Gustave Moreau: Vers le Songe et l’Abstrait

Inadvertent Abstractionist

November 6, 2018By Heidi EllisonExhibitions
Gustave Moreau, Sketch
“Sketch.” © RMN-Grand Palais/Christian Jean

Was Gustave Moreau (1826-98) – the Symbolist painter famed for his mysterious and moody paintings of biblical and mythological subjects – actually a pioneer of abstraction? This was a theory posited in the 1960s by some observers based on works in the Moreau archives that had no clear subject matter. Now the Musée Gustave Moreau has put together an exhibition, “Gustave Moreau: Vers le Songe et l’Abstrait” (Toward the Dream and the Abstract), to investigate the question. 

Gustave Moreau’s studio
Gustave Moreau’s studio. © Sylvain Sonnet

Moreau’s archives, with some 25,000 works preserved and exhibited in the artist’s former home and studio, is considered by many to be Paris’s most charming museum. In it is what has long been known as the “cupboard of abstracts,” which holds 22 framed nonfigurative works. No one knows when in the history of the museum, which opened in 1903, these works were placed in this cupboard. All told, the museum has over a hundred nonfigurative paintings and 430 “color tests” in watercolor and gouache. The curators pored over all of these works, hoping to solve the mystery.

The consensus is that the framing of these works was done at the behest of Moreau himself, since the preparations for the museum were made by him before his death and continued between 1898 and 1903 by his close friend Henri Rupp, who was acting on explicit instructions from the painter. The frames would seem to indicate that these works were meant to be exhibited.

Another point the curators considered was that in Moreau’s time, the word “abstract” did not have the same meaning it has today. For Moreau, they say, it would have referred more to a sort of spirituality, a movement away from the real world to another realm, “the search for the invisible in art.”

Paris, musée Gustave Moreau,
“Alexander the Great.” © RMN-Grand Palais/Franck Raux
Paris, musée Gustave Moreau
“The Triumph of Alexander the Great.” © RMN-Grand Palais/René-Gabriel Ojéda

In the end, the curators were able to clearly identify many of the “sketches” found in the cupboard and the archives as preparatory studies for completed works. One example is the seemingly abstract “Alexander the Great,” pictured above, which is obviously related to the finished “The Triumph of Alexander the Great” seen just below it.

Paris, musée Gustave Moreau
“The Temptation of Saint Anthony.” © RMN-Grand Palais/Franck Raux

Other works, like this “Temptation of Saint Anthony,” may look abstract but actually contain figures. Here the hermit, in the center of the picture, is surrounded by fantastic visions represented by a swirl of colors.

Still others, like the “Sketch” pictured at the top of this page, have no clear purpose. Those that are not obviously preparatory studies for particular works are considered to be tests of color and materials, part of Moreau’s in-depth research for his finished works, an important part of his creative process.

As art writer Susan Freudenheim noted in an article published in 1980, “Gustave Moreau and the Question of Abstraction,” Moreau was not a precursor of abstraction but had “inadvertently” made abstract paintings. The current exhibition at the Musée Gustave Moreau seems to support that opinion. Even so, there seem to be some painterly premonitions of abstract art to come in these mysterious “sketches” …

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