Two facets of the same mirror
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.
Gustave Moreau Watercolour© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
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.
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.
Pierre Puvis de ChavannesYoung Girls by the Seaside© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
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.