Pastiche, nostalgia, nihilism
In history there are moments of great fruitfulness that are, however, described as decadent. These occur when what is believed to be the high point of a civilization begins to all decline into pastiche, nostalgia and nihilism.
According to the writer Donatien Grau, who is also the contemporary programs consultant at the Musée d’Orsay, the most decadent European artist today is Francesco Vezzoli.
The Italian, born in 1971, created the daring trailer for a remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula, along with a pastiche of an American presidential campaign with Bernard-Henri Levy and Sharon Stone playing the roles of the candidates. He invented a perfume consisting of an advert showing Hollywood stars having a catfight over the bottle.
And inspired by the postwar actresses who would do their embroidery while waiting to act in films, he himself does a lot of embroidery, particularly tears, which he links to images of icons of modern and contemporary society.
Dandy with a sharp mind
But above all, this dandy with a sharp mind and a tormented disposition creates his own worlds. After a long fascination with America, he is now looking to old Europe and its culture for inspiration.
He’s just conceived a single work in three parts for the Musée d’Orsay.
This fascinating journey follows the artistic passions of a French decadent writer, Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), author of the famous novel “A rebours” (1884) with its hero of ultimate sophistication, des Esseintes. We thus enter the kingdom of Huysmans, who worked for the French Ministry of the Interior and fervently championed the impressionists and despised the “pompier” artists like William Bouguereau who specialized in wanton women with milky skin, which Huysmans described as “a deluge of silliness”.
Robert de Montesquiou
Vezzoli is exhibiting various treasures from the museum’s extensive collections, including works by Odilon Redon, Manet, Renoir and Caillebotte… The most famous dandy of the age, Robert de Montesquiou, naturally features prominently, with a depiction by society portraitist Giovanni Boldini, since he inspired the novel’s hero.
The central room is wallpapered with the décor of another decadent writer, the Italian Gabriel d’Annunzio, “because I have to find personal roots to this story,” explains Vezzoli.
A tortoise by Bulgari
The space is presided over at the centre by a tortoise straight out of “A rebours”, which fell victim in the novel to the weight of the precious stones that the aesthete stuck on its shell. But on this occasion the animal at the Musée d’Orsay is a model made by Bulgari.
Conversion to Catholicism
Towards the end of his life Joris-Karl Huysmans, in an unexpected about-face, discovered the power of the religious paintings of the Italian Primitives and converted to Catholicism.
The apotheosis of his faith could be found in his admiration for one of the great masterpieces of art history, the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald.
Made in China
At the Orsay, Vezzoli takes the central section of this large work from Colmar and copies it in three identical versions “made in China”.
And since we’re on the subject of decadence, these faithful imitations displayed in mystical low lighting are reminiscent of the darkness in which the “Salvator Mundi” – the overly restored Leonardo painting which sold for 450 million dollars in 2017 at Christie’s- was also exhibited in New York before it was sold.
Darkness at the end
Fittingly, “A rebours” also ends in darkness, with a mystical plea from des Esseintes who sinks into a chair saying: “O Lord, pity the Christian who doubts, the sceptic who would believe, the convict of life embarking alone in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacons of ancient faith.”
Decadence, it would seem, is pessimistic by nature.
Until 1 March, https://www.musee-orsay.fr/
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