Not since the Musée d’Orsay’s 2010 “Crime and Punishment” has Paris received a show with as much darkness and density as the museum’s new exhibition, “The Angel of the Odd: Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst” (on view through June 9). With over 200 works (including paintings, sculptures, engravings, drawings, and films), the show doesn’t cover a single movement or period but rather a thread running through many — a fascination with the irrational and the irreverent, whether macabre, barbaric or decadent, that began in response to the progressive and idealistic rationality of the Enlightenment.
First coined by literary critic Mario Praz in 1930, “Dark Romanticism” referenced the artists within the late 18th century whose use of the emotional and imaginative veered toward depictions of historic atrocities or worlds populated by demons, monsters, and spectres. Earlier examples include Johann Heinrich Füssli (“Nightmare” from 1781) and engravings by Goya “(The Caprices”); but it blossomed throughout the 19th century in the syncretic mythologies of Gustave Moreau, Franz von Stuck, and Böcklin, who drew upon Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare as well as the Gothic novels of Horace Walpole and Mary Shelley for inspiration. The (unofficial) movement finally washed up on the shores of the First World War, with Hans Bellmer’s dislocated dolls and Max Ernst’s disturbing woods. In this way, Dark Romanticism passed through Romanticism, Symbolism, Academic art, and Surrealism, inspiring Delacroix, Géricault, Munch, and Odilon Redon; conveying the fears, the pessimism, and the taste for the erotic and the grotesque of the times.
In the exhibition, viewers come upon devils, vampires, skeletons, views of Pandemonium (the capital of hell according to Milton); bats, owls, ghosts, witches, cannibal sphinxes, Medusas (true femmes fatales), forests, abysses, and graveyards. It’s Romanticism’s shadowy side, its extreme form, a fantastic fringe in search of the sublime. These artists explore an uncertain zone where the supernatural meets reality, and the rational and irrational are joined together. The exhibition’s title, “The Angel of the Bizarre,” comes from a novella by Edgar Allan Poe in which a monster physically penetrates into reality. In a similar fashion, it’s impossible to know whether the demonic creature haunting a young woman’s sleep in Füssli’s “Nightmare” will vanish or not when she wakes up.
But this “choice of darkness” (the only possible choice for human beings according to Victor Hugo) is also a way to escape from oppressive social and religious conventions. Without totally leaving behind Judeo-Christian representation, these artists are inspired by decadence in the spirit of the Marquis de Sade, replacing reason with instinct and the unconscious, as in Surrealist art. Realms of darkness, the fantastic and the strange become a space for freedom, pleasure, resistance, release, subversion, and, paradoxically, lucidity.
Alongside the expected artworks, such as Goya’s engravings (“The Caprices,” “The Disasters of War,” “Proverbs”) and paintings by Füssli, Moreau, Rops, Friedrich, von Stuck, Max Klinger, and Magritte, the exhibition also holds some surprises. An interior by Pierre Bonnard, where the figures tend to melt into the tapestry, as if devoured by it; a Medusa made of algae by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer; previously unseen erotic cyanotypes by the amateur photographer Charles-François Jeandel; a spectral dance from 1817 by Ferdinand Fellner that looks like a heroic fantasy album; a portrait of Madame Death by Gauguin; superb prints by illustrator Roger Parry from the photographer Dietmar Siegert’s private collection; and fantastic landscapes in red and black ink by Gaston Redon, the younger brother of Odilon.
However, it’s a bit surprising to come upon semi-abstract paintings by Klee with witches hiding in the forest and the remains of gates of gothic castles. Why not Giacometti’s “Woman With Her Throat Cut” or the sadomasochistic “Fantasies of Mr. Seabrook” by Man Ray? This show could have been a wonderful chance to see Füssli’s “Lady MacBeth Sleepwalking” (whose home is not far away, in the Louvre) and Böcklin’s “Island of the Dead,” with its boat piloted by Charon toward a frightening landscape of threatening trees and cliffs.
With an abundance of works, styles, and themes in the exhibition, it’s easy to get lost in. But that’s an enjoyable feeling. Genres are mixed together without any hierarchy of values, with academic painting (such as the sensual battle of Bouguereau’s Dante-like cannibals) co-habiting with the avant-garde, and kitsch complementing good taste. Eleven film excerpts are shown, including Fritz Lang’s “Three Lights” (1921) and Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931) with Bela Lugosi. In fact, the exhibition opens with a movie: Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (1922), followed by Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940) and Luis Buñuel’s incredible “Los Olvidados” (1950). It’s worth taking the time to sit down to watch them. And there’s the added pleasure of finding connections with other works in the show: such as the way that James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931) takes inspiration from the monster in Füssli’s “Nightmare.”