The great fountain in the Parc de la Ciutadella of Barcelona, by Josep Fontsère, with some minor work by the young Gaudi. The horses on top have been re-gilded now. To me, the wonderful thing about this exuberant and dramatic concoction is the way the vegetation is incorporated as part of the architectural/sculptural ensemble.
The only exception I know is the case,
when I’m out on a quiet spree,
fighting vainly the old ennui
and I suddenly turn and see,
your fabulous face.
I Get a Kick Out of You – Cole Porter
An exhibit at The Neue Galerie, that is dedicated to German and Austrian early 20th century art and design branches out from the usual program to bring together the marvelous heads by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783. A strange fellow – he went mad, it seems. Certainly, these heads he created were not the stuff of court and bourgeois portraiture of his day. Ahead of his time?
I have seen pictures and examples of his heads off and on over the years – it was a treat to see so many close up all at once. The Wiener Werkstatte postcards were nice too.
When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers? No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it. Is it a post WWII phenomenon? I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance. As the WWI song went,
How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?
This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city. And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage. Not exactly the stuff of…romance.
And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection. The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting. Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror. Again, not too much romance there.
I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola. I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city. The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately. And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:
When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her. She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably. Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]
Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit? Romance?.. A few images from now and then…
I learned of Alfred Kubin from, where else? Phillipe Julien’s Dreamers of Decadence. There is an exhibit of his work at the Neue Gallery now. You can see more of his weird images at the gallery site and this review in the NYTimes. He is not well known in America, and there is hardly anything on him in English I think. I was surprised to find that he had written a novel as well. I don’t know how he managed to survive the Nazi regime – how could he not be on their list as decadents to be expunged?
Mario Praz’s book, The Romantic Agony was published in 1933. I happen to think that my psychedelic Jagger image is just as appropriate to a discussion of it as the 16th century paintings that grace the cover of my Oxford paperpack edition. Probably more so, though Mario would have probably vomited at the thought of Jagger on the cover of his book.
The book, is discussed in this article at a “wiki site” (something I don’t understand too well) that seems to be presided over by the blogger Jahsonic, an affable fellow who shares many interests of anyone interested in this post.
In the text, Praz delves in great detail into the morbid sexual imagery that infuses much of romantic literature during the 19th century. The book contains lengthy excerpts – often in French – has a fantastic index, and a table of contents worth browsing in its own right. Starting pre-romance, with the Shadow of the Divine Marquis, he sets the stage for what will come in his discussion of authors down to the time of the Symbolists and Decadents, and D’Annunzio.
I learned of this book from another, Dreamers of Decadence, by Phillipe Julien, a study of the art of the late 19th century Symbolists. At the time I read these books, I was about sixteen years old, which tells you something about where my head was at. I later kicked myself for not developing a syndicate to buy up art of this period, considered kitsch and dreck in the early 70s, but which I, in a rare bit of financial acuity, knew would soar in value soon. And so it did! Every style has its day, and a second day, and another…With the hippies of the 60s growing up, abstract expressionism and modernism was bound to go out and the overheated sensibilities of the decadents would find buyers again. Thus, we come to Mick Jagger again, the watered down Satan of rock ‘n’ roll.
Praz’s book is of a type that doesn’t get written much these days, I think. I loved the scholarly apparatus of the notes, the clear sense that a scholar was at work here, one who knew his field, and could show the evidence for his point of view. So much love for the texts – he is not a critical vivisectionist, though he has his opinions!
Yes, I spent many happy hours searching for the juicy parts, reading them over and over, imagining their effect on certain attractive young women I fancied. I even read passages to one of them, during a romantic evening a deux. I think it was the passage in which Swineburne compared his passion to rats gnawing on a corpse…you never know what will grab a girl, do you?
Finally, I must quote Praz on the Divine Marquis:
Let us give Sade his due, as having been the first to expose, in all its crudity, the mechanism of homo sensualis, let us even assign him a place of honour as a psychopathologist and admit his influence on a whole century of literature; but courage (to give a nobler name to what most people would call shamelessness) does not suffice to give originality to a thought, nor does the hurried jotting down of all the cruel fantasies which obsess the mind suffice to give a work mastery of style…The most elementary qualities of a writer – let us not say, of a writer of genius – are lacking in Sade.
Such wonderful good sense! Such a sure grasp of values! Much as I love the surrealists, I always found their championing of Sade a little tiresome. The fact is, Sade is boring! He is not a fine writer. People who regard any discussion of sex or perversion as thrilling may find him congenial, but he really only has three or four things to say, and he says them at length, over and over. (Philosophy in the Bedroom is his only piece that I can recall as having a sustained and interesting argument. And he is arguing, always…) Would that this quotation by Praz were repeated everytime a new book, film, or play comes out with Sade as the misunderstood poete maudit.
They say that if you will sup with the devil, bring a long spoon. Praz could have broken bread with Satan himself, with no fear for his soul.
The drawing above is by the artist Heinrich Kley, an academic painter who turned satirist. I owe my rediscovery of him – I’ve seen some of his images before – to Richard Sala, who like me, enjoys his drawings and mentioned them in an interview. (He also intimates that his heroine Peculia is inspired by Louise Brooks.)
Kley’s drawings can be grotesque, bizarre, and hilarious. (Here is a site with a nice gallery: The Art of Heinrich Kley). The tension and sinuosity of his line – so typical of Art Nouveau – is fascinating. Click on this thumbnail to see a short animated tribute to him that I created from some of his drawings, a sequence that may have inspired some animators at Disney.
There’s no end to the wonders of black and white drawings, woodcuts, and engravings from this period, some of them a source of rich inspiration for comic artists today, as well as others of course. I find the work of Frans Masereel particularly arresting. Both he and the American Lynd Ward, created early forms of what some now call the “graphic novel.”
Joris Karl Huysmans, author of A Rebours, called the “breviary of decadence,” and La Bas, a novelistic account of satanism, become concerned about the state of his soul in his later years. He considered looking for a suitable confessor to whom he could unburden his conscience. Here is how he phrased it in a letter to a friend:
But what phenic acids, what copper solutions could cleanse the great sewage tank into which my carnal iniquities are still pouring? It would need casks of carbolic, barrels of disinfectant – and then what Milleriot could handle a pump powerful enough to draw the residual waters from the old sewers? The breed of divine pumpmen who rejoiced in such labors is extinct. And so there seems no reason, brother, why things should not go on as before. Though it’s true that when they are as bad as this..!
Truly, The Drainage is the central metaphor of civilized man.
The much loved Adams’ Family TV show was “inspired” by the ghoulish cartoons of Charles Adams from the New Yorker magazine. But what about the characters of Gomez and Morticia in particular? I don’t think there was any precedent for them in Chas. Adams’ work. Could it be that the fin de siecle French author, Barbey d’Aurevilly, is the source? Certainly, his story, “Happiness in Crime,” in the collection Weird Women, depicts a pair who could easily have been the model for that madly passionate couple, so in love with one another that the rest of the world just about ceases to exist, Gomez and Morticia Adams. L’Amour Fou, or Mad Love.
In the beginning of the story, “Happiness in Crime,” the narrator is strolling through the zoo with his elderly friend, Dr. Forty. They see a couple – tall, austere, dressed in black, the woman extremely beautiful, the man, a bit of a dandy – looking at a black panther. The woman stares at the beast so intently that it cringes and closes its eyes. She unbuttons her glove and pushes her hand through the bars of the cage, then she gives the animal a slap! The panther snaps its jaws at her, but succeeds only in swallowing her glove. The man grabs the woman’s hand, kisses it passionately, and exclaims in a tone of awestruck love, “Fool!” Remind you of anyone..? (“Darling, when you speak French, you drive me wild!!!)
The two of them have a crime in their past that allowed them to come together. The doctor knows their secret, but is sworn not to reveal it. He’s happy to keep mum: He loves to observe them, to try and figure out how they manage to be so happy in crime, so untroubled by their evil deed, and he wonders if there is a kernel of discord at the center of their all-consuming passion. (There isn’t!) The world does not exist for them, only each other.
The author invokes this scuplture, by Canova, to describe the nature of the their total absorption in their love and their secret embraces.
Flaubert remarked, when asked about the origin of his ‘heroine’, Madame Emma Bovary, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” If he can say that, then Emma and his works can take many forms, and so she has. First, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes – that memoir?, novel?, runimation? of a Flaubert fanatic that is delightfully odd; and now Gemma Bovery, a graphic novel that is freely inspired by the novel and is a wickedly funny and witty work in its own right by Posy Simmonds. That’s Gemma, up there with Gustave. (I saw the movie version of Bovary with Isabelle Huppert, and it seemed to me that it followed the book too faithfully to be interesting as a film.)
Flaubert didn’t write much, but he sweated famously over every word, looking for “le mot juste.” He was also a great letter writer, and if you want the full flavor of his personality, you must dip into his correspondance, where you will find gems like this:
To Guy De Maupassant [his protege, working as a clerk for the Navy at the time]
You must—do you hear me, young man?–you must work more than you do. I’ve come to suspect you of being something of a loafer. Too many whores! Too much rowing! Too much exercise! Yes, sir: civilized man doesn’t need as much locomotion as the doctors pretend. …You are living in an inferno of shit, I know, and I pity you from the bottom of my heart. … sacrifice everything to Art. Life must be considered by the artist as a means, nothing more, and the first person he shouldn’t give a hang about is himself.
In his fiction, Flaubert walks the finest of lines, and creates a unique tone, something he considered the essential element of his work. He objectively depicts stupidity, greed, tragedy, cruelty, and simple, naive goodness, but without nostalgia, sentimentality, snobbism or condescension. He understands that the cliche, unbearably trite though it may be, holds within it a truth which has been worn nearly to nothing by thoughtless use. That truth, concealed, hidden, revealed unwittingly by those who know only error – whether it is error due to ignorance or too much education – that truth is what he seeks to display to the reader. He is one of the first writers to grapple with the phenomena of modern mass society: the dreams of the consumerist citizen; political double-talk; the deluge of kitsch into the cultural marketplace; and, of course, ‘modern sex.’ That’s why Madame Bovary was declared obscene by the French government.
I wonder, was that scene in “Titanic” where the young hero and heroine couple in the back seat of a sedan parked in the lower-deck garage, showing us one (female) hand slapping the rear window in a hot-moist passion – was that inspired by Emma’s tryst as she rode around Rouen in a carriage, wobbling with love, as she drops handkerchiefs out the window? Was Jabba the Hutt of “Star Wars” inspired by a reading of his Salammbo? Think of Hanno, the general, carried in his litter, behind veils to conceal his hideous, bloated form from which disease is busily rotting his skin. Princess Lea, scantily clad, bound in chains, strangling Jabba to escape while distracting him with a sexy dance – that could have been right out of the novel.
He was a stoic, a martyr to his art, a cynic, a romantic, a spoiled gentleman, perhaps a bit of a pervert, though in his fantasies only. Here’s a juicy sample of his fin-de-siecle yearnings from the Temptation of Saint Anthony:
Her wide sleeves, garnished with emeralds and birds’ feathers, allow a bare view of her little round arm, ornamented at the wrist by an ebony bracelet, and her ring-laden hands are tipped with nails so sharp that her fingers finish almost like needles. A flat golden chain passing under her chin runs up along her cheeks, spirals around her blue-powdered hair, and then dropping down grazes past her shoulder and clinches over her chest on to a diamond scorpion, which sticks out its tongue between her breasts. Two large blonde pearls pull at her ears. The edges of her eyelids are painted black. On her left cheek-bone she has a natural brown fleck; and she breathes with her mouth open, as if her corset constricted her.
He was also something of a nihilist. What’s the point of anything when the sum total of human stupidity never decreases? And that includes all those who think they’re so smart as well…includes him! What happens to his heroes? Emma: suicide; Salammbo: miserable death and rape, if I recall correctly; Moreau: a life of mediocrity after a Sentimental Education in Paris, his story concluding with a trite, “Those were the days!” And Bouvard and Pecuchet – what do they do in the end? They go back to copying as clerks after ‘sampling’ western culture in its entirety, and Flaubert loves them for it. Trillling put it well:
The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century. Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself. The novel does nothing less than that: it rejects culture. The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the understanding…that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.
Vanity – something Saint Anthony knew about. I think about those lions in the valley, lazily dispatching the remaining Carthaginian soldiers with a swipe of the paw, then ripping out their entrails. Culture…how deep does it go?