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28.1.04

Delacroix in Karlsruhe (as seen from snowbound Washington)

If one snow day is good, three snow days are even better. We are on Day 3 of the annual winter disaster in Washington, and there has been no school since last Friday. Far be it from me to complain about getting too many days off because of a little snow and ice, but last year we had so many that we lost part of our spring break.

Eugène DelacroixJean Pierrard's little article (Sang pour sang Delacroix, January 9) in Le Point is an appreciation of an exhibition of the works of Eugène Delacroix at the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe, Germany, which will end on February 1. (You can read the Web site for the show, Eugène Delacroix, in German or French, but not in English.) According to Pierrard, the selection of more than 200 paintings, watercolors, drawings, and engravings reveals a dark but edifying Delacroix:

"Lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges" [Lake of blood, haunted by the fallen angels], as Baudelaire saw it so well. Messy assassinations, large-scale abductions, shipwrecks, a persistent anguish. Glorious corpses between dust and flags and others, more interesting, drawn from mythology under the heading of crimes of passion, like Medea stabbing her children. As shown by the impeccable retrospective exhibit of the Karlsruhe museum, the work of Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) reads like the darkest of crime novels.
The opening of the article refers to Charles Baudelaire's essay on Delacroix, written in response to seeing his paintings at the 1855 Universal Exhibition. The line of poetry was quoted by Baudelaire in the essay from his own poem Les phares (in English, The Beacons), published in his collection Les fleurs du mal (in English, The Flowers of Evil). The Medea painting Pierrard mentions (Médée sur le point de tuer ses enfants [Medea about to kill her children]) was begun by Delacroix in 1838 and not finished until just before he died in 1862. It is now in the Louvre and is indeed a dark painting on the horrifying subject of infanticide.
The monster of pride in a strangling tie whom we make out in daguerrotypes of 10 square cm [1.5 square inches], the dandy with narrow shoulders petting his cat in the comfort of his studio was a man with a single obsession: death. He whom Cézanne credited with the most beautiful palette of French painters adored cadavers. The macabre was part of his preferred medium. Was he terminally shaken by the news of the death of his older brother, Henri, killed in Friedland in 1807? Was his childlilke sensibility shocked too often by the Te Deum which, with great ringing of bells, regularly called the populace to celebrate the Corsican ogre's latest victory? As soon as he could, Delacroix painted the unspeakable: a soldier stretched out ingloriously between two dead horses on a battlefield abandonned by Marshal Marmont. To better understand the simultaneously tragic and banal character of this scene, Delacroix even went to the place in 1824 with two of his friends.
I would love to link you to an image of this work, but I have yet to identify it.
The following year, it was with a picturesque touch that he reset the table, depicting a mortally wounded Mediterranean brigand [c. 1825], busy quenching his thirst in a stream, the ruffian's blood mingling with the mud. As connaisseurs of Romantic things, the Germans appreciated the Voyage d'hiver, a picture from the borders of despair, in which the colors sound the knell with as much conviction as in Schubert's darkest songs. Even women were not really able to distract the artist from these morbid tendencies. He was not attached to Aspasie [c. 1824], a mulatto woman who, at one time, was his model. He hardly came back to the nude, which he had once tasted with a salacious look, as shown by a splendid page from 1818 to 1820, rarely shown in public. From 1827, avoiding marriage and happy soon to be knocking up his maid, the future head of the Romantic School dreamed of odalisques, like this Femme au perroquet vert [Woman with green parrot, 1827], lolling about in a sultana's pose. Only the happy trip to Morocco in 1832 appeased the artist and freed him momentarily from his nightmares. The light, the colors of the countryside, the languid attitudes of a calm populace had a soothing effect on him. Of course, a lion escaped from a hunt bites from time to time, between two fantasias, an unfortunate wanderer in the bush [Cavalier arabe attaqué par un lion, 1849]. But, for the most part, Morocco inspired peaceful images to the creator of the Massacre of Chios. He was enchanted by the festivities of a Jewish wedding [Jewish Bride, 1832; or Saada, the Wife of Abraham Benchimol, and Préciada, One of Their Daughters, 1832], he noted with care the ritual accompanying the the Tournament of the Caïd [Moroccan Caid Visiting His Tribe, 1837], during which one extends a plate of milk as a sign of peace—so many images that will permit him later to evoke Morocco once more.
You can see some Delacroix's sketches of Moroccan scenes taken from his journals.
Ten, twenty, or thirty years after his African expedition bursts of fire from the Moroccan paintings will rise up again. From the Marchand d'oranges [Orange merchant, 1852] to the Vue de Tanger prise de la côte [View of Tangiers taken from the coast, 1858], they appear like oases of tranquility amid a body of work often knotted up like a python in fury as one sees in the Louvre, on the ceiling of the Galerie d'Apollon [Apollo vanquishing the Python, 1850–1851]. And of which this exhibit offers the hallucinatory sketch.
What I have tried to do here is reconstruct in images what is in this exhibit. Since many of them are from private collections, such a goal is ultimately impossible. Although you can also see fourteen images from the exhibit through the official Web site, I renew my call for museums to make more comprehensive online versions of their exhibits. Sadly, I am not likely to make it to Karlsruhe before Sunday.

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