The Writings of J.-K. Huysmans and Gustave Moreau's Painting: Affinity or Divergence?

By Grigorian, Natasha | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Spring-Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Writings of J.-K. Huysmans and Gustave Moreau's Painting: Affinity or Divergence?


Grigorian, Natasha, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


"M. Gustave Moreau est un artiste extraordinaire, unique. [...] Abime dans l'extase, il voit resplendir les feeriques visions, les sanglantes apotheoses des autres ages" (Au 152). The haunting precision of this famous statement by J.-K. Huysmans (1848-1907) has helped to establish, within a vast body of critical scholarship, a rather unquestioning identification between the art of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and the writings by Huysmans it has inspired. However, on closer examination, key divergences between the painter and the novelist emerge--few know about Huysmans's comment on Moreau as early as 1883, in a letter to Pissarro: "Je [le] trouve merveilleux, si eloigne qu'il soit de toutes mes idees" (Letheve 94). Considering anew the key role played by Moreau's painting in Huysmans's novels A rebours (1884) and En rade (1887), taken in the context of the writer's art criticism, L'Art moderne (1883) and Certains (1889), I shall show how despite the underlying affinities between the writings of Huysmans and the art of Moreau, Huysmans employs a slanted, decadent interpretation of the painter, whose work is largely dominated by a more luminous ideal. Perhaps unsurprising as evidence of Huysmans's strong creative personality, his decadent slant on Moreau is of great interest in so far as it sheds Light on the way inter-art relationships contribute to a paradoxical interplay of classical and modernist tendencies in fin de siecle French culture.

The decadence of Huysmans's artistic universe--and in particular that of his protagonists--is the maladie fin de siecle, marked by egocentricity, world-weariness and a perverse imagination. We shall see that the major creative gain from Huysmans's decadent slant on Moreau, whatever its limitations, is that the novelist's writing, in contrast to painting, captures not only the image--that of Salome or Esther, for example--but also the spectator's gaze, the palpability of which enables the novelist to introduce a critical distance from the spectator-protagonist. In this way, Huysmans's writing questions the healing effect of the exquisite magic of Moreau's art for the maladie fin de siecle of his heroes, whose sensibility is prey to monstrous beauty. The difference between Huysmans and Moreau seems to be partly conditioned by the specificity of their apprentissage in literature and painting respectively: Huysmans can flexibly absorb the latest trends of the fin de siecle literary avant-garde, whereas Moreau's art is indebted to the more conservative tradition of painting, which is still organically linked to the heritage of the Renaissance by the late nineteenth century. More broadly, the divergence between Huysmans and Moreau thus exemplifies the pivotal conflict between l'amour du difforme (monstrous beauty), which anticipates twentieth-century Modernism, and l'amour du beau (elevated beauty), inherited from Renaissance Classicism (and going back to classical antiquity), in French and European art at the end of the nineteenth century. This article aims to show that deeper affinities ultimately emerge between Huysmans and Moreau on the spiritual and moral level, paradoxically linking the two conflicting attitudes. (2)

On the surface, there are far-reaching parallels between the painter and the novelist. Symbolism--christened so in the meantime by Jean Moreas's Manifesto (1886)--is no doubt the common ground on which the paths of Huysmans and Moreau intersect--indeed, the importance of literary models for Moreau and that of painting for Huysmans illustrates the Symbolist emphasis on the interrelation between different art forms. (3) Huysmans's writings on art, L'Art moderne and Certains, give an adequate picture of what attracts him in Moreau's works. Huysmans is struck at first sight by Moreau's dramatic use of colour,--"les fievres de couleurs de Delacroix" (AM 152)--as well as by the jewel-like aspect of his elaborate decorative detail, 'Texecution de ces joyaux aux contours graves dans l'aquarelle comme avec des becs ecrases de plumes" (c 19). …

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