On the salon’s opening night, it seemed that Joséphin Péladan had successfully demonstrated his syndicate’s values. Hoards of intrigued visitors and members of the Parisian intelligentsia circulated the space, both charmed and bewildered by Péladan’s commanding air. Critics praised the ambitious event, which would be the first of six for the mysterious order of the Rose + Croix (R+C).
One year earlier in 1891, Péladan was busy cultivating this “project of cultural renewal,” as identified by curator Vivien Greene in a catalogue distributed by the Guggenheim. Guided by select principles of Rosicrucianism—a secret 17th-century order devoted to alchemy and the preservation of esoteric wisdom—Péladan infused Christian practices with cultish mysticism.
After parting ways with Rosicrucian leader Stanislas de Guaïta, Péladan established L’Ordre de la Rose + Croix du Temple et du Graal, crowning himself the high priest, or Sâr, the Assyrian word for “leader.” Convinced of art’s capacity to elevate and enlighten, Péladan preached its divinity and garnered an entourage of his own disciples.
Péladan was particularly swayed by symbolism, an anti-naturalistic movement that sought creative freedom through imagination over empirical observation. As a result, the works produced by the brotherhood bear many characteristics of the late 19th-century symbolist aesthetic: elegant, elongated bodies, mythical subjects and saintly figures. The artworks were well-suited to the zeitgeist, hence the order’s brief period of notoriety, but after only six salons, the R+C fell into obscurity.
Housed in a spacious alcove on the Guggenheim’s fourth floor, Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, 1892-1897 is “the first museum exhibition on this revelatory and significant yet frequently overlooked series of Salons,” as described by the press release. Rich red walls, velvet sofas, and Wagnerian melodies contribute to the resurrection of Péladan’s peculiar, indulgent world.
The Greek musician, poet and prophet Orpheus proved influential to the brotherhood as an archetypal subject amongst the 40-odd works on view. His musical talents were said to charm the whole world—even inanimate objects—and his gift of foresight was an endowment from the ancient gods.
Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau’s Orpheus in Hades (Orphée) (1897) is one of the most dramatic portrayals on view. The god of the underworld can be partially seen in the large painting’s upper right-hand corner, his face omitted and left to the viewer’s imagination. The damned clamor at Orpheus’ feet as he serenades Hades with music from his lyre in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to rescue his love, Eurydice, from hell.
In contrast, The Death of Orpheus (Orphée mort) (1893) is Belgian painter Jean Delville’s ethereal portrayal of the Greek legend’s severed head, resting amid his lyre, floating down the Hebrus river. Delville’s rendering noticeably depicts Orpheus with soft, androgynous features—a balance between masculinity and femininity that the brotherhood was known to idealize.
Péladan set clear guidelines for the R+C aesthetic: no real-world subjects, only spiritual, religious and mythical ones. Unsurprisingly, reductive and dichotomous portrayals of women ensued, hence the slightly awkward contrast between the pure femme fragile realized by Henri Martin (below) in Young Saint (Jeune sainte) (1891) and the femme fatale of biblical proportions as sketched by Jean Delville in The Idol of Perversity (The Evil of Perversity) (1891).
Péladan, of course, made an exception for himself. The Guggenheim’s survey includes select portraits of the austere leader, whom one can only imagine was entrenched in comical self-seriousness. Clad in long robes, he apparently donned a mop of dark hair and a pointed beard, wore a pensive facial expression and was always on the verge of a revelation.
For this, the Sâr was not immune to mockery, and he was subject to increasing levels of criticism throughout the years. But to his credit, Péladan knew how to market himself, and he skillfully leveraged his strange charisma to successfully organize six salons, the last of which was held in 1897.
Today, the Salon de la Rose + Croix feels relatively low-impact. But as the Guggenheim notes, their “transcendent aspirations were carried on in the early 20th century by the pioneers of abstract painting, among them Vasily Kandinsky, František Kupka, and Piet Mondrian (key figures in the Guggenheim’s collection), who were weaned on symbolism and owed their theories, in varying degrees, to Theosophy, an esoteric philosophy that shares Rosicrucianism’s interest in universal truths and ritual as means to divine enlightenment.”
The Guggenheim’s decision to showcase R+C artworks is not arbitrary, but rather complements a revived quest for spirituality in the art world. The modern day is far from ideal, and more contemporary artists are turning their backs on material subjects for inspiration. A lot has changed since Péladan’s day, but admittedly, he was onto something.
Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, 1892-1897 will remain on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10128, until October 4, 2017.