Explore the Weird World of the Symbolists at the Guggenheim


At the end of the nineteenth century, the symbolists bubbled up throughout Europe and the Unites States to push against realism’s long-unchallenged stronghold over poetry and art. Naturalism, they declared, was dull and wholly beside the point of art. Why squander the mind and hand reiterating nature, or reproducing the banalities of the world in exhaustive detail? Writers and artists should pursue the Ideal, channeling new realms, exciting the viewer with aesthetic experiences accessible only via the singular imagination and spirit of a creator.

Within this movement erupted the Salon de la Rose+Croix and Joséphin Péladan, a French writer, critic, and Rosicrucian (not necessarily in that order) who organized annual exhibitions of art that he felt achieved its highest purpose: that of Beauty. He alone decided what would and would not be included. Out: landscapes, domestic scenes, portraits of animals, and still lifes. (According to Péladan, even the impressionists were too tethered to the natural world.) In: scenes from mythical and allegorical tales; dream imagery, or that relating to mystical visions. Although short-lived and long forgotten, the R+C was popular in its time, and made its mark by setting symbolism on a stranger, more spiritual path. Guggenheim curator Vivien Greene has organized “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892-1897,” the first modern exhibition to gather the disparate European art and artists who showed with Péladan. Featuring forty-odd paintings, works on paper, and a single sculpture, the show is invigoratingly offbeat, shedding new and needed light on symbolism’s history as well as its lasting, perhaps even surprising, impact.

As might be guessed, Péladan was a character nonpareil. As a Rosicrucian, he believed in esoteric truths, the hidden knowledge available via mysticism and the occult. Vain, dandyish, he dubbed himself “Sâr Merodack” to give his presence the mysterious depths of the ancients. (Sâr translates as “leader” in Assyrian and Hebrew; Merodack is a name borrowed from a Babylonian king). Some of his disciples took Péladan’s self-appointment seriously — or at least seriously enough. Jean Delville’s Portrait of the Grand Master of the Rosicrucians in Choir Dress, Joséphin Péladan (1895) presents the writer in a Christlike attitude, one hand holding a gold scroll to his chest, the other pointing to the heavens. In Portrait of the Sâr Joséphin Péladan (1891), Alexandre Séon, one of his truest devotees, renders him as a nobleman wearing a splendid silky robe, a thick wreath of curls ringing his head, his aquiline nose and pointed beard sharpening his powerful profile, his eyes gazing upward, following his mind to loftier realms.

For Péladan and the R+C, an elevated mind wasn’t heaven-bent; rather, it raised itself via the pursuit of more ambitious and expressive visions. Poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine; novelist J.K. Huysmans; painters Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau — all symbolism’s founding fathers — had each in his own way embraced a darker romanticism. One of the most popular subjects for R+C artists was the myth of Orpheus, the alluring Greek poet/musician who failed to bring his beloved Eurydice back from the underworld. After he loses her to Hades, his grief renders him unable to sing or compose any longer, and at the end of his story, he’s ripped apart by a pack of wild women, who drop his severed head into a river, where it sings as it’s swept downstream.

The classic tale has long seduced artists, perhaps for the way it weaves together art, music, poetry, love, beauty, grief, and horror as inseparable conditions. Two of the three paintings of Orpheus included in the show are striking for the ways in which they deliver such exquisite viewing pleasures from tragic scenes. Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau’s Orpheus in Hades (1897) captures him mid-song at the feet of the ruler Pluto, surrounded by tormented bodies and open-mouthed asps. One particularly frightening reptilian beast is rendered with the glittering fineness of a jewel, seductive even as it stares directly at the viewer as though eyeing its next prey. Delville’s The Death of Orpheus (1893) is a cool yet disturbing vision of the decapitated poet suspended peacefully in the water, his leonine hair flowing as gently as the waves that carry him away.

There is unmistakable grace in eccentricity, and the art of the R+C is most engaging, most thrilling, when it’s most peculiar. The Swiss architect Albert Trachsel’s fantastical ink-and-watercolor drawing Procession Gathered at the Temple of the Being of the Beings (Illustration Project for the Album The Real Celebrations) (c. 1892) imagines an Egyptian-inspired temple of worship (for disciples of whom exactly is unclear), one that could easily be mistaken for a science fiction film’s set design. The paintings of Charles Maurin — The Dawn of Labor and The Dawn of the Dream (both c. 1891) — choreograph nude female bodies in dark and lightly kinky ways, to writhe in ecstasy or agony, to seduce and repulse.

Palpably tender — and absolutely bonkers — is Dutch artist Jan Theodoor Toorop’s The New Generation (1892), a nerve-racked vision of humanity at the brink of modernity that’s one of the exhibition’s oddest entries. In it, an infant girl sits in a high chair in the middle of a dense forest shot through with blood-red, labyrinthine roots that run like veins over the ground. Rendered in a vivacious, agitated hand, the scene is close-packed with symbolism. Train tracks and a telegraph pole cut across the foreground; a Buddha lurks among the trees in the background; a featureless woman stands behind a door and holds a dying flower. The painting’s disparate elements simultaneously entwine and pull apart to produce a tense, and most mesmerizing, canvas.

The exhibition’s installation tries to nod to the Salon de la Rose+Croix’s theatrical opulence, which included the scents of freshly cut lilies and burning incense wafting throughout its galleries, but is instead comparatively sedate (and unfortunately, a bit hokey and distracting). Music by Eric Satie, the R+C’s official composer, and other music of the era is piped into the space, the walls are painted a bitter rust color, and tufted, royal-blue velvet seating is provided throughout the show — choices neither bold enough nor total enough to really do the trick.

But “Mystical Symbolism” does refresh the Guggenheim’s walls in a less expected way, subtly restaging modernism’s mise-en-scène. Exiting the show, one finds oneself on the museum’s ramp and among the paintings and sculptures of “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim,” a celebration of six of the Guggenheim’s earliest patrons and the artists they collected. To look at the stalwart Mondrians, the graceful Calders, the radiant, dancing Kandinskys and others after spending time among the R+C eccentrics is to be reminded that modernism wasn’t the cold, calculated intellectual exercise that art history would have us think, and that abstraction was born in part from symbolism, theosophy, and other means through which minds have pursued transcendence, enlightenment. What else but some strain of faith could keep any artist toiling on the uncertain path of creation? That art can be fueled by the mysterious, the unknowable, the beyond-here: what an invigorating, fruitful belief.

“Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892-1897”
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through October 4