Excess and the Road to Decadence: THE GRAPHIC SURREALISTS OF THE 19TH CENTURY by Terrance Lindall, 2007 “… Surrealism, at its origins…has manifested itself sporadically in all periods and in all countries…” Andre Breton The 19th Century was volcanic. New forms of thought and action thrust through encrusted dying ideas. Under Napoleon Europe was remade. The Holy Roman Empire collapsed. The logic of the accepted ways of thinking, the rights of kings, was toppled. Napoleon gathered laurels in Italy and Egypt, and Beethoven engaged a campaign to annex music itself. Each put the past to the flames. Although Goya was not a surrealist, his painting “Saturn Devouring His Children” is the archetypal image of this age: “the revolutionary unreasoning will that does the unthinkable!” At the end of the century Wagner, with excessive Olympian grandeur, put to music the burning of Valhalla. The light and the dark percolate in the subconscious and in their excess ejaculate irrational desires and fears - the fountain of surrealism. 19th century surrealists include the Visionary, Symbolist and Decadent schools opposed to the Naturalist school, which, at the time, held dominion. In painting, Symbolist and Decadent artists and writers included, among others, Bresdin, Friedrich, Fuseli, Moreau, Klimt, Redon, Fantin-Latour, Munch, Rops, Redon, Jan Toorop, d'Aurevilly, Baudelaire, Beardsley, Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, Arthur Rimbaud, and Oscar Wilde. Four artists who worked primarily in graphics exemplify 19th century surrealists: William Blake (1757 –1827), Felicien Rops (1833–98), and Rodolphe Bresdin (1822–85), and Odilon Redon (1840–1916). Surreal/visionary artist William Blake, whose imagination transcended the physical world and portrayed a higher mystical or spiritual awareness, worked with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s house was a meeting place for leading intellectual dissidents that included John Henry Fuseli and Mary Wollstonecraft, creator of Frankenstein’s monster, a surrealist creature of uninhibited rage and desire. Blake’s surrealist attacks on conventional religion were shocking in his own day, as were Breton’s in
the 20th century. In his poem called the “Proverbs of Hell,” he says, “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion and As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” Another proverbs states: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…”
Blake’s “Whirlwind,” 1824. a picture of excessive energies of spirit Excess of course, leads to decadence and the Decadent school! One such Decadent artist was Felicien Rops who specialized in etching and aquatint. Rops portrayed woman as muse and incubus. He lauded rebellion and madness in a letter saying “… I do not have enough respect for the law…I hope that this surpasses the boundaries of decent insanity...” Rops met poet Charles Baudelaire in 1864. Baudelaire’s most famous
volume of poems was Les Fleurs du mal ("The Flowers of Evil") with themes of sex and death that both Baudelaire and Rops exploited. They taunted the hypocrisy of bourgeois society who, behind a façade of virtue, were as excessively guilty of sins and lies in their imaginings, as the poets and the artists. Baudelaire says “... If rape or arson, poison, or the knife Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff Of this drab canvas we accept as life—It is because we are not bold enough!”
“The Incantation” (above) by Rops evokes images of Satan worship and sex.
Here in Rops' â€œCythereâ€? the artists evokes the Dionysian muse of
excess: gluttony, narcissism, intoxication, and sex. Joris-Karl Huysmans, wrote “A Rebours” (“Against the Grain”), the most influential book of the decadent school next to the “Flowers of Evil” by Baudelaire. In his preface to the 1903 edition Huysman’s condemns Naturalism: “… Naturalism, which should have rendered the inestimable service of giving us real characters in precisely described settings…ended up harping on the same old themes and was treading water.” Huysmans applied his excessive exquisite detail to a surrealistic portrait of an exceptionally decadent individual in A rebours, “the book that inspired Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray to sin and hedonism." The public was scandalized. As Huysmans disparaged the tedium of naturalism and turned to decadence, so artists Odilon Redon and Rodolphe Bresdin sought mystery in phantasmagoric worlds, with visions and monsters in hermaphroditic form. Bresdin, promoted by Baudelaire, was highly regarded by the Symbolists; and Bresdin was a mentor to Redon, who signed one of his earliest etchings “Redon, pupil of Bresdin.” Like Rembrandt’s etchings, Bresdin’s work achieved magnificent tonal variation. He used quasi-religious motifs, as in his “Flight into Egypt,” yet he endows nature with a mysticism that is Pagan, wherein the trees and rocks seem invested with Earth spirits.
“Flight into Egypt” by Bresdin Not since Rembrandt has an artist created work that captured so well the phenomenon of human interaction with the mystical or divine. The chiaroscuro in Bresdin’s art brings to mind Cranach orand Parmigianino. Undoubtedly Bresdin knew the work of these artists and shaped them to his own use. As Huysmans filled his novels with obsessively detailed evocations of Paris, so Bresdin filled his landscapes with excessively detailed eccentric and visionary elements of the fantastic or the macabre, as in his “Comedy of Death”
“The Comedy of Death” by Bresdin Huysmans called Redon “the prince of mysterious dreams.” Through mysticism, both Bresdin and Redon express primordial archetypes that are found in dream and the unconscious. Both surrealists reach into their subconscious to bring forth the chiaroscuro of the good and the bad, the light and the dark, to reveal a truth about the world, its moral duality entwined in the human spirit. Nature plays a central role in the works of both Bresdin and Redon, but it is
not Naturalism. For them nature is supernaturally â€œpossessedâ€? and as such contains a moral uncertainty. It can be a place where monsters dwell or beauty and mystery enticesâ€Świth Bresdin, imprisoned in a net of detail and Redon stepping into them with tremulous uncertainty in that one does not know what to expect from what appears before us. Both artists opened undiscovered possibilities in their graphics and became leaders in the modern use of this medium.
“Eye Balloon” by Redon. One looks with “tremulous uncertainty” at this image, not knowing what to expect! It’s moral quality, good or bad, cannot be ascertained!
These artists are sometimes called “Proto Surrealists.” The prefix “proto” is a misnomer. Since surrealism and it’s types existed in all ages, there is no “first, original or earliest (Proto)” form of symbolism or surrealism. The 19th century was an age of the truest surrealism, wherein the socio/political world was torn by the excessive yearnings of the collective unconscious for freedom. At the same time, surrealist/visionary/symbolist/decadent/ artists looked within their subconscious to find archetypes that expressed those hopes, hidden desires and fears. Terrance Lindall, of the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, organized the 2003 “Brave Destiny” exhibition of contemporary Surrealists.
Sidebar: The Market According to Mary Barlow (head of the print department at Sotheby’s New York), and Jonathan Rendell (head of the print department at Christies’s New York), the market for prints and drawings by Rops, Redon and Bresdin is variable. For Redon, early hand-signed editions of “Pegasus” or “The Spider” can fetch $50,000 or more. Regarding Blake, his works do not often become available. In 2004, his ink, watercolor, graphite and monotype (brushing printer's ink or oil paint onto a smooth surface such as glass or a metal plate and transferred to paper before it dries, using a printing press) from the John Hay Whitney collection sold for $3,928,000 at
Sotheby’s. According to Todd Weyman of Swann Auction Gallery, “I would say that
Bresdin certainly appeals to a collector of prints who appreciates tour-de-force craftsmanship. In terms of the heights he took technical experimentation to and printmaking bravura in general, he is comparable to Rembrandt, while I also align his prints with the intricately detailed woodcuts from the Apocalypse by Durer or even Picasso's richly-finished lithographs--and the multiple states he brought them through to completion--from the 1950s and 1960s.”
For more information Felicien Rops prints available at CFM Gallery, New York www.cfmgallery.com/ 112 Greene Street SoHo, New York City New York 10012 Telephone (212) 966-3864 ..........Fax (212) 2261041 e-mail email@example.com Bresdin prints are available at Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd (London, United Kingdom) 7/8 Mason’s Yard, Duke Street St. James’s SW1Y 6BU London, United Kingdom Tel: 44 (0) 207 930 5347 Fax: 44 (0) 207 839 8151 David Tunick, Inc. (New York, NY, USA) www.tunickart.com/
19 East 66th Street NY NY 10065 Tel: 212.570.0090 Fax:212.744.8931 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Redon books at various levels of quality: Gemini Fine Books & Arts, Ltd. (ABAA) www.geminibooks.com 917
Hinsdale, Illinois 60521, USA Tel: (630) 986-1478 fax: (630) 986-8992