designed the cover of Rondeaux for Roof she used a Moreau drawing of Salome. I didn’t know about this until I saw the book on the table of SPD when it came out, a decade before I went to work there. I wouldn’t have wished it exactly but as soon as I saw it I accepted the cover as my fate. Later I visited the Moreau Museum in Paris and got into the saturated red gloom of his Symbolist world.

Currently, a character in a story I am working on writes a poem called “Moreau” combining his sense of the paintings with a reading of the Egyptian Book of the Dead –something I would never do because of the problem of Orientalism -- but this character is a bit precious and full of himself. So I got a couple of giant Moreau books out of the library (naturally I already had the Egyptian Book of the Dead) and wrote the poem above in the character of the character. The poem won’t be part of the story but is more in the way of deep background.

And then there is 2666 which is on my lap a lot these days. The cover of the American version is Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele – a painting that was the work of a lifetime, much as 2666 was for Bolaño. According to Levi Stahl, 2666 "is another iteration of Bolaño’s increasingly baroque, cryptic, and mystical personal vision of the world, revealed obliquely by his recurrent symbols, images, and tropes…” “Baroque, cryptic and mystical” are pretty near classic characteristics of A Tonalist, at least insomuch as they can be applied to Bolaño. Not that I would attempt to claim Roberto Bolaño, who would have been almost exactly my age by the way, as an A Tonalist. In fact, he has a great time with highhanded poetic genealogy in Savage Detectives. But let’s just say that an A Tonalist would find 2666 to be a great inspiration. This one does.

Finally (this is in a story from his posthumous collection El secreto del mal) Bolaño on Moreau,: “I thought…about Moreau’s belle inertia, his beautiful inertia, the method by which Moreau was able to freeze, stop, fix any scene, tumultuous as it might be, on his canvases….the Moreau stillness, some critics call it. The Moreau dread, it’s called by others less fond of his work. Terror inlaid with gems.”

Oh and one more classic Moreau, about Salome. I like the part about all desires satisfied.

This bored fantastic woman, with her animal nature, giving herself the pleasure of seeing her enemy struck down, not a particularly keen one for her because she is so weary of having all her desires satisfied.


Blogger rodney k said...

Really enjoyed this post. The "Moreau problem"--his Janus-faced place in the standard art histories, half pointing forward and half gazing back--seems sister to the Maeterlinck problem. That Sibelius and Schoenberg could both set him to music kind of dirties up the narrative of the Modernist front guard. (Musil loved him too, but who does now?)

I wonder if the Symbolists, giving their finger to the banality of bourgeois existence as insistently as Duchamp and his urinals, are the bad conscience of Modernism: they show how essentially Romantic some (most?) members of the Modernist pantheon at bottom were in their revolts. Anyway, love that fin-de-siecle soup of tics and dreams that usually get strained out of our idea of the avant-garde. Viva Moreau!

10:00 PM  
Blogger Laura Moriarty said...

Thanks for this! I for one would never claim not to be a Romantic & a Modernist. Maybe all times are the same, but the soup now seems to me to be like the soup then, at the turn of centuries. Nothing dominating for long and a sense of mutually canceling beliefs enacted by people who are secretly friends. And a wide delicious expanse of it all to swim in.

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