Loving nature is outdated, thought the aristocrat Des Esseintes, who after wasting half of his fortune in worldly pleasures invested the rest in his artificial paradise away from the Parisian triviality. Mechanical fishes, monstrous hothouse flowers, a turtle with precious stones in the golden shell, a design to match the carpet.
With this character, Joris-Karl Huysmans marked the zenith and the decline of decadence. The title of the novel, À rebours, summarizes his intention to go against the current, against naturalism in vogue, against the positivist optimism … to what he opposes a voluntary closure gathering select collections (paintings, books, perfumes, liquors …) as vehicles of escape into times where the sensual and spiritual longing of man had not yet been misappropriated by materialism and industrial ugliness.
That mansion lit with church chandeliers is remebered these days in a Belgian medieval castle, Gaasbeek, that one Marie Arconati Visconti also wanted to transform in a time capsule recreating, in her case, the Renaissance.
Favorite artists of Des Eissentes like Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon, whose paintings and drawings decorate his lounge, can now be seen in Gaasbeek, next to satanic eroticism of Felicien Rops. These poets of image, bent on recovering the sacred through the obscene and the occult, who erected altars to witches and prostitutes, are now in dialogue with contemporary artists such as the photographer Thomas Devaux and sculptor Jan Van Oost. The fixation of both with decadent symbolism and Baudelairian influence is clear: black widows, deadly virgins, recycled Salomes lurid pietàs … Anachronistic remnants that from end-of-century aesthetics only know to rescue the misogynist idea of devouring, artificial and enigmatic women, like orchids of Esseintes.
But the exhibition Divine decadence not only pay tribute to nineteenth-century decadence, but pick up the term to reflect on the decay of modern society through the work of artists supposedly critical with the fashion world, jet-set, star system, pornography, consumerism … in short, with contemporary frivolity.
The paradox is that the chroniclers of new artificial paradises are themselves fashion victims who like David LaChapelle, Gérard Rancinan or Erwin Olaf need the spectacle of glamor to exist, to keep the pop fascination with a world becomed child park that promises eternal youth and sex on demand, with his carrousel plasticized idols in silicone and botox, who rediscovers spirituality with Michael Jackson as archangel and Kurt Cobain as new Redeemer.
Although is meaningful to choice these advertising photographers recycled as artists (formerly, illustrating fashion magazines, now exhibiting in galleries and museums), skilled in stylize violence, to seduce with pure spectacular wrapper …, to represent the decadence in arts and society.
Sex, drugs and money only manage to make deeper spiritual emptiness, seems to say Terry Rodgers. Private parties of nouveau riche that he represents with hyperreal language remind us the disenchantment of yuppie portrayed by Breat Easton Ellis in his novels of the nineties.
Muse of artists such as Man Ray and Kees Van Donguen (both represented in this exhibition), the spirit of Luisa Casati wanders around the rooms of the castle, that marquise whose slim figure was remembered walking on Venetian streets with a live snake as echarpe wrapping his neck and guided by two cheetahs tethered to leashes. Almost as an incarnation of the feminine version of Des Esseintes, she was not far behind in her display of lurid eccentricities and thirst for evasion sated with her exotic whims, not only in the garb of Egyptian inspiration, but also in the menagerie in which she had transformed his palace.
Along with the portraits that Man Ray made of her, capturing the delirium of her Gorgon gaze, the Italian marquise appears also evoked in a life-size sculpture, a work of Yinka Shonibare representing a lady dressed in African textiles but Victorian style, presided over by three cheetahs. Leisure lady, called the british-nigerian artist to this allegory pf cruel snobbery of the upper classes.
Narcissism and evasion, aesthetes and decadents of yesterday and today.
Divine Decadence, in Gaasbeek Castle, Lennik, Flanders, until 26th June 2016