Musée d'Orsay: Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli

Joris-Karl Huysmans Art Critic. From Degas to Grünewald, in the Eye of Francesco Vezzoli

Huysmans from Degas to Grünewald

Jean-Louis ForainJoris-Karl Huysmans© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Today, most people’s perception of Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) is shaped entirely by reading Against Nature. Published in 1884, this tragi-comic portrait of an aesthete who cuts himself off from an ugly present but fails to lead a life nourished solely by his equally refined and immoral responses to art, could not possibly encompass this author and his struggles. Without overlooking Huysmans the novelist, the particular focus here is on the art writer and critic.

After a tentative start in the late Second Empire, his interest in the contemporary art world began to gain momentum in 1876. Whether describing the official Salon and academic painting, the exhibitions of “independent artists”, Bouguereau, Manet or the Impressionists, he demonstrated a virulence and lucidity which forcibly struck or outraged his contemporaries.

Edouard Manet 
 Stéphane Mallarmé
 Oil on canvas
 H. 27.5; W. 36 cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, bought with the help of the Société des Amis du Louvre and D. David Weill, 1928
Edouard ManetStéphane Mallarmé© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
However, his books, from Modern Art (1883) to Three Primitives (1905), by way of Certains (1889), do not reflect a prescriptive way of thinking or a single vision, but rather the nuances of a man hostile to factions. In 1886, Huysmans declared: “Basically, I am in favour of the art of dreams as much as of the art of reality; and although I launched Raffaëlli as a painter, I did just as much for his counterpart, Odilon Redon.” He preferred complementary disconcerting pleasures to Manichean opposites, even in the period then his defence of sacred art brought him closer to the church.

Artist Francesco Vezzoli has joined forces with the exhibition curators and engaged with this three-part tour by designing three spaces, each defined by a colour – white, red, and black – into which he introduces some of his own work to mirror the aesthetic world of Huysmans in a personal way.


The unvarnished truth

Edgar Degas 
 Dans un café, also called L'absinthe [In a Café, also called Absinthe]
 Oil on canvas
 H. 92; W. 68.5 m
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, bequest of Count Isaac de Camondo, 1911
Edgar DegasIn a Café© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
From his first article in 1867 through to his last writings, Huysmans approached art and artists as bulwarks against a society which he believed to be both debased and debasing. A lifelong admirer of the Dutch Old Masters, he described the defining nature of the shock he experienced on discovering Degas at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876.

This game-changing artist occupied a special place in his art criticism, alongside Manet, Caillebotte, Forain, and Raffaëlli. He fully embraced the message behind Baudelaire’s appeal for painters “of modern life”, and made it his creed.

Henri GervexRolla© RMN-Grand Palais / A. Danvers
For Huysmans the Naturalist novelist, and close friend of Zola at that time, painting had to reflect reality in an unvarnished, expressive, and even caustic manner. The role of “modern” art was to reveal the truth. By contrast, works by Cabanel and Gérôme – described as “overly licked and polished” – and paintings by Bouguereau, were relegated to the realms of saccharine, fake and pernicious art.


White. This space, in the white cube style of contemporary art installations, projects the lucidity of Huysmans the art critic into our own times. It symbolises the moment when works acquired the status of masterpieces and the writer was elevated to the rank of prophet.


Two facets of the same mirror

L'Apparition [The Apparition] 
 H. 106; W. 72.2cm
 Paris, Musée d'Orsay, 
 Musée d'Orsay, kept in the Graphic Arts Department, Musée du Louvre
 Gift of Charles Hayem, 1898
 RF 2130
Gustave Moreau Watercolour© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
The impetus to transcend the boundaries imposed in previous years by his militant Naturalism gathered pace in the period between Against Nature (1884) and Certains (1889). Huysmans traded physiological materialism for pessimistic physiologism and psychologism, as well as the first stirrings of spiritualism, whose traits he identified in the work of Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and then later Grünewald.

Moreau’s Apparition, which he discovered at the Salon of 1876, was a revelation. In the course of an inspired rereading of St Matthew’s gospel, the theme of insatiable Lust lends its weight, mid-Impressionist polemic, to a manifesto for painting based on subjectivity and mystery.

Pierre Puvis de ChavannesYoung Girls by the Seaside© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The need for truth, which was the hallmark of Naturalism, lived on for Huysmans by becoming internalised. Faithfully depicting the present but also isolating oneself from it were not seen as mutually exclusive. Although Des Esseintes, the hero of Against Nature, opted for withdrawal from the world, thus implying a retreat from modern life for painters, realism was still present in the seductive power exerted over Huysmans by Whistler’s Harmonies and Goya’s Disasters of War.

In 1882, Redon brought the sombre light of unbridled daydreams to this alternative pantheon.


Des Esseintes’ house as imagined by Huysmans in Against Nature made such a powerful impression on one of his Italian disciples, Gabriele D’Annunzio, that he replicated it in his own villa. The photographic wallpaper in this room reflects this architectural transposition. Another iconic figure from the novel looms large in this ghostly world recreated by Francesco Vezzoli – a tortoise, whose death symbolises the end of the decadent utopia.


From the worship of art to the art of worship…

Félicien RopsThe woman with the eyeglass© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
This appealing but deceptive phrase contrasts two aesthetic positions which were never quite so clear cut for Huysmans. The Naturalist writer, the ironic eulogist of decadence, and the late convert to Catholicism who became an ardent advocate of the spiritual in art cannot be divorced from each other.

Degas and Grünewald do not represent the boundaries of a slow regression, which the workings of Grace helped to set. The early 16th century Issenheim altarpiece, which the writer reassessed in an early 20th century which he despised as fervently as the previous century, responded to the need for “spiritual naturalism” which Huysmans had asserted in the early 1890s.

Just as Degas’s Little Dancer mirrored for him the hyperrealist Christ in Burgos cathedral, so too Grünewald’s Crucifixion incorporated into its realism the supernatural element characteristic of Redon and Rops.

Odilon RedonChrist on the cross© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Originality, the cardinal virtue of any aesthetic process, involves endorsing an original. Was a new type of sacred art reminiscent of the Primitives possible? Huysmans, a close friend of Dulac, and several other Christian artists, were keen to believe that it was.


With its chapel-like ambience, Francesco Vezzoli’s installation evokes conversion as experienced by Huysmans, and Incarnation, the ultimate aim of both.