Johann Heinrich Füssli, Nightmare, 1781
Dark Romanticism may not be easy to define but strolling through the Orsay’s exhibition devoted to the theme you definitely get a feel for it: creepy, macabre, melodramatic, gothic and often tinged with the erotic. The show begins with the early 19th century Romantics, runs through late 19th century Symbolism and ends with the Surrealists, punctuated throughout by clips of early black and white film. Thus the iconography and shadowy interior of Johann Heinrich Füssli’s Nightmare (1781) reappears in Frankenstein (US, 1931) or Dracula (also US, 1931), and the baron landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings resonate in clips from Faust – Eine deutsche Volkssage (Germany, 1926) and La Chute de la maison Usher (France, 1928).
Amongst the later 19th century offerings we see less high melodrama and more solitude (Pierre Bonnard, James Ensor), and death personified as in a Medieval Danse Macabre. Gauguin’s Madame La Mort picks up the implicit thematic thread of women as evil/dangerous/unpredictable, while Mort au bal by Felicien Rops, literally a skeleton dressed up for a ball, is almost comical.
Félicien Rops, La Mort au Bal, c. 1865 – 1875
There are some weird connections to be made between the sections. For example, between odd-ball 19th century painter-turned-photographer Charles-François Jeandel and German surrealist Hans Bellmer. After failing as a painter, Jeandel retired from Paris to the Charente region in the West of France. It was not until after his death that his experiments in erotic photography came to light (pun intended). The photos, bathed in an eerie blue glow from the development process (they are cyanotypes, a DIY process which allowed Jeandel to keep his dark desires to himself), show women in ropes, trussed up, suspended and forced into uncompromising poses. They hark back to the Marquis de Sade’s erotic writing but also foreshadow the surreal compositions of Hans Bellmer’s Poupée (“Doll”) where dismembered body parts (of a doll) become semi-abstract compositions.
Charles-François Jeandel, Femme nue, de trois quarts dos, attachée, 1890-1900
Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, 1936
The show also includes a good dose of fantasy (drawings by Victor Hugo, plates from Goya’s wonderful series of etchings Los Caprichos); witches (Edvard Munch, Pail Elie Ranson); mythology à la Gustave Moreau; cannibalism (Gericault’s studies for the Raft of the Medusa); and visions of hell (Goya’s more chilling series, Los Desastras de la Guerra, Bouguereau’s Dante and Virgil in Hell ). A great antidote to the sun-dappled and snow-dusted Impressionist landscapes upstairs.
L’Ange du Bizarre (“The Angel of the Odd”) is on at the Musée d’Orsay until 09/06/13