PARIS: Ghosts, witches and vampires have invaded the Musée d’Orsay. The exhibition “The Angel of the Odd. Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst” discards reason and explores the representation of obscure forces, the unconscious, the cruelty and evil.
The exhibition assembles some 200 works, dating from the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries. In addition, the show includes excerpts from works Bunuel, Murnau and Fritz Lang – filmmakers who were inspired by this artistic current.
Italian art historian Mario Praz coined the term “dark romanticism” around 1930 to designate a literary and artistic movement revealing the shadowy and irrational facets of the human psyche hidden beneath the apparent triumph of Enlightenment philosophy.
“Dark romanticism isn’t limited to a period or a style,” stresses Come Fabre, the museum and exhibition curator. “It’s an ideological current born during Europe’s revolutionary period [toward the end of the 18th century] and reached its full breadth in the beginning of the 19th century. It appeared in the symbolism of the 19th century and in the surrealism of the 1920s and ’30s.”
The expansiveness of the trend explains the very wide chronological spectrum of this exhibition – which was conceived and already presented at Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum.
One of the pillars of this current was the Swiss-born English artist Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825). His work “Nightmare” (1781) – showing a lecherous-looking horse and an evil demon squatting on the chest of a young woman who has surrendered to her dream – created a scandal at the time.
In “La Folie de Kate,” Füssli depicts the haunted face of a young widow. In his “Trois sorcières,” Macbeth’s three witches point accusingly.
In “Big Red Dragon” (1803), the visionary William Blake imagines a creature that will heavily inspire the heroic fantasy painters well into the 20th century.
Simultaneously in Spain, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) imagined “The Flight of the Witches.” Scenes of cannibalism fascinate this painter, who was haunted by the insanity of men.
In Théodore Géricault’s 1818 work “Le Radeau de la Méduse” (The Raft of the Medusa) is a sketch of an act against nature.
Representing violence could be a means to draw attention to oneself.
In the salons of the 1850s the young French painter William Bouguereau, who ordinarily abides by an academic style, depicts “Dante and Virgile at the Inferno,” a terrible scene where two damned creatures clutch one another in a merciless fight for survival.
At the end of the 19th century other figures emerged in dark romantic practice – the Medusa, for instance, the Sphinx, as well as the vampires that inspired Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Symbolists like Gustave Moreau explore imaginary territories and dreamscapes. The woman becomes femme fatale – at once sensual and poisonous.
The spirit of the Marquis de Sade is present in several of the exhibition’s works. From its stock the museum has taken samples of work by Charles-François Jeandel, whose bold photos depict naked women in bondage.
From further to the north an 1873 work by Swiss artist Arnold B?cklin depicts a decapitated knight riding away on horseback. “It’s just like in Tim Burton’s ‘Sleepy Hollow,’” observes Musée d’Orsay head, Guy Cogeval, who invited the U.S. filmmaker to attend the exhibition opening.
“During the 20th century,” Cogeval said, “cinema is certainly the medium that has used the big Gothic themes.”
Dark romanticism regained momentum after World War I.
Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Max Ernst relied on the subconscious and dreams for their creations.
The exhibition sheds light on this “underground river” of dark romanticism, which Côme Fabre says might have been “distained at times because it was more related to the subject than the form.”
The exhibition will be able to seduce a young public that will realize that films, fantastic novels and video games have built their success on the universe of dark romanticism.
“The Angel of the Odd. Dark
Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst” at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay runs until June 9. For more information see