Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine at the National Gallery of Victoria

The first thing you notice is an almost absence of things Asian and Oriental, what Symbolist writer Joris-Karl Huysmans called barbaric watercolours of the Antique Orient. In GUSTAVE MOREAU the Eternal Feminine, a pay per view exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, the feminine is curated to within an inch of what its catalogue describes as the "gender struggle"; as Mother, Muse, Poetess, Victim and Vamp.

The theme of the femme fatale, the exhibition signage breathlessly reports, provides material to explore voyeuristic fantasies that have at their base a fear or resentment of feminine power. And the arrangement of paintings and drawings around the gallery's rectangle present a landscape of almost-nudes in scenes from post-Freudian texts - of Oedipus, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and more - reinventing the artist as a protagonist in a contest of ideas that are singularly modern, secular, and Western.

This gritty modern thesis of the feminine victimized by male gaze is completely undermined by the paintings and drawings themselves. Moreau's much loved and almost Asian Jupiter and Semele is absent, but, defying wholesale exclusion, Oriental and Asian esoterica persist in exquisite detail. Lady Macbeth is transfixed between twin pillars of Isis, blood red, luminous and transcendent as any Rothko multiform. Moreau's feminine recapitulate the Hindu Deity Avalokiteshvara grasping passion, compassion, love and heart in the shape of a Lotus blossom. In Helen on the walls of Troy the scintillating female figure transcends the enervated bodies at her feet and belies her reputation as a poisonous femme fatale.

Elaine Scarry wrote that beauty comes to us, with no work of our own; then leaves us prepared to undergo a giant labour. Curatorial labour assembling the exhibition is documented on thankfully small and muted video screens that display the Parisian Musee Gustave Moreau's prodigious store of paintings and drawings from which the exhibition is drawn. It is ironic that what is announced as the first significant exhibition of Moreau's work to be seen in the Asia-Pacific favours the artist's European roots over his Oriental and Asian influences.

Gripped like a pearl in a fist of modern polemic, a boxy interior space is given over entirely to drawings and paintings of Salome. Moreau described Salome as The Woman who represents the eternal woman, light as a bird and often fatal, goes through life with a flower in hand. Salome holds a tri-petalled lotus, outstretched like a staff of rank, an emblem often associated with Isis. The exhibition catalog dryly notes Moreau would have appreciated to some degree the significance of the Lotus flower across various Middle and Far Eastern cultures. No kidding.

The paintings and drawings of Salome make Sophie Matthiesson's point that Everything about Moreau's practice conspire to perplex the scholar determined to fix meaning in his oevre. Encapsulating those in modern Western polemic, rather than contextualizing them in Eastern, Oriental and Asian frames of reference seems mistaken.

A century after his death Gustave Moreau remains an exciting painter who is seldom represented in Australia's public art spaces. A major exhibition of paintings and drawings, from the Musee Gustave Moreau in Paris, in Melbourne over the holidays, is timely, welcome, and at the National Gallery of Victoria, St Kilda Road Melbourne until April 10.

1 comment:

  1. I admire your asute observation that Moreau's representation of female archetypes engage with ideas that are 'modern, secular and Western', even though there are countless female mythological figures throughout human history and often the female characters in Moreau's paintings look like males and vice versa. Each female character, whether Salome or Helen of Troy begin to look like an amalgamation of the 'ideal' woman, or the ideal man, since Moreau's homo-eroticism certainly shows through in his images of pale androgynous young men. However, having said this Moreau's 'women' resonate with Barbara Creed's writing on the 'monstrous-feminine'. She argues, amongst other things that woman 'terrifies because man endows her with imaginary powers of castration' (p.87) and the 'femme fatale' is deadlier because she almost always carries a gun(read penis)in her purse. In Moreau's case, we are in a sense held capture by the beauty and form of the female body through female sexuality. Creed again : 'As with all other stereotypes of the feminine, from virgin to whore, she is defined in terms of her sexuality'. We must also remember that women are subjected to the female, as well as the 'male gaze'. Loved your review, certainly made me think further than mine, which focussed primarily on Moreau's small painting of 'Lady MacBeth'