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.
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.