Beyond The Skin

"I believe neither in what I touch nor what I see.  I only believe in what I do not see, and solely in what I feel."

What happened when the invisible needles pierced your eyelids and sewed them shut?  Did your vision reach beyond that monstrous embroidery?  What happened when your fingers, your hands, your skin, dissolved into powder?  Did the living dust reassemble in another dimension?  Did you dream of definitions, images, descriptions that were wrapped in a chrysalis?  Were you only able to paint the silhouettes of embryonic butterflies? 

Gustave Moreau was a Symbolist painter:  for him, implication hid behind curtains that shifted color like a borealis.  These fabrics of life, these meanings that rode metaphors like horses beneath the amending oceans and stirred visions like a slotted spoon in a glass of green poison were caught and laid onto canvases of obsession, decadence and voluptuous oblivion.

In 1895, when Verlaine lay fainting in the slums, when Wilde was convicted and condemned, when Beardsley began his final, dying year, Moreau painted Jupiter and Semele – a myth of realism's hidden betrayal.  Jupiter had taken Semele, a mortal, as a lover.  His jealous wife, Juno, set aside her cloaks – bloody with the sacrifices laid at her feet – and disguising herself as a nurse, befriended Semele, pretending not to believe her guilty secret.  Has she never seen her lover on his throne, surrounded by light and falling stars?

Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in all his glory.  When he refused, she persisted – until he agreed.  But mortals cannot look upon Jupiter without perishing.  Moreau chose the moment when Semele was consumed by his splendor and fell back, white and collapsing, about to explode into shards of ivory.

Jupiter, however, is a tattooed icon alive in an ecstatic jungle:  flowers swim in the melting air, columns of architecture tremble as fruit and vines choke them like jeweled parasittes.  Gardens of offerings gild his throne of embossed marble and seethe down the pleasurable stone.  Beneath him goddesses with towering wings built into their ribs bow their heads.  The eagle of Jupiter arches its limbs like the shadows of blades slashing into the drizzling, dazzling light.  Close by is Pan, mourning in the shadows, weeping for a denizen of his beloved earth.  Finally, there are the creatures of the Underworld; a frieze of woe, glimmering through the thick shadows – rubies, sapphires and opals folded into Hades' black velvet sleeve.

Moreau's painting is a thick, indulgent tapestry.  Colors drip from molten glass.  Patterns are so delicate, it seems as if he pressed pieces of lace into the hot, teeming paint.  It is a tactile, passionate vision:  a river embedded in gems that wink from the mud, whose source can never be found.

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6 responses to “Beyond The Skin

  1. The painting is gorgeous and your description again is so moving and beautiful. Now that's how an art class should be conducted. I actually will remember the painting for a long time and think of it with a special feeling, just like Proust's madeleine.

  2. perfectly beautiful writing Aubrey. I think some magazines would like an article about Moreau. This was art criticism (hate that word) at its best. Thanks for the excellent writing. Nothing I would change about it. It is perfect as is.

  3. my only wish is that the image was larger. . . there is so much going on that I can't see.

  4. SHorse – yes, art is made up of feelings, in addition to facts and dates and other ingredients that don't interest us as much, yet are the things that we're always taught. We want to approach our feelings, but are often not given a chance.
    Lucy – thank you so much! I think Moreau is hidden behind the larger names of the 1890's: as much of a visionary, but perhaps a little harder to define, despite all that happens in his startling paintings.
    eliz. – I think that the only way to see it all would be to stand in front of it, and we'd have to travel all the way to Paris to do so!

  5. Your description brings a beautiful sense of order to the almost overwhelming detail in the painting. Bravo.

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