Monday, March 14, 2011

Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine - INTERVIEWS

Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine

Moreau the final weeks - NGV Curator International Art Laurie Benson speaks to Paul Andrew about the art and philosophy of Gustav Moreau before these delicious works are returned to Europe.

Laurie what was going through your mind as you unpacked these beautiful paintings and witnessed Moreau's works en masse?

For a curator this is undoubtedly the most thrilling part of any exhibition. I’ve seen grown curators and even directors moved to tears as rare and wonderful works are unpacked and placed on the walls of their own museums, especially if they have worked for four or five years to get them here.

There is also an element of terror as in the back of your mind is the lingering doubt whether the right choices of have been made and will the whole thing actually work as an exhibition. It’s the scary difference between theories, ideas and physical reality. Fortunately, as soon as you could see these wonderful things by Moreau, those doubts disappeared in a heartbeat.

Were there certain "aspects" contained in these works that astonished you ?

Even in the Moreau Museum, some of the pairings and groupings seen on the walls at the NGV can’t be made, so only here can you see firsthand clear examples illustrating his mind at work as he works towards his final painting. It is very rare that the artistic process can be seen so clearly as few artists kept their preliminary sketches and studies. You can see where in one drawing he is formulating the composition, in another he is refining details, and in some breathtaking paintings he is seeing how colours work.

The Sirens- tell me about this particular work, the mythology behind it, sirens along the rocks beckoning sailors to their death?

This is a really interesting group of works by Moreau. You are right, the Sirens were monsters written about in ancient Greek mythological who lived near the cliffs on an island called Sirenum. They were nymphs who through their beautiful and melodious singing would attract unwary sailors towards the rocky reefs of their island, to their ultimate doom.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew are sailing past the Sirens during one of their quests and Odysseus wants to hear their song so he has his crew block their ears with wax while he is tied to mast. A rich blend of sexual torture, frustration and bondage. Luckily his plan worked and he survived the Siren’s song. For Moreau though he was more drawn to the power of these femmes fatale than the plight of Odysseus and they are usually the focus of his attention. He is also very interested in the notion of the beautiful monster.

What types of images of the feminine fascinated him?

He seemed drawn to powerful and dangerous women.

The combination of drama and sex fascinated him. So we see him treat biblical heroines and villains and other figures from history. But, he often had tremendous insight and understanding of their psyche and could express a degree of empathy or even sympathy with them. A great example is his treatment of the legendary beauty Helen of Troy.

She is usually demonised by artists and writers for causing the Trojan wars, but Moreau paints her as a victim who deeply mourns what has happened after Try has fallen and the Trojans massacred. Moreau has painted her as she realises the gravity of these events. However, she was actually unwittingly manipulated by the Gods who really sought and achieved the destruction of Troy.

They used the obsession the Trojan Prince Paris had for Helen, the wife of the King of Sparta, Menelaus to cause the war.

Did Moreau consider his work a collective paean, of sorts, a celebration of the classical, the mytholgical, or did he see his oeuvre as something else again, more mystical and esoteric?

Moreau deliberately set out to reinvigorate History painting, which was on the wane during his lifetime. He felt that artists were lacking a deep understanding of these traditional subjects and it was their inadequate and banal treatments of these stories that was at the root of their growing irrelevance to artists and society.

He felt there was still much to be learned from ancient narratives and the bible. As a teacher, he tried to drum into his students a respect for the old hierarchies of subject matter. Above all though, he wanted artists to express their own interpretation of the old stories in a way that would make them relevant to contemporary audiences.

That required a high degree of learning and comprehension, and it is that level of complexity and individuality lends itself to the interpretation of his work as “mystical”. I guess that this endeavour could seem to some people as esoteric, but he was above all a consummate communicator through his artistry.

That is why in his day he was admired by the establishment and the avant-garde artists who were railing against traditional art practice.

Do you feel Moreau was an artist interested in self-inquiry, his own inner feminine?
This sounds a bit Freudian. Most artists invest part of themselves in their work, and Moreau was no exception. But I doubt I’m qualified to judge whether through his admiration and fascination with women he was tapping into some innate feminine side.

Were his mythological references mainly Greco roman in motivation- or eastern too, Japanese, Indian/Persian and so on?

A key part of his endeavour to bring history painting back in vogue was to make it appear exotic though the adoption and interpretation of non western motifs and artistic styles.

He blew audiences away with the sumptuousness of his painting and his apparently limitless imagination. At one stage he was criticised for being a bit bland, so for a few years he hid away from public view, studied, worked hard and to a degree reinvented himself.

He made a triumphant return to public life with an extremely exotic painting using a wild combination of Classical, Indian and Persian motifs and decoration.

Moreau, his 'symbolism'- what did he want audiences to imagine in matters mystical and numinous?

I think above all he wanted people to understand what he was painting and be as moved as he was by the subjects he treated, and to think and reflect on what he created. He was sensitive to criticism and was upset when critics did not “get” what he was trying to do. He did not set out to be a “Symbolist” as such, but the literary and psychological depths in his work, combined with the sumptuousness of his style has led people to characterise him as a symbolist.

In reality he and his art defy such pigeon-holing, but later writers and artists latched on to these qualities in his work.


Moreau and Mythology- Free Floor Talks NGV

Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine

Speakers Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art (Fri 18 Mar) & Sophie Mattiesson, Curator, International Art (25 Mar) 

Exhibtion closes April 10, 2011 


Gustave Moreau
French 1826–1898
The unicorns
oil on canvas
115.0 x 90.0 cm
Musée Gustave Moreau (Cat. 213)
© Photo RMN – René-Gabriel Ojéda

Gustave Moreau
French 1826–1898
The sirens
oil on canvas
89.0 x 118.0 cm
Musée Gustave Moreau (Inv. 13957)
© Photo RMN – Christian Jean

No comments: