Exhibition review: Gustave Moreau & the Eternal Feminine

by **

Dear Dad

For Gustave Moreau, the two women in his life — his mother, Pauline Moreau, and his better-half, Alexandrine Dureux — counted as the most important people in his privileged existence.

NGV International calls its thematic exhibition to showcase the 19th century French artist’s work Gustave Moreau & the Eternal Feminine.

The gallery opening — with the artist’s portraits of his parents and his drawing of the lovely Alexandrine, sandwiched between self-portraits — literally illustrates the people at the centre of his life. We see the profile of the erudite father who ushered him into the world of literary classics; we examine the artist’s nose on his mother who managed the family finances with astute rigor and marvel at the youthful flush of his only known lover. But, above all, it suggests that the significant personal relationship with the women in his life could have contributed to Moreau’s Eternal fascination with the Feminine form.

Far from images of the pristine and untainted female, however, his works mostly highlight the Mephistophalean woman. Indeed, the first painting that swept him from relative obscurity was Oepidus and the sphinx. Legend has it that the sphinx was the keeper of the city of Thebes, holding its people captive. She posed a cryptic riddle to would-be heros and devoured them when they failed to solve the puzzle. When Oepidus arrived and offered the right answer, the incredulous sphinx took her own life and the city was liberated. Oepidus was made King of Thebes — a prelude to his ineluctable fate. Here, the sphinx is depicted as a delicately-featured woman with the body of a winged beast. Having pounced on Oepidus’ lithe physique — front limbs on his chest and hind claws pressing against his loins — she gazes longingly at him, mouth gaping, carnal hunger etched on her face. Oepidus arches back a little and glances down at her — cutting a pose that is more amorous than adversarial.

Oepidus and the sphinx 1864

NGV’s introduction with this work nails his enigmatic love-hate treatment of the Eternal Feminine. A video footage on a small screen shows Moreau’s bedroom in the (now open to public) Musée Gustave Moreau; photographic profiles of his mother and himself are seen hung on the wall — side-by-side — as if  locked in permanent visual contact. The uncanny similarity with Oepidus piques one to question his unwavering (and rarely disputed) devotion to his mother. So deep was this filial piety, it is believed, that — while he called Alexandrine his “dear and beloved” — he remained single all his life. And, the mystery of these intertwining relationships will never be unravelled, now that all the letters with Alexandrine have been burnt.

Aside from this conundrum, Oepidus paints the complexities and contradictions of Gustave’s position as a proto-Symbolist. At the same time as he was vehemently deriding the adulteration of mythology and history with modernist trends, his interpretation of the narrative on which Oepidus was based is shockingly radical. And it is this paradox that the NGV repeatedly surveys in this exhibition.

To be sure, a select few in his oeuvre feature the virtuous woman: The Shulamite woman (splendid painting of the promised bride of a sheppard struggling to escape the grasp of King Solomon’s henchmen as she eschews the luxurious life as his odalisque), The death of Sappho (glorious painting of the Greek poetess, who after suffering from unrequited love for a ferryman, throws herself off the precipice) and Mary Magdalene in the desert (watercolour dabbed into life of the repentent prostitute, who in seeking purgatory, exiles her nude body forever in a desert).

But, overwhelming, Gustave focused on Femmes Fatales. His work resonates with a strong whiff of misogyny because in spite of his inveterate love for his mother and his tender feelings for Alexandria. From Lady Macbeth — her treachery that led to the death of King Duncan is depicted as streaks of scarlet that flank her silhouette and the ground on which she stands, to Cleopatra — the Egyptian Queen is portrayed as a bejewelled and sultry figure reclining before a pile of slain men in opulent surrounds; from The Sirens — whose outstretched arms and seductive postures symbolise the fatal lure of their melodious singing, to Helen of Troy — her willowy beauty belies the weakness of the flesh that resulted in the fall of two armies.

The Sirens

Moreau’s genius lies in his ability to capture the drama without compromising on the pace and the emotions. Arguably, never has he done so more vividly than in Jupiter and Europa. From Ovid’s Metamorposes, where the besotted Jupiter stole down from the heavens in the guise of a white bull and swept Europa to a distant land that later came to bear her name, Moreau marvellously pins down the revelatory moment upon touch-down — an opinion surprisingly dwarfed at the time by ferocious criticism.

Jupiter and Europa

 After a self-imposed isolation of six years, during which he reflected on his ‘art and his iconography’, he returned with works that were to define his name: Salomé, Salome dancing before Herod, The Apparition.


NGV aptly celebrates this milestone by dedicating the centre of the gallery exclusively for this series. The biblical story tells of Salomé, the daughter of Herodias and her stepfather(and uncle) Herod. Herodias’ second marriage to Herod after her first to his brother was chastised by John the Baptist and this planted the seeds of vendetta in the vengeful Herodias. When Salomé was promised any reward by Herod if she could rouse his dormant testosterones, Herodias persuaded Salomé to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

Salomé dancing

NGV showcases the nuances in Moreau’s work: the juxtaposition in the architecture of multiple world cultures rather than the backdrop replica of old Italian masters; and as the senior curator Ted Gott notes, ‘the tight academic painting of Jupiter and Europa was now abandoned, too, in favour of a slightly looser…use of brush and scraper’.

The Apparition

It is The Apparition, though, that arguably shows Moreau at his proudest and finest. A variation on the original Salome dancing before Herod, it is the ultimate painting of the artist’s imagination: Salome is halted mid-dance by a vision of the Baptist’s severed head. The scale and size of the massive work accentuates the blood and gore dripping from his head — never mind the dazzling ‘aura’ that surrounds it.

Not only has the NGV magnificently portrayed Moreau to be a dramatist who embellishes history and myths with histrionic brilliance, it has successfully intrigued the mind on the inextricable link between his personal and professional lives.

Gustave Moreau & the Eternal Feminine

10 December 2010 – 10 April 2011

NGV International Temporary Exhbition Space 1

Level Ground

Admission fees apply