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.
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.