Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic
From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli
On ViewMusée d’Orsay
November 26, 2019 – March 1, 2020
Flowing through three contiguous galleries along the right-hand mezzanine of the Musée d’Orsay is the stream of consciousness of the novelist and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans, in the form of the exhibition and installation Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic. Acting as a valve on this torrent of images and ideas is another enigmatic aesthetic impresario, the artist Francesco Vezzoli. This is an academic exhibition curated by André Guyaux and Stéphane Guégan, contained within an artwork by Vezzoli. Complicating things further, Vezzoli’s artwork folds in on itself and is based on the writings of Huysmans, primarily his masterpiece À Rebours (Against Nature, 1884). The coordination between artistic fantasy and historical reality, i.e. between Vezzoli and the curatorial team, was deftly juggled by Donatien Grau (who has edited for and contributed to the Brooklyn Rail in the past). Luckily the transition from history to fiction begins with a traditional white box gallery space, so we can get our bearings, and migrates into a final total conceptual piece, via a spell in a sumptuous scarlet house of pleasure designed by Futurist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (an acolyte of Huysmans). In the final conceptual gesture, Vezzoli fills a single room with multiple paintings based on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512–16), indicating on the one hand Huysmans’s seemingly inescapable destiny in the arms of some form of spirituality, and on the other the uncomfortably close relationship between dandyish decadence and intense Catholic religious fervor. Like Vezzoli, Huysmans had no problem mixing fact with fiction and peppered his novels with references to real-world writers and artists. The color-coded white, red, and black galleries are filled with the artists Huysmans championed as well as the art works which inspired his fictional character in Against Nature, the Baron des Esseintes. In this, there is a wonderful ambiguity in what the exhibition is attempting to accomplish: illustrate the life of the critic or bring his novel to life? If the viewer understandably balks at this mille-feuille of subtexts and metaphors, the range of works exhibited is truly extraordinary, featuring seminal pieces by Edgar Degas, Eva Gonzalès, Gustave Caillebotte, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon, as well as historical documentation, photographs and a jewel-encrusted turtle fabricated by Bulgari.
The tale begins in a series of white galleries introducing the viewer to Huysmans’s initial fascination with naturalism and his overall likes and dislikes. William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Naissance de Venus (Birth of Venus, 1879) and Fernand Pelez’s La Mort de l’Empereur Commode (The Death of Emperor Commodus, 1879) are presented as examples of the insipid sentimentality that the critic regularly dismissed, while he was lukewarm on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s pallid Jeune Filles au bord de la Mer (Girls at the Seaside, 1879) and its ilk. It is hard to discern why the illustrative Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Chiffonnier Allumant sa Pipe (Ragpicker Lights His Pipe, 1884) or Henri Gervex’s soft-core erotic Rolla (1878) was more appealing to the critic, but Huysmans was very nuanced in his definition of naturalism in terms of what he deemed authentic. The Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876 introduced Huysmans to Degas, and the last two-thirds of the white galleries are devoted primarily to examples of Impressionism, including Degas’s L’Absinthe (1875-76) and Édouard Manet’s Portrait of Irma Brunner (1880). The piercing and dramatic canvas Une Loge au Théâtre des Italiens (A Box at the Italian Theatre, 1874) by Eva Gonzalès, Caillebotte’s Au Café (In a Café, 1880), and several works on paper by Jean-Louis Forain exemplify the critic’s fascination with direct contact between the figures in the image and the viewer, a commingling of the illusory volume of the picture plane and the personal space of the viewer that would emerge in his intensely descriptive novels. Vezzoli’s gentle contribution to the white zone is a modest, embroidered Self-portrait (2019), but it acknowledges the themes of fictional autobiography and role reversal between critic and artist with which Huysmans would engage: Vezzoli’s Self-portrait is a portrait of the artist as a young girl, and while the allure of the piece is one of Vezzoli’s trademark tears in sparkling sequins, the pun lies in an embroidery of an embroiderer (embroidering).
The second, red, gallery joyously begins the process of purposefully confusing the writer with his characters, and the viewer is transported to Huysmans’s alter ego des Esseintes’s obsessively crafted home in the novel Against Nature. D’Annunzio modeled his own home after Huysmans’s detailed description of the protagonist’s house, and Vezzoli has laminated the walls of the gallery in floor-to-ceiling photographs of the decadent paneling and interior decoration of D’Annunzio’s recreation of the fictional domicile. At the entrance to the red gallery are a selection of portraits of poets and dandies (sometimes both simultaneously) who inspired or are referenced in Against Nature: Félix Nadar’s photographic portrait of a pensive Baudelaire (1855), Émile Lévy’s painting of a haughty Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly (1881) and a Giovanni Boldini portrait of a rakish Count Robert de Montesquiou (1897). The Baron des Esseintes spends almost an entire chapter agonizing over two of Moreau’s Salome paintings in Huysmans’s novel, but in this exhibition, we are treated to the painter’s Galatea (c. 1880), its subtext of thwarted love just as applicable. This second phase of the exhibition charts Huysmans’s trajectory from a critic espousing Naturalism to a proponent of Symbolism, while simultaneously following a personal path from agnosticism towards devoted and monastic Catholicism. That personal transformation is mirrored in the selection of works by Redon, which features a dozen of the artist’s surreal black and white lithographs but concludes the red passage of the exhibition with his color pastels Christ au Sacre Coeur (Christ of the Sacred Heart, 1895) and Parsifal (1912). Images not only steeped in Christian mysticism, but iconography as well, objects that, like des Esseintes’s endless catalog of luxurious objects, can be radiant forms, almost as decadent in their depiction as the life-sized, gilt and jewel-encrusted turtle, created by Vezzoli with the jewelers at Bulgari, that sits at the center of the room.
In Against Nature, the protagonist purchases a turtle to pair with the Persian carpet in his study. Not satisfied with the natural appearance of the reptile, he hires a lapidary to encrust his pet with gold and jewels, decoration which in the end crushes the poor creature to death. The figure of Vezzoli’s golden turtle placed center-stage in the red gallery transitions to the gaudy and morbid intensity of the putrid, decomposing, and lacerated flesh of Christ in the three full-sized painted reproductions of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece placed in the exhibition’s final pitch-black chamber. Huysmans called Grünewald “the boldest painter who has ever lived.” In his two pieces about the German master—the first chapter of his novel, Là-Bas (The Damned, 1891), and his description of the painter’s works in Colmar, France from Trois Églises et Trois Primitifs (Three Churches and Three Primitives, 1908)—the author revels, possibly to the point of arousal, in descriptions of blistering tortured skin and the ravages enacted on the Savior. This parallels his earlier obsessions with sensory exactitude in discussions of color, smell, and taste in Against Nature. Vezzoli, who in the red gallery had presented us with a stately pleasure palace of shimmering gold and gemstones, as well as the hallucinatory Moreaus and Redons, has let this voluptuous atmosphere sour into a murky zone of sadomasochistic Catholic pain fetish. It is a rich and satisfying verdict on Huysmans’s life. The writer was able to retire from the French civil service by 1898, at the age of 50, based on the sales of his writings. He had envisioned creating a cloistered monastic community of Catholic artists, which on the surface seems a life of humility and introspection. Vezzoli digs deeper, instead unearthing an erotic trend in the arc of the critic’s life. Huysmans’s early championing of naturalism, seemingly innocent enough, transmogrified into his affair with sensuality, dandyism, and symbolism, and finally ascended to what might be considered a plane of clarity and revelation. In Vezzoli’s eyes, though, Huysmans’s aesthetic biography is a lateral move into a zone of darker, and perhaps more delicious, perversion.