More Belgian Symbolism of a kind, although it’s debatable the degree to which Félicien Rops should be regarded as a Symbolist even though his work is generally listed as such. Decadent, certainly, and he did touch on popular Symbolist themes such as the temptation of St. Anthony, but only as part of his persistent obsession with that very fin-de-siècle icon, the Bad Woman. In Rops’ work this manifests as a succession of hollow-eyed femmes damnées—erotomanes, seducers and addicts—all of whom resemble each other.
Félicien Rops et Son Oeuvre (1900) is a short monograph by Gustave Kahn which is is mostly of interest for the self-portraits and minor pieces, those drawings and prints that you’d only find now in a comprehensive examination of the artist’s career. In 1900 Rops’ overtly erotic drawings wouldn’t have been available outside private publications whereas today, in a reversal of fortune that might have surprised the artist, these are the works of his that everyone likes to see. The Internet Archive has a later study by Gustave Kahn which includes some of the more erotic pieces seen here, none of which are too explicit but there’s enough that his book might have encountered legal disapproval if anyone had tried to sell a copy in England.
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I’ve waited months to write about this book in the run-up to Halloween. Several years ago I wrote a series of pre-Halloween posts about the illustrators of Edgar Allan Poe, with the final entry containing a lone illustration for The Tell-Tale Heart by Martin van Maële (1863–1926). At the time van Maële’s book was unavailable online so I was left to wonder what the rest of his illustrations might be like. Dix contes d’Edgar Poe (1912) is the volume in question, a collection of moody full-page illustrations plus many small vignettes, all of them engraved on wood by Eugène Dété.
I’d been familiar with several other pieces from this book for many years without knowing their origin thanks to their appearance in the 1986 Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, an excellent guide edited by Jack Sullivan with a minor deficiency in that many of the illustrations are uncredited. (They did credit van Maële for two of his pictures but spelled his name as “van Moële” which doesn’t help.) The startling picture of a skeleton pushing a shrouded woman back into her tomb—which I now know is van Maële’s portrait of Madeline Usher—was one of the uncredited drawings, as was the vignette of another skeleton holding a heart like a ticking pendulum (The Tell-Tale Heart again). There are many more skeletons in this book. Van Maële’s illustrations oscillate between two pictorial extremes, from shadow-filled realism in the full-page drawings to Doré-like spot illustrations that suit Poe’s fatalism and macabre sense of humour. It’s a shame that many of these reproductions are darker than they should be, being from the old series of Gallica scans which remove all the grey tones from the images, but at least we can see the book as a whole. My thanks again to Mr TjZ for alerting me to this!
The Tell-Tale Heart.
Van Maële might be better known today if more of the books he illustrated had been suitable for a general audience. In a reversal of the usual state of affairs most of his illustrated editions are the classic works of erotic literature by Apuleius, Choderlos de Laclos, Anatole France et al, plus obscure works devoted to le vice Anglais, while his non-erotic titles by Poe and Conan Doyle are in the minority. If he had a flair for the erotic then he also had a flair for the macabre. Some of his erotic drawings manage to combine the two, notably in La Grande Danse Macabre des Vifs (1905), a portfolio which approaches Félicien Rops by bringing to erotic art a quality of imagination that would usually be rejected for distracting from the primary purpose of pornographic imagery. Wikipedia has this and many more of van Maële’s erotic illustrations.
The Tell-Tale Heart.
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This collection of Baudelaire’s poems with illustrations by French artist Manuel Orazi (1860–1934) didn’t turn up when I was searching for illustrated editions a few years ago. With over 50 full-page drawings or vignettes it’s more profusely illustrated than most. It’s also more determinedly erotic than most, concentrating on depictions of female flesh at the expense of the poet’s other themes; Orazi’s fleurs on the title pages are a succession of priapic or vaginal orchids and fungi. The book was published in 1934, which means it was probably the last thing that Orazi worked on, but it resembles something from the fin de siècle, especially the work of Félicien Rops. Browse it or download it here.
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I don’t use bookplates, and don’t know anyone who does, but the conjunction between art and literature is a fascinating one. Exlibris (Bucheignerzeichen) (1909) by Walter von Zur Westen explores the history of the bookplate, and would no doubt answer some of my questions about the form if it wasn’t in German throughout, and also typeset in the semi-legible Fraktur style that used to be de rigueur for all German texts.
We still have the illustrations, however, and these range from woodcut engravings to contemporary works in pencil and ink, with many of the later contributions being from established artists whose names are familiar today; among the examples below are works by Symbolists Max Klinger, Fernand Khnopff and Felicien Rops. There’s also an especially fine example by Charles Ricketts. The latter are a reminder that bookplate commissions were a common thing for 19th-century artists, although their efforts are seldom seen outside collections such as this. Much of Zur Westen’s history is devoted to the German regions but later chapters cover other European countries and the United States.
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The Temptation of St Anthony (1883) by Fernand Khnopff.
This should really be more Symbolist Temptations since Odilon Redon belongs among these artists. Redon may have devoted more of his time than anyone else to the saint’s travails but other artists also took up the theme. Fernand Khnopff seldom depicted religious subjects but his painting—an early work—is remarkable for the way it reduces the phantasmagoric pageants of previous centuries to a simple face-to-face confrontation.
The Temptation of St Anthony (1878) by Félicien Rops.
Félicien Rops, on the other hand, can always be relied upon to be vulgar and blasphemous in equal measure. The Devil lurking behind the cross was probably added to balance the composition but that silly expression makes the picture seem more comical than shocking. Similar skull-faced cherubs may be found in other Rops prints.
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