This Curious sleeper of a show centers on the eccentric career of Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918) a French writer, art critic, dandy and mystic. At the end of the 19th century, he invited an international coterie of artists to exhibit at the Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, an annual event that launched Symbolism as an art movement. Organized around Péladan’s version of Rosicrucianism, an amalgam of Catholicism and esoteric occult ideas, the Salons espoused social and aesthetic conservatism, mythic themes and mysteries.
Hung on dramatic oxblood walls, the show’s largely unfamiliar offerings are in turns fey, pretentious, silly and so grippingly weird you can’t look away. Even though much of the work seems irreparably kitschy, the feverish zeal with which Péladan and his followers searched for the spiritual in art still comes across. An imposing 1895 portrait by Jean Delville pictures Péladan as a sort of Byzantine priest pointing heavenward. Delville, in fact, created some of the most compelling images here. In The Death of Orpheus (1893), for instance, we see the poet’s severed head as it’s borne along on a bejeweled lyre onto a beach. A knockout drawing titled The Idol of Perversity (1891) prefigures a thousand heavy-metal album covers with its image of a fierce woman wreathed by snakes. She radiates wanton sexuality, an image that illustrates the retrograde nature of Péladan’s Salons: Closed to female artists, they largely imagined women as either femme fatales or virginal wisps.
Another rendering of Orpheus from 1897 by Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau pictures him in Hades performing for a group of underworld denizens. Elsewhere, the long-haired women in Fernand Khnopff’s I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1891), stares balefully at us from a room presided over by a bust of the god Hypnos. Is she victim or predator? The painting remains cryptic, but also unforgettable.
Today, the exhibition (and its placement in the museum) suggests that the Rose + Croix Salon may have been less important for the art it championed than for the future it presaged. Not long after Symbolism ceased to be a vital movement, modernism and abstraction burst upon the world, often with similarly charismatic and dogmatic leaders and the same goofy ideas about the ineffable—as the Wassily Kandinsky just beyond the exit attests.