André Breton has acknowledged that his personal ideal of female beauty was established in his adolescence when he visited the Gustave Moreau museum in Paris; like Joris-Karl Huysmans’s protagonist, Des Esseintes, Breton was enthralled by Moreau’s depiction of figures such as Salomé.
Keith Aspley, Historical Dictionary of Surrealism
André Breton happens to be one of four narrators whose voices may be heard (all speaking French) in this short study of Gustave Moreau’s paintings and drawings made in 1961. Director Nelly Kaplan was an Argentinian writer and film-maker who moved to Paris in the 1950s where she became creatively involved with Abel Gance, and with what was left of the original Surrealist movement based around the autocratic Breton. I’ve often drawn attention to Breton’s pettiness, especially his penchant for excommunicating from his circle anyone he disagreed with, but he deserves credit for championing Gustave Moreau during the decades when the artist was resolutely beyond the critical pale. A lesson I learned from the Surrealists early on is that you don’t let other people dictate the limits of your cultural tastes.
Moreau was still beyond the pale in 1961 so Kaplan’s film was in the vanguard of the reappraisals that were to take place later in the decade, culminating in major exhibitions in the early 1970s. One of the curators of the Hayward exhibition of 1972, Philippe Jullian, made an unfinished Moreau painting, The Chimeras, a key reference in his landmark study of Symbolist art, Dreamers of Decadence (1971). You see a few details from this picture in Kaplan’s film when the camera is roaming the walls of the Moreau Museum, formerly the artist’s residence in the rue de la Rochefoucauld, Paris. The years of neglect had their advantages, one of them being that the house/museum hasn’t had to change very much in order to accommodate visitors; the same goes for Moreau’s art which didn’t get scattered around the world like the works of his contemporaries. The upper floors of the museum are filled with original paintings, together with preliminary sketches which you see here in their hinged frames which allow you to leaf through them like pages of a book. No film or book does justice to the jewelled splendour of the finished paintings, however, especially the detailed works like Jupiter and Semele. You really have to see these things in person if you can.