Exposition au musée

Beyond the Stars. The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky

From March 14th to June 25th, 2017
Vincent van Gogh
Le Semeur, arles, novembre 1888
Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) / Maurice Tromp

Landscape received scant mention in Symbolist circles although the Impressionists had embraced it as a subject and invented a new style of painting focusing on the tangible world.
However, some artists chose to address their spiritual inquiries by depicting landscapes.

Paul Gauguin-Le Christ au jardin des oliviers
Paul Gauguin
Le Christ au jardin des oliviers, 1889
Floride, West Palm Beach, Norton museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth C. Norton
© Photo Norton Museum of Art

Against the backdrop of the rise of Positivism, which prioritised scientific experimentation, and in a world experiencing significant change, artists were pervaded by a form of idealism and began to question their own origins, religious culture and the relationship between man and nature. Nature became the locus for soul-searching, culminating in mystical experiences.
Mysticism was widespread in the late 19th century and this phenomenon is a feature of all religions and beliefs, offering a means of accessing the mysteries of existence through oneness with nature. This exhibition aims to analyse how mysticism influenced landscape painting at the dawn of the 20th century, paving the way for the birth of abstraction.
The sections of the exhibition reveal works by artists from diverse cultures who are exploring the transcendence and immanence of nature.
The first section, which is underpinned by Monet’s aesthetic experiments, introduces visitors to the work of art as an aid to contemplation.

Vincent van Gogh-Les Oliviers
Vincent van Gogh
Les Oliviers, 1889
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, legs de Mme John Hay Whitney, 1998
© The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

However, many artists use the motif of the landscape as a starting point to express their aspiration to mystical experience, including the Nabis, who found the theme of the sacred wood conducive to meditation.
The second section explores the notion of the divine in nature in greater depth through works belonging to the Synthesist, Symbolist and Divisionist movements. Their iconography draws on Christian and Pantheist tropes.
In the third section, vivid and original paintings by Canadian artists from the period 1910-1930 tell the story of the North in pictures influenced by the natural world of Scandinavia. Landscape also reflects actual or internalised night in the fourth section, which is luminous in the case of Van Gogh, or melancholic and tragic when evil makes its presence felt.
By contrast, the mystical painter Dulac paves the way for the universal. The final section addresses the forces which transcend man and draw him to the realm of the stars: the cosmos and its interstellar light.
This visit aims to reflect what Kandinsky describes as “those seeking for the internal in the external”.

Claude Monet-Meules, effet de neige, soleil couchant
Claude Monet
Meules, effet de neige, soleil couchant, 1890-1891
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Collection Potter Palmer
© Art Institute of Chicago

Monet, Van Gogh and Klimt produced works which prompt a feeling of transcendence in the observer as the object gradually fades and colours take prominence.
Monet’s series exemplify the ability of a work to induce contemplation: the haystacks, for example, can be viewed as a metaphor for life, as light varies at different times.
The English Catholic philosopher Evelyn Underhill and Wassily Kandinsky in particular, wrote about the emotional power of Monet’s Haystacks in Mysticism (1911) and Looking back at the Past and other texts (1913) respectively. n a similar vein, Clémenceau viewed Poplars as a “pantheist poem”.
Like most of these artists, Henri Le Sidaner had no specific spiritual agenda. His White Garden at Dusk expresses first and foremost the search for calm, which was the hallmark of what the novelist Gabriel Mourey referred to as this “type of mysticism without faith”.
Odilon Redon’s Trees on a Yellow Background also appeals to the observer’s sensitivity with a dreamlike setting. The formal experiments carried out by these artists blazed a trail for the abstraction which Kandinsky describes in theoretical terms in his work Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911-1912.
Abstract art, with its shapes and colours which swallow up the object, is in fact conducive to a sort of contemplative journey, allowing the spectator to “lose self-awareness”.

Paul Sérusier-L?RTMIncantation ou Le Bois Sacré
Paul Sérusier
L?RTMIncantation ou Le Bois Sacré, 1891
Quimper, musée des Beaux-Arts, legs de Mme Boutaric, 1987
© Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

Sacred Woods
The theme of the “Sacred Wood” embraced by Paul Gauguin and the Nabi painters during their time in Pont-Aven, is one of the most important examples of a deeply spiritual Symbolist interpretation of the landscape.
It echoes Charles Baudelaire’s poem Correspondances, which compares nature to a temple and human life to a journey through a “forest of symbols”.
Trees are viewed as pillars connecting the physical world to a higher reality. Man is a pilgrim walking through them in search of spirituality which is reflected in nature.
Woods are imbued with invisible and supernatural forces and can also be a locus for religious visions, exemplified in Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Maurice Denis.
The Nabis’ mystical vision is reflected in a highly innovative style; synthetic composition, flat shapes, and bright, unreal colours are the vehicles for a “vision of the soul” which borders on abstraction.
Charles Baudelaire, Correspondences, 1857
“Nature is a temple where living pillars
Sometimes let go of confused words;
Man passes through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.
Like long echoes which mingle from afar,
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast as the night and as the light,
Perfumes, colours and sounds respond.
There are perfumes fresh as the flesh of children,
Gentle as the oboes, green as the meadows,
- And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant,
Having the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, benzoin and incense,
Who sing the transports of mind and senses.”

Odilon Redon-Le Bouddha
Odilon Redon
Le Bouddha, entre 1906 et 1907
Musée d'Orsay
1971, achat
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
See the notice of the artwork

The Divine in nature
The search for the spiritual in the late 19th century struck a different chord in each artist, depending on their religious background, national culture and network of influences.
In their search for very early eras deemed more authentic or for idealism in counterpoint to the Positivist reality of the present, painters viewed landscapes as a vehicle for reflecting man’s exploration of his relationship with Creation.
While some artists express their soul-searching by embracing Christian metaphors and incorporating them into local landscapes (a field in the case of Van Gogh and a village for Gauguin), others, such as Odilon Redon, reflect their personal search in imaginary and dreamlike landscapes.
In a different vein, the Divisionists, including Segantini and Pellizza da Volpedo, allowed the landscape to express itself, to conjure up the divine in creation as a whole.
This pantheistic vision, which emphasises the hugeness of nature compared to the insignificance of man, is often expressed in allegories introduced into the landscape.
Symbolists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Alphonse Osbert preferred to study nature as a “landscape of the soul” in which the notion of the divine can be accommodated harmoniously in a natural setting.

Lawren S. Harris-Paysage décoratif (Decorative Landscape)
Lawren S. Harris
Paysage décoratif (Decorative Landscape), 1917
Ottawa, Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada
© The Estate of Lawren S. Harris - Photo : © MBAC

The idea of the North
In Northern Europe, artists such as Willumsem, Strindberg and Fjaestad embraced nature as a vehicle for expressing their mystical investigations.
A short time later in Canada, young painters saw works by Scandinavian artists at an exhibition in Buffalo in 1913. They became aware of how closely these artists’ treatment of wild open spaces mirrored their own aspirations.
In 1920, they created the Group of Seven (Harris, MacDonald, Lismer, Varley, Carmichael, Johnston, Jackson, minus Tom Thomson, who died prematurely) and played a key role in defining, for the first time in Canada, a style for depicting the landscapes of North America.
They were drawn to isolated, timeless, unpopulated places and viewed landscapes as symbolic images, which could not be dissociated from demands relating to the issue of identity. They explore the relationship between man and nature, incorporating a spiritual dimension.
Several members of the group were drawn to Theosophy, a philosophy developed in the United States by Helena Blavatsky.
This spiritual quest can be identified in the work of Emily Carr, a native of British Columbia, who was close to Harris, and was fascinated by indigenous culture. Her paintings of First Nation natural sites marked her out as a militant artist, who constantly reappraised her relationship with the culture of Northern Canada.
Harris and Carr continued to work well beyond 1918 and developed a formal style bordering on the abstract.

Vincent van Gogh-La nuit étoilée
Vincent Van Gogh
La nuit étoilée, en 1888
Musée d'Orsay
Donation de M. et Mme Robert Khan-Sriber, en souvenir de M. et Mme Fernand Moch, 1975
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork

Night, the time of dreams and mystery, has always captivated artists. The Symbolist generation was particularly inspired by nocturnal ambiances as a means of offering several layers of interpretation.
Night is not just actual night time, which has been the subject of many studies of light, but also the night “of the soul”, imbued with spiritual significance, a symbol of death, silence, loneliness, as well as a locus for transcendence and a vehicle for a potential union with the Divine.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who was a precursor of these visions and affiliated to the English Aesthetic Movement, would take to the Thames in a boat and redundant paint his Nocturnes in his studio afterwards, translating the landscape into a reflection of states of soul.
For Van Gogh, and the Scandinavian painter Eugène Jansson, contemplating the sky at night combines the study of the effects of light and soul-searching with powerful spiritual connotations.
All sense of hope seems to vanish when the shadows become a symbol of desolation or death in the melancholic visions of Bruges painted by Fernand Khnopff, for example. Henri Le Sidaner also drew inspiration from the theme of “dead cities” in Bruges, as well as in Venice, which he depicted in the silence of dusk.
In The Blind Man, Ejnar Nielsen’s pared-down landscape and meandering path echo a physical and spiritual blindness closely resembling an “inner” night.

Charles Marie Dulac-La Vallée du Tibre à Assise
Charles Marie Dulac
La Vallée du Tibre à Assise, 1898
Paris, collection Lucile Audouy
© Droits réservés

Charles-Marie Dulac
Charles Dulac was a decorative painter before finding his vocation as a landscape artist. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness related to the use of white lead pigment and, knowing the disease to be fatal, underwent a conversion to radical Catholicism and became attached to the Franciscan order.
From that point forward, his vocation was to represent the sacred aspect of nature in the spirit of St Francis.
In 1894, Dulac worked on a cycle of lithographs, The Song of Creatures, which prompted the writer J.-K. Huysmans to pen a highly complimentary piece, ranking him as one of the most innovative artists in the field of sacred art.
Dulac made several trips to Assisi, which inspired oil paintings where the effects of light on the surrounding hills and the movement of air in the clouds above the river Tiber convey the artist's experience of transcendence.
These landscapes should be viewed together as variations on a theme - the connection between man, creation and God.

Marc Chagall-Au-dessus de Vitebsk
Marc Chagall
Au-dessus de Vitebsk, 1914
Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, don de Sam et Ayala Zacks, 1970
© Adagp, Paris 2017 © Art Gallery of Ontario

Ravaged landscapes
The inner night of man, which represents evil, struck a powerful chord in the early 20th century in the wake of the tragedy of World War I.
Canada also suffered huge loss of life in this conflict and the artists who would later form the Group of Seven were therefore hired as war artists by the Canadian War Memorials Program, established to commemorate the dead.
Varley and Jackson painted bleak, scarred landscapes reflecting the question which preoccupied them: had this sacrifice been worth the cost? From these landscapes, alternating between a monochrome palette and vivid hues, the artists created compositions of mystical power in the primary sense of the term - “hidden meaning” - bordering on abstraction (Vallotton) and the fantastic (Nash).
Man as agent and victim is, however, still present, lurking in the work of Chagall, or representing the spectre of his own destruction in the art of Varley. Slightly earlier, the Symbolist Degouve de Nuncques depicted the “death-landscape” which Schiele would illustrate in a chilling environment.

Georgia O?RTMKeeffe-Croix noire aux étoiles, bleu (Black Cross with Stars and Blue)
Georgia O?RTMKeeffe
Croix noire aux étoiles, bleu (Black Cross with Stars and Blue), 1929
Collection particulière
© Georgia O?RTMKeeffe Museum / ADAGP, Paris 2017

Science and spiritualism come together in attempts to comprehend the universe, another form of mystical landscape.
Painters were influenced by scientific popularisers in Europe, as was the astronomer and writer Camille Flammarion, and explored space as a locus for the universal imagination.
In the United States, Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe pursued their spiritual and stylistic experiments, taking clouds to the point of abstraction with colours that reflected interstellar space.
Munch depicted an exploding sun as the last star illuminating the earth before dissolving into the cosmos.
For Maurice Chabas - who was close to spiritual writers such as Léon Bloy and Edouard Schuré, renowned for his work The Great Initiates published in 1889 - the Universe was indeed the realm of the spirit in which the souls of the dead roam.

Wenzel Hablik-Nuit étoilée (Sternenhimmel Versuch)
Wenzel Hablik
Nuit étoilée (Sternenhimmel Versuch), 1909
Itzehoe, Wenzel Hablik Museum
© Wenzel-Hablik-Foundation, Itzehoe

Hilma af Klint, who was fascinated by the occult, would draw after having spiritualist experiences.Altarpiece immerses us in the incandescence of the cosmological sun. Taking a more rational approach, Czech artist Wenzel Hablik revisits his love of crystals as a means of depicting an ordered, architecturally structured but dazzling world in Starry Night.
This circular depiction of space is taken up by Augusto Giacometti, focusing on the same theme.
The starry night cannot be explained without the intervention of a hand, depicted with great flair in 1902 by George Watts in The Sower of the Systems, which transports us with a Symbolist flourish of motion into the swirling vortex of Creation, bringing the world beyond the stars within our grasp.