Against Paragone: Alfred Jarry and Paul Gauguin

In 2018, I gave a talk at the annual College Art Association Conference in Los Angeles as part of a session organized by the Society of Paragone Studies. Entitled “Against Paragone: Alfred Jarry and Paul Gauguin,” I examined one of Jarry’s poems that he wrote after Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, L’homme à la hache (1891), after seeing them in the fall of 1893. Jarry gave his poems to the artist and Gauguin placed the manuscript in an artist portfolio that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The panel can be found here in the conference program.

Known today for his plays, novels, and prose, Alfred Jarry also wrote art criticism early in his career. In an 1894 essay for the Mercure de France, a central organ of the Symbolist movement, Jarry remarked upon the absurdity of his attempts to describe the work of Charles Filiger, which, he noted, added nothing. Around the same time, Jarry also turned his critical eye to the work of Gauguin, the subject of critic Albert Aurier’s famous essay, “Le Symbolisme en peinture”, published three years earlier. Instead of prose, Jarry chose to write poetry after Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. This paper examined how Jarry drew upon Aurier’s critical legacy to write these poems, which were dedicated to Gauguin and given to the artist. In the early 1890s, Aurier theorized that a sympathetic relation between viewer and artwork was essential to aesthetic experience, and that poets were particularly well suited to offer insight onto visual works. Whereas artist-writer relations are often framed as competitions, in light of Aurier’s thinking, this paper uses a collaborative model. Taking a case study approach, I examined the interrelationships between Gauguin’s painting Man with an Axe (1891)and Jarry’s eponymous poem. Whereas the painting has been read largely in terms of Gauguin’s autobiography, Jarry’s poem offers new insight into the meanings of this opaque work. In addition, the pairing helps us think about how to view works by other Symbolists in a manner consistent with the thinking of Gauguin’s circle.

Inter-Arts Exchange as Modernist Method, circa 1900

For the 2018 College Art Association Annual Conference, I and art historian Juliet Bellow (American University) organized the panel “Inter-Arts Exchange as Modernist Method, circa 1900.” Panelists included Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen (Williams College), who spoke about Vaslav Nijinski’s ballet The Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Katherine Brion (New College), who discussed Maurice Denis’s History of Psyche (1908), and Juliet Bellow, who presented on Auguste Rodin and Loïe Fuller’s relationship and their shared interest in photographs from her book project, Rodin’s Dancers: Moving Toward the Limits of Sculpture.

During the fin de siècle, artists sought to forge novel relations between media, aiming to reinvent the art object as well as the processes of its making and consumption. A central point of reference for these endeavors, which freely crossed national borders, was Charles Baudelaire’s 1861 essay “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris,” in which he defined a modern aesthetic originating in synaesthesia and the interrelationship between the arts. By 1900, Wagner’s concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), disseminated through critical texts in several languages, proved influential upon a new generation of writers, painters, sculptors, and choreographers. Reformulating the concept of the paragone, premised upon a competition that implicitly enshrined the singularity of the artist’s vision, these artists embraced a synergistic model of creative practice—one commensurate with Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences among the arts.

This session asked how such inter-artistic exchange resulted in the emergence of new modernist languages around 1900. The papers examined how interactions between painters and poets, sculptors and dancers, fine and applied artists yielded new formal languages. Collaboration, however fraught, appealed as a means of overcoming artists’ alienation in the modern world, even if they disagreed over whether aesthetic unity might forge a broader social consensus. While grounded in the art of fin-de-siècle Europe, the papers offered broader methodological reflections on transpositions between the arts—from canvas to stage, from choreography to sculpture, from painting to applied arts and architecture—thereby challenging art history’s equation of an oeuvre with the work of a single artist.