Several events and colloquia have been organized to mark the one hundredth anniversary of J. K. Huysmans’ death. However, only one exhibition, that presented together by the very active Société des amis de Huysmans and the Musée national Gustave Moreau highlights the significance of his relationship to the arts. Regrettably nothing of a larger scope is planned to commemorate the Esthétique of the author of A Rebours, the bible of “décadentisme”. We would, nevertheless, like to congratulate Marie-Cécile Forest for her courage in accepting, “after much thought”, to organize the first temporary exhibition ever shown in this mythical place. Even the most steadfast institutions end up changing their ways sooner or later.
In order to maintain the permanent arrangement in the museum, the exhibition consists mostly of two large walls that have been added (on the window side) on the two main floors of the artist’s workshop. Of a deep purple shade that distinguishes them from the rest of the galleries, the additions display a close-knit hanging style typical of the XIXth C. The organizers present the various themes treated by Moreau which drew Huysmans’ attention both in his reviews and in his novels. Based on this choice, over 70 drawings, sketches and watercolors, rarely seen, are thus on display for our enjoyment. From La Fontaine’s Fables to Salome, from the Song of Songs to Galatea or Helen, Moreau’s art is highlighted in all its subtlety and its extraordinary character thanks to the museum’s rich holdings. Various autographed documents, books and the A Rebours manuscript, a true relic for “fin de siècle” art lovers, are also featured behind glass displays.
And yet, why does one leave the exhibition with a feeling of incompleteness ? The disappointment is not due so much to the reduced size of the show : quantity does not stand for quality and a very small selection of works can make a lasting impression. The answer is rather in the purely documentary focus of the exhibition which leaves one a bit cold. Both the exhibition and the catalogue do indeed narrate how the two men met and the surrounding circumstances. The works about which Huysmans spoke or which he saw are presented, but one cannot sum up the relationship between Huysmans and Moreau by such a factual approach. Drawing a parallel between the two is not enough to explain their correspondences, the synesthesia so dear to the Symbolists. Unfortunately, the exhibition and its corresponding catalogue do not attempt to explore the purely aesthetic links of the works and their complexity which goes far beyond mere criticism or quotations. How does one find Moreau’s “art lapidaire”, his updating of myths, his sopisticated pictorial manner in Huysmans’ writing, and elsewhere, even in texts where the painter is not mentioned : that is the underlying question that should have been answered or, at least, should have been asked. Nonetheless, one should not pass up the pleasure of visiting the Musée Gustave Moreau to view the show and admire as always the irresistible beauty of the permanent collection.
André Guyaux, Marie-Cécile Forest, Philippe Barascud, Samuel Mandin, Benoîte de Montmorillon, Huysmans-Moreau. Féeriques visions. Musée Gustave Moreau / Société J.K. Huysmans, 120 p., 2007, 20 €. ISBN 978-2-901425-50-2.