Weekend links 450

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Orpheus (c. 1903–1910) by Odilon Redon. One of 30,000 public-domain images from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.

• Network DVD has announced the premiere home release of Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, a British TV series that ran from 1973 to 74. Welles’ involvement was limited to introducing each episode but the series itself was one I enjoyed a great deal: 26 short adaptations of period mystery stories that featured a wealth of British and American acting talent. The theme by John Barry was an additional bonus.

• The trailer for Apollo 11, a documentary by Todd Douglas Miller which presents for the first time the 70mm footage recording the Earth-bound parts of the Moon mission. Related: Michelle Santiago Cortés on how NASA used art to shape our vision of the future.

• At Dangerous Minds: a preview of Third Noise Principle, the latest in an excellent series of electronic music compilations from Cherry Red, and Cosey Fanni Tutti talks about her first solo album since 1983.

“The way I understood theory, primarily through popular culture, is generally detested in universities,” Mark [Fisher] told me in 2005, when I interviewed him for the Village Voice. “Most dealings with the academy have been literally clinically depressing.” He darkly surmised that his blog, K-Punk, and the surrounding blogosphere, “seemed like the space—the only space—in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with appalling cultural and political consequences.” Mark and the Village Voice are both dead now, leaving unfathomable voids in their wake.

Geeta Dayal on Mark Fisher

• At The Witch Wave: Peter Bebergal and Pam Grossman discuss Bebergal’s latest book (also my current reading), Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural.

• At Bandcamp: another release from the retro-synth cosmos of Jenzeits, and Ufology , an investigation of Britain’s flying-saucer landscape by Grey Frequency.

• Surprising collaboration of the week: Beth Gibbons and Krzysztof Penderecki have made a new recording of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony.

Alchemy (1969) the debut album by the Third Ear Band, receives an expanded reissue next month.

The Burn: a science-fiction story by Peter Tieryas with illustrations by Arik Roper.

• Mix of the week: Self-Titled Needle Exchange 275 by Black To Comm.

Amy Turk plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on her harp.

Chrismarker.org is seeking donations.

Mystery Train (1955) by Elvis Presley | Mystery R.P.S. (No 8) (1981) by Holger Czukay, Jah Wobble, Jaki Liebezeit | Mystery Room (1985) by Helios Creed

Symbolist Temptations

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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.

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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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Odilon Redon’s Temptations

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Saint-Antoine: Au secours, mon Dieu! (Saint Anthony: Help me, O my God!)

St. Anthony and his temptations provide another connection between the Surrealists and the Symbolists via Gustave Flaubert and his phantasmagoric drama. Flaubert’s The Temptation of St Anthony (1874) doesn’t quite stand in relation to the art of the time as does Oscar Wilde’s Salomé but, with its predominant themes of sex, death and spiritual transcendence, it both suited and pre-empted the concerns of the Decadence. Odilon Redon was particularly taken with the book, and from 1888 to 1896 produced three sets of lithograph illustrations. The examples here are from the final set of 24 images. A few of these are the ones you see most often in Symbolist studies, often in poor reproductions, but the other sets have some memorable moments. What’s most notable about all the drawings is how little the saint appears in them, Redon choosing to depict either the visions or the subjects of Flaubert’s philosophical discussions. See the complete set here.

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Et partout ce sont des Colonnes de basalte, … la lumière tombe des voûtes (And on every side are columns of basalt, … the light falls from the vaulted roof)

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Mes baisers ont le gout d’un fruit qui se fondrait dans ton cœur! … Tu me dédaignes! Adieu! (My kisses have the taste of fruit which would melt in your heart! … You distain me! Farewell!)

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Des fleurs tombent, et la tête d’un python paraît (Flowers fall and the head of a python appears)

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New Life for the Decadents by Philippe Jullian

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This essay by cult writer Philippe Jullian appeared in an edition of the Observer colour supplement in 1971, shortly after Jullian’s chef d’oeuvre, Dreamers of Decadence, had been published in Britain. Esthètes et Magiciens (1969), as Jullian’s study was titled in France, was instrumental in raising the profile of the many Symbolist artists whose work had been either disparaged or ignored since the First World War. A year after the Observer piece, the Hayward Gallery in London staged a major exhibition of Symbolist art with an emphasis on the paintings of Gustave Moreau; Jullian alludes to the exhibition in his article, and also wrote the foreword to the catalogue. His Observer article is necessarily shorter and less detailed than his introductory essay, emphasising the reader-friendly “Decadence” over the more evasive “Symbolist”. But as a primer to a mysterious and neglected area of art the piece would have served its purpose for a general reader.

Many thanks to Nick for the recommendation, and to Alistair who went to the trouble of providing high-res scans that I could run through the OCR. The translators of the article, Francis King and John Haylock, had previously translated Jullian’s biography of Robert de Montesquiou.

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New Life for the Decadents

The end of the nineteenth century was the Age of Decadence in the arts. The painters of that time (who have since influenced Pop art) and poets (echoed in pop songs) are back in favour: Philippe Jullian, chronicler of the Decadent period, explains why.

AS THE nineteenth century drew to a close, a number of the finer spirits of the time wondered if progress, increasing mechanisation and democratic aspirations were fulfilling their promises. Horrified by the direction in which Western civilisation was moving, they called themselves “The Decadents” in protest against a society that was too organised, an art that was too academic and a literature that was too realistic.

The Decadents produced some delightful symbolist poets, particularly Belgian and Austrian; at least one musician of genius, Debussy; and a number of painters who, having been despised for many years, are now at last beginning to be admired by a generation surfeited with Impressionists in museums and abstract paintings in galleries.

The genius of these Decadent painters, like that of the Decadent poets, only came to full bloom in the 1890s, when they themselves were in their twenties. Never were painting, music and poetry so close to one another. The gods of the Decadents were primarily Wagner and Baudelaire, then Swinburne and Poe. The Decadent movement, so active all over Europe, turned towards two great sources of inspiration: the Pre-Raphaelites, and a French painter whose glory was for a while eclipsed by the Impressionists but who is now once again accorded his place among the great—Gustave Moreau.

The women whom the Decadents loved and of whom they dreamt resembled the women created 30 years previously by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Moreau.

Nothing could be more naturalistic than the artistic style elaborated by the Pre-Raphaelites in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model, inspiration, mistress and finally wife was the sweet and sad Elizabeth Siddal, on whom so many fin-de-siècle ladies had to model themselves on the Continent as did all the aesthetic ladies of England in the 1880s. She posed for Rossetti as Beatrix and as the Belle Dame sans Merci.

She was a rare spirit, about whom everything was nebulous and evanescent: the thick, wild hair; the tunic of a simplicity to challenge the elaboration of the crinolines then in vogue; the frail hands burdened with lilies; the gaze turned towards eternity. She also posed, fully dressed and lying in a bath, her hair outspread around her bloodless face, as Ophelia for another Pre-Raphaelite, Millais. Elizabeth died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1862.

A macabre episode, which might have been imagined by Poe, was the exhumation of a sheaf of Rossetti’s poems that had been buried in Elizabeth Siddal’s coffin. When this symbol of the New Woman died, the grief-stricken poet had insisted on placing the poems inspired by her under her long hair before the coffin was sealed.

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Beata Beatrix (1864–1870) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

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Moravagine book covers

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First publication, Grasset, 1926.

I should have liked to open all cages, all zoos, all prisons, all lunatic asylums, see the great wild ones liberated and study the development of an unheard-of kind of human life…

Recent reading was Moravagine (1926) by Blaise Cendrars, a novel that resists easy summary. It’s a Modernist work to some extent although the prose (a good translation from the French by Alan Brown) is never unorthodox in style; it’s also scabrous, amoral, misogynist and deeply misanthropic. The narrative is a picaresque affair narrated by a young doctor who frees the mysterious Moravagine from an asylum where he’s been imprisoned for many years. “Moravagine” is an adopted name whose origin and meaning is never addressed, although a French reader would find a rather unavoidable pun on “death by vagina”. Moravagine himself is an otherwise unnamed member of the Hungarian royal family, a dwarfish intellectual psychopath with a bad leg who goes on the run with the doctor, first to pre-revolutionary Russia, then to the United States and South America.

Reviewers have compared the book to Beckett, Céline and Burroughs although it’s much lighter reading than the first two, and the prose is more coherent than Burroughs in cut-up mode. Since we’ve been hearing a lot about the First World War this year it’s tempting to read the book as a kind of Dadaist reaction to Cendrars’ own experiences in the war, even though the entirety of the conflict is dispensed with in two pages. Cendrars appears as a character in the later chapters; he lost an arm in the war so he has his narrator lose a leg while Moravagine loses his reason altogether. At the end of the book he’s found imprisoned in another asylum where he believes he’s an inhabitant of the planet Mars, and where he spends his last months writing a huge, apocalyptic account of how the world will be in the year 2013.

All this, of course, presents a challenge for a cover designer. I have two Penguin editions, both with very different covers, neither of them unsuitable. Curiosity impelled me to see how the book has been treated since 1926. There aren’t many editions but their difference shows the difficulty of trying to encapsulate the contents of this strange novel in a graphic form. The selection here has avoided text-only treatments in favours of those using some form of illustration.

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Le Livre de Poche, 1957.

In an early chapter Moravagine describes fleeing the imperial household by strapping himself to a horse. Without knowing this narrative detail the painting here seems bizarrely arbitrary.

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Editora Ulisseia, Portugal, 1966.

The horses again, with Moravagine strapped underneath one of them. I’d guess the illustrators of these two books didn’t read very far.

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First UK edition, Peter Owen, 1968.

Peter Owen commissioned the first English translation which is still in use today.

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