The Occult Roots of Modernism

Joséphin Péladan’s mystical art exhibitions, in Paris, set the stage for everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

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In the Paris of the early eighteen-nineties, at the height of the Decadence, the man of the moment was the novelist, art critic, and would-be guru Joséphin Péladan, who named himself Le Sâr, after the ancient Akkadian word for “king.” He went about in a flowing white cloak, an azure jacket, a lace ruff, and an Astrakhan hat, which, in conjunction with his bushy head of hair and double-pointed beard, gave him the aspect of a Middle Eastern potentate. He was in the midst of writing a twenty-one-volume cycle of novels, titled “La Décadence Latine,” which follows the fantastical adventures of various enchanters, adepts, femmes fatales, androgynes, and other enemies of the ordinary. His bibliography also includes literary tracts, explications of Wagnerian mythology, and a self-help tome called “How One Becomes a Magus.” He let it be known that he had completed the syllabus. He informed Félix Faure, the President of the Republic, that he had the gift of “seeing and hearing at the greatest distances, useful in controlling enemy councils and suppressing espionage.” He began one lecture by saying, “People of Nîmes, I have only to pronounce a certain formula for the earth to open and swallow you all.” In 1890, he established the Order of the Catholic Rose + Croix of the Temple and the Grail, one of a number of end-of-century sects that purported to revive lost arts of magic. The peak of his fame arrived in 1892, when he launched an annual art exhibition called the Salon de la Rose + Croix, which embraced the Symbolist movement, with an emphasis on its more eldritch guises. Thousands of visitors passed through, uncertain whether they were witnessing a colossal breakthrough or a monumental joke.

The spell wore off quickly. At the time of Péladan’s death, in 1918, he was already seen as an absurd relic of a receding age. He is now known mainly to scholars of Symbolism, connoisseurs of the occult, and devotees of the music of Erik Satie. (I first encountered Péladan in connection with Satie’s unearthly 1891 score “Le Fils des Étoiles,” or “The Son of the Stars”; it was written for Péladan’s play of that title, which is set in Chaldea in 3500 B.C.) His contemporary Joris-Karl Huysmans remains a cult figure—“Against the Grain,” Huysmans’s 1884 novel, is still read as a primer of the Decadent aesthetic—but none of Péladan’s novels have been translated into English. So when an exhibition entitled “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, 1892-1897” opens at the Guggenheim Museum, on June 30th, most visitors will be entering unknown territory. The show occupies one of the tower galleries, in rooms painted oxblood red, with furniture of midnight-blue velvet. On the walls, the Holy Grail glows, demonic angels hover, women radiate saintliness or lust. The dark kitsch of the fin de siècle beckons. (Click to Article)

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