Art & Design


Moreau – The Final Weeks

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Curator Laurie Benson speaks to Paul Andrew about the art and philosophy of Gustave Moreau before the works are sent back to Europe.

What was going through your mind as you unpacked these beautiful paintings and witnessed Moreau’s works en masse?
For a curator this is undoubtedly the most thrilling part of any exhibition. I’ve seen grown curators and even Directors moved to tears as rare and wonderful works are unpacked and placed on the walls of their own museums, especially if they have worked for years to get them here. There is also an element of terror as in the back of your mind is the lingering doubt whether the right choices of have been made and will the whole thing actually work as an exhibition. Fortunately, as soon as you could see these wonderful things by Moreau, those doubts disappeared in a heartbeat.

Were there certain aspects to these works that astonished you?
Even in the Moreau Museum, some of the pairings and groupings seen on the walls at the NGV can’t be made, so only here can you see firsthand clear examples illustrating his mind at work as he works towards his final painting. It is very rare that the artistic process can be seen so clearly as few artists kept their preliminary sketches and studies. You can see where in one drawing he is formulating the composition, in another he is refining details, and in some breathtaking paintings he is seeing how colours work.

What types of images of the feminine fascinated him?
He seemed drawn to powerful and dangerous women. The combination of drama and sex fascinated him, so we see him treat biblical heroines and villains from history. But, he often had tremendous insight of their psyche and could express a degree of empathy or even sympathy with them. A great example is his treatment of the legendary beauty Helen of Troy. Usually demonised by artists and writers for causing the Trojan wars, Moreau paints Helen as a victim who deeply mourns what has happened after Troy has fallen and the Trojans massacred. Moreau has painted her as she realises the gravity of these events.

Do you feel Moreau was an artist interested in self-inquiry, his own inner feminine?
This sounds a bit Freudian. Most artists invest part of themselves in their work, and Moreau was no exception. But I doubt I’m qualified to judge whether through his admiration and fascination with women he was tapping into some innate feminine side.

Moreau – the symbolism- what did he want audiences to imagine in matters mystical and numinous?
I think above all he wanted people to understand what he was painting and be as moved as he was by the subjects he treated, and to think and reflect on what he created. He was sensitive to criticism and was upset when critics did not “get” what he was trying to do. He did not set out to be a “Symbolist”, but the literary and psychological depths in his work, combined with the sumptuousness of style has led people to characterise him as one. In reality his art defies such pigeon holing, but later writers and artists latched on to these qualities in his work.

Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine shows at the NGV until April 10
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