Gustave Moreau @ National Gallery of Victoria

Gustave Moreau - Jupiter and EuropaThursday, 9 December 2010

Gustave Moreau @ National Gallery of Victoria

I’ve been fascinated with the art of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) ever since I saw his Salomé from the Armand Hammer Collection as a teenager in the 1980s. His technique, brilliance of execution, and the undiluted goriness of it all, left an indelible impression on me. Since then, I had seen numerous works by the artist throughout the world, and studied him closely for a thesis on the iconography of Saint Sebastian in the nineteenth-century French art.

It was therefore with excitement and trepidation that I’d learnt about Moreau’s forthcoming exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I was pleased and excited to be invited to the media preview and the official opening of the show.

The art of Gustave Moreau is impossible to pigeonhole. There are definite echoes of Neo-Classical and Academic influence of Ingres; aspects of renewed interest in religious painting in the mid-nineteenth-century France as witnessed in works of Flandrin and his followers; but also a much looser painting technique akin to Delacroix; pronounced interest in Middle and Far Eastern theologies; and almost decadent, mystical symbolism and obsession with death and suicide, which would only become the staple of French and European art in the late nineteenth century.

Gustave Moreau - L'Apparition (Salome)Another astonishing aspect about Gustave Moreau is the sheer depth of knowledge of religious and mythological texts on which his works are based. It is as if the artist attempted to depict, illustrate, and interpret every word, syllable and punctuation mark of the story; a meticulous interest and attention to detail, which, once again, would only attain its heyday in art as well as literature (think the detailed descriptive writings of Proust and Huysmans) towards the end of the century.

The exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria comprises of roughly one hundred and twenty paintings and works on paper. It is drawn entirely from the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris, the artist’s former residence bequeathed to the nation, which is reputed to have in excess of 20,000 items in its collections.

Titled Gustave Moreau & the Eternal Feminine, the exhibition surveys the artist’s complex attitudes to women in his art and as well as in his life. The display is thematically separated into several sections, which focus on Moreau’s main female protagonists – Europa, Deianira, Helen of Troy, Galatea, Sappho, Batsheba, the Sirens, and others. A separate section in the middle of the exhibition space is dedicated to Salomé, perhaps the most haunting heroine in the artist’s oeuvre.

Gustave Moreau - The SirensEach of these women was responsible in some way for the physical and psychological fall of men. Messalina summarily ordered execution of her lovers; la belle Hélène was the cause of the Trojan War; the Sirens lured seafarers to their death. Omphale emasculated Hercules by making him wear women’s clothes, while Deianira caused his death by unwittingly presenting him with a poisoned cloak from a jealous lover. Last but not least there is Salomé, whose request of St John’s severed head as a price for her famous striptease has been described by psychoanalysts as the ultimate fear of castration.

Each section of the exhibition is anchored by a significant painting, such as Jupiter and Europa, The Sirens, Death of Sappho, The Unicorns, L’Apparition, and numerous others. Each of these seminal paintings is surrounded by a number of studies, sketches and modellos in oil, ink, or pencil, providing a rare insight into the working mind of Moreau, his painstaking research, his pursuit of an ideal vision, perfect composition, the most aesthetically and narratively complete visualisation of a story.

Gustave Moreau - Sheet of Studies for L'ApparitionGustave Moreau is known for his complex textured canvasses, teaming with thickly-applied impastos, dollops of luminous pigments, which make his painted surfaces resemble an exquisite tablet lusciously pavé-set with shimmering precious stones. Jupiter and Europa is the only “highly finished” painting in this exhibition to illustrate this point. The rest are in various states of completion, providing once again an invaluable insight into Moreau’s painting practices, such as underpainting, tracing of compositional details, and building up of hues and colours. Yet despite the unfinished appearance of these works, the emotional drama within them – and especially within his smaller works – is palpable. Witness for example the verve and vitality of his small sketch for Jupiter; the vertiginous gravity and emotional abandonment of Sappho’s suicidal leap; or the numerous reworkings of Salomé, where the haunting apparition of St John’s bleeding skull is the culmination of the human and psychological drama.

Gustave Moreau - The Death of Sappho

Questions were raised on the opening night regarding the relatively small scale of the exhibition space, which snugly fits all one hundred and twenty works; the absence of larger and more important works by the artist; and an almost vanilla concentration on the female nude. The latter was seen as a veritable “heterosexualisation” of the artist, whose oeuvre is renowned for the eroticised heroic male, as well as the conceptualisation in his art of the androgyne or ephebe, which, prior to Hirschfeld’s revolutionary studies into human sexuality, was perceived as the embodiment of the “third sex”.

For a Moreau aficionado like myself, these are all but minor, unimportant issues as compared to the sheer pleasure of seeing these works in Australia. The ability to penetrate beyond the gloss of his finished paintings in order to examine Moreau’s complex artistic journeys towards the ultimate and final composition through innumerable studies and sketches (which are normally hidden from pubic view) is likewise invaluable.

I have discussed in my previous posts the sheer expense of bringing international exhibitions to Australia, which may have been the decisive factor in the size and content of this show. It is also possible that the exhibition is designed as a gradual introduction to Moreau’s oeuvre. In case the exhibition leaves the visitor wanting more, a Musée Gustave Moreau DVD is played enticingly on one of the television screens. It shows the sheer extent of the museum’s collections, where the artist’s works are hung floor to ceiling, and ensures that a visit to Moreau’s house-museum will be on all future Parisian itineraries.



[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment. I am grateful to the National Gallery of Victoria for providing me with exhibition images.]

Gustave Moreau @ the NGV - Installation View

Musee Gustave Moreau - Interior View

2 Responses to “Gustave Moreau @ National Gallery of Victoria”

  1. 1 c.whelan
    June 17, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    fantastic account of the exhibition!

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

December 2010


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