From “Bacon and Books” at the Pompidou Centre to “Picasso the Poet” at the Museu Picasso Barcelona, a flurry of exhibitions in 2019 have explored the links between the visual and literary arts. These associations were perhaps never closer than in late 19th-century France, and the Musée d’Orsay will round off the year with a show that examines the art criticism of one of France’s most celebrated novelists, Joris-Karl Huysmans, alongside paintings by the artists who captivated him: Degas, Caillebotte, Manet, Forain, Moreau, Gervex, Pissarro, Monet, Whistler, Redon and Ingres, among others.
While surprisingly little-known outside of France, Huysmans (1848-1907) represents a cult figure in the French imagination. Under the influence of his mentor and friend Emile Zola, his work began in a Naturalist vein, but by the 1880s and ’90s had become paradigmatic of the Decadent movement. His most famous novel, “A rebours” (Against Nature) (1884), is an era-defining work that marked both the apogee and death of the novel in one claustrophobic and exquisitely bleak distillation of fin-de-siècle France. Its protagonist, the ailing aesthete Jean Des Esseintes, is upstaged only by the aristocrat’s pet tortoise, which – after being painted gold and encrusted with fine jewels – promptly dies, only to be immortalized in an enduring metaphor for the destructive follies of excess. Huysmans’s novel was one of the inspirations for Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890) and was wielded in court as evidence of the Irish writer’s “moral corruption.”
While Huysmans is best known as a novelist, one of his great passions in life was art. His father and grandfather were both artists, and by 1879 he was writing reviews of the Salons as well as articles on painters who populated the fringes of the establishment. Time has served Huysmans’s criticism well: he had little regard for the institutionally approved artists of the period, now largely forgotten, and was a fervent champion of many of the figures that propelled the evolution of Modern art. Huysmans bemoaned the academic mediocrity of the Salons’ most celebrated regulars; never one to mince his words, he wrote that Pierre Lecontre Du Noüy “made the wrong choice of career,” that Henri Gervex “no longer knows how to paint,” and that William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “The Birth of Venus” is “so bad that there isn’t even a word for it.” He panned the official Salon in 1879 as “a mass of sad works,” denouncing the derivative style and weary subject matter, before proclaiming, “Let’s have art that lives and breathes, for God’s sake!”
Huysmans found that living, breathing quality in the painters of modern life: Degas (“the greatest painter we have in France today”), Caillebotte, Manet, Forain, Cassatt, Morisot… Given the jaded vision of the world depicted in his novels, he was unsurprisingly drawn to artists who conveyed daily life in all its mundanity – the rougher and grubbier the better. Huysmans’s readings of certain artists’ oeuvre were not always welcomed with open arms and he had a tendency to appropriate artists’ work for his own ends. He had long championed Odilon Redon’s imaginative dreamscapes, but when he projected his own interest in Satanism onto Redon’s paintings, the artist rejected the interpretation and the two men’s friendship never quite recovered.
Like Charles Baudelaire before him or Guillaume Apollinaire after, Huysmans saw his art criticism not as separate to his literary oeuvre but as a constitutive part of it. In an analysis of Cézanne, whose use of color Huysmans praised but about whom he was otherwise critical, he describes the artist’s “houses leaning to one side like drunkards, lopsided fruit in lurching pots, nude bathers surrounded by insane lines… [all] for the greater glory of the eyes endowed with the passionate ardour of a Delacroix without the visual refinement or a discriminating touch, whipped by a frenzy of spoiled colours, screaming, in bold relief, on a burdened canvas that bends!” Whether readers agree with Huysmans’s assessment or not, his criticism lends new perspectives on familiar artists that feel as compelling today as when they were first written. The Musée d’Orsay’s show will offer visitors a window into some of the greatest artists from the period, through the lens of Huysmans’s idiosyncratic inner world.
“Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald” is on show at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through March 1.
Article published on Blouin Artinfo.