A Rosicrucian Perspective of the Salon de la Guggenheim
By David Carey
‘Art Experts’ Aside Let’s Have Our Rosicrucian Say
A Rose by any other name…
Halfway up the Guggenheim Rotunda on Tower Level 4, lies an exhibit taking place this month. It’s in honor and memory of an annual event that took place in Paris from 1892 until its final collapse after 1897. The Salon De La Rose+Croix, as it was called by its creator Sar Joséphin Péladan, was an exhibition of art in defiance of the cultural trends of Materialism, in favor of the Symbolist movement, with the coloring of Rosicrucian mysticism.
Not alone in his opposition, many others at the time, such as Rudolf Steiner, spoke out against the purely materialized thinking culture had become enamored with, instead seeking to define the reality of our situation through our soul or divine being. Indeed certain groups including the Theosophical Society also grew out of this rebellious inclination towards the then current trend of focusing on a purely tangible world. The Symbolist movement believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be described indirectly. Their writings and works of art coaxed meaning by way of metaphors, suggestions, and symbols meant to invoke feelings and inner reflection for an experience that was truly personal. Symbols in this context do not necessarily mean specific images such as a familiar icons, emblems, or logos. Rather it alludes to personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references often linked with philosophy, meant to invoke or convey a certain truth. This seems no different than the idea behind many Freemason and Rosicrucian rituals which pass on certain ideas through acting out a drama. In fact the first of Péladan’s Salons even included one of his plays that was performed, as well as carefully crafted music.
But who was Joséphin Péladan? Born into a French family in Lyon, Péladan studied at Jesuit colleges for a time, eventually moving to Paris to become a literary/art critic. Influenced by his brother who studied alchemy and occultism, and also by the works of Eliphas Levi, Péladan soon began to write literature of his own on occult magic and similar topics. His first book “Le vice suprême” gained instant popularity in a French society that was becoming increasingly interested in the mystical and mysterious. During his lifetime he’d go on to publish over 100 books, pamphlets, and articles on occult topics.
1888 brought the death of Louis Dramart, president of the French division of the Theosophical Society, leaving the French landscape unguided and fragmented in terms of metaphysics. It was during this turmoil that Péladan and Stanislas de Guaita recruited Gérard Encausse “Papus” to help restore Rosicrucianism, which had been in decline and faltering in France. They believed both Martinism and Rosicrucianism were the two great pillars in the Western Esoteric Tradition. Soon forming their “Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix” in 1888, it originally consisted of a council of twelve. Membership was reserved only for Martinists of the S.I. degree. They believed it was their divine providence to breathe new life into the traditions of old.
Péladan and Papus while in agreeance at first, butted heads on a number of details over the few short years coming to a head in 1891. Papus felt their order should open its membership to a wider audience while Péladan felt it should be restricted and include only carefully selected individuals. Erupting in a quite public feud, Péladan eventually left forming his own order named the “Order of the Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal”, seating himself as Grand Master. Already a somewhat larger than life character, the publicity from the split for Péladan irritated Papus and eventually would pave the way for Péladan’s first Salon a year later in 1892.
Why visit the current exhibit? Péladan certainly was no loss for critics, but even so, his Salons were considered highly successful, exhibiting over 250 pieces at his first one. Many opponents at the time related how they originally went to mock and laugh at the event, but instead walked away awed. Whether a fan or critic, the talent he pulled together was amazing. Adding the Rosicrucian element puts it at a very unique place in history, and worth the very small snapshot of it graciously presented by the Guggenheim.
Entering the gallery you almost have the sense you’re crossing into another world. The deep red walls and blue velvet furniture in stark contrast to the white and grey that’s presented throughout the rest of the museum. Most guests filtering through at rushed pace probably neglect to notice the soft music of Eric Satie’s “Sonneries de la Rose+Croix” and other works playing over the speakers, helping to set the tone.
Three portraits of Péladan are present to greet you when you make your way into the exhibit. They were painted for and displayed at different Salons, but the way they’ve been placed in conjunction together, is almost indicative, or prophetic of events to expire in his life. On the left you can see someone who is full of pride, the whip of an aristocrat in hand, boastful, brimming with ego. The middle image is almost of someone who’s been stripped down, lost, come to terms… “Sar Joséphin Péladan” is faintly painted across the top of the portrait, almost missed it if you didn’t catch the light at the right angle. It’s almost mocking in a “this is the great Sar, look at him now” kind of way. The final image is reminiscent of someone who’s been built up, full of the divine, no ego, incense at foot, finger raised in witness, Rosicrucian Rose Crosses on his robe, rose crosses surrounding him all over the canvas, and even carved into the very wood frame. Someone who’s transformed and become merged with his teachings.
I mentioned prophetic earlier because these portraits were painted during the first few years of the Salons. At the last Salon in 1897 Péladan was very much the man on the left, full of pride and ego. The last Salon although well received, would leave him bankrupt eventually. In 1898 Péladan would end up taking a trip to Egypt. Amid a bunch of mishaps and accidents he’d come to find himself before the Sphinx and have an awakening. Shouting out “Have I profaned the Rose Cross?“, he received a response “You are guilty because you didn’t find the true divine expression of your purpose. […] You took men for demons and operated according to pride. You have disobeyed Tradition.”. He continued to write after this, and while never restoring his former fame and glory, was forever a changed man moving onward.
While there are some pieces on display with very fine details that will most certainly scream Rosicrucian themes, you must remember the modus operandi of symbolist painters, they generally aren’t supposed to display implicit symbols. And while Péladan had a very strict rule set for what could or couldn’t be painted, it must be remembered during the first Salon he bent his rules and allowed a number of painters to exhibit who were not of his “conditions”. So if you find yourself grasping at a painting for a “Rosicrucian meaning” and not finding it, well as Feud said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.
Many people who come through the exhibit tend to look at a painting for a few moments and carry onto the next. There’s nothing wrong with this, people can enjoy works on many levels. If you visit you might even want to do this yourself, however I’d encourage you afterwards to take time with many of the paintings. Looking into your being, connecting, and coaxing out the inner meaning, the truths behind the image. After a few minutes of inner seeking the meaning begins to unfold, and begins to paint a new story, a deeper reflection.
And while the meaning of these paintings are not always in hard symbols, there are times you can tease symbols out of them. This painting for example gave a lack luster description on the gallery wall (paraphrasing) “in those days chauvinistic males viewed women as lower beings, only slightly above animals, so this painting represents how all women are evil”. However, if you spend a little time with the wonderful composition, you might begin to see that nothing further could be from the truth.
As a side note to those who are members of AMORC. While in New York City I was talking with the person who is currently writing a new 12th Degree monograph. She mentioned the Péladan exhibit at the Guggenheim happens to be very synchronistic. For a little while now she’s been occupied translating manuscripts from French and editing for a new monograph that will be released in regards to Péladan. She didn’t mention too much of the details other than she thought members would enjoy it and would be of great use and value. A little something extra to look forward to.
The exhibit ends October 4th before moving to the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. Starting October 28th it will show there for a short period. If you’re looking for an exhibit that celebrates Rosicrucianism, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The exhibit takes the stance that being affiliated with anything Rosicrucian is somewhat of an embarrassment, a cult, and something to be ignored or brushed to the side, which is very disheartening. With that said, the curator Vivien Greene spent a lot of time tracking down paintings, many in private collections. And while it’s only a small taste of the Salons, it’s well worth the time to view the intricate brush strokes, see the rich meanings which are still relevant , and take a step back in time experiencing what it might have felt like, to be part of that creation.
*Some pictures courtesy of the Guggenheim website https://www.guggenheim.org/exhibition/mystical-symbolism-the-salon-de-la-rosecroix-in-paris-1892-1897/
Filed under: Rosicrucian Art