oeuvre noir

Dark arts


The romantic 19th century was forever exploring the idea of demons, the maca­bre, the malevolent. To feel better about itself and show the truth of our world.


Nuances make History. Look at the 19th century: yes, it was the century of reason on the march, liberating progress, science above all else. But it was also the century of dark Romanticism, occultism and gothic fascinations. What with a crisis in religion and the traumatism of Revolution, the West inherited a tumultuous history and needed to invent new "games" for tolerating the unknown. Romanticism consistently convoked the forces of the spirit. Through Dante and Poe, Shakespeare and Goethe, literature explored, toyed with and cherished its demons; the visual arts were close behind. In Paris, two exhibitions take us on a sublime guided tour of hell.


Fantastic as in gothic
The term "fantastic", as used to describe the images presently on display at both the Petit Palais and the Musée de la Vie Romantique*, should be understood in its broadest sense, as a synonym of "imaginary", the opposite of "seen", "that which is in no way real". Portraying an unseen world is certainly an ancient practice, but it was in the 19th century that the engravings of Francisco Goya "opened new paths of portrayal, and it is he whom we find at the origin of gothic prints," explains philosopher Tzvetan Todorov. Why prints? Because they are "the dark thread running through 19th-century Romanticism", as suggested by the sub-title of the Petit Palais exhibition, which for the first time celebrates on a grand scale the scary world of fantasy and visionary prints, in collaboration with France's National Library. More than 170 works, from Goya to Redon, Delacroix to Doré, introduce visitors to this essentially unglamorous but nonetheless ubiquitous world of engravings and lithographs.


"Convincing monstrosities"
Following a serious illness that left him exceedingly weak, Goya decided to indulge in "the caprice of invention", producing the Caprices series dictated by his inner being; it features scenes of witchery and supernatural creatures that created an uproar on its first appearance in 1799. "The gothic vein would haunt the imaginations of three generations of artists and influence imagery throughout the 19th century," curator Valérie Sueur-Hermel explains. Even Baudelaire would later refer to the Spanish master's "convincing monstrosities" that enabled the truth of our world to be shown. As Todorov points out: "Through the engravings in this series Goya is pursuing a dual goal of stigmatising superstitions and utilising them to portray that which in men's minds escapes the control of reason so as to give rise to fantasies." The path to the subconscious was open.



In collaboration with La Roche-sur-Yon's museum, Jérôme Farigoule, director of the Musée de la Vie Romantique, has focused his exhibition on French forms of gothic Romanticism, "rawer, more violent" and expressing "the disenchantment of a generation forged from the ruins of the Ancien Régime and the turmoil of Revolution". David, Géricault, Ingres and Delacroix explored the dark side of the human soul, attempting to establish a dialogue between the world of the living and that of the dead.


By Mireille Sartore