Felicien Rops: Days of madness

by Victoria James

The catalog of the Felicien Rops exhibition is wrapped in the anonymous brown paper more often used to disguise pornography than art. The display itself, now at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, would, if art galleries issued such things, come with a parental advisory label. With a preponderance of erotica, scenes of the Parisian demimonde — and even a few engravings of “Satanic” rites — this certainly isn’t an exhibition to take the kids to.

It is, though, an excellent introduction to the work of Rops (1833-98), to his adventurous life and his scandalous, fin-de-siecle times. It also makes a strong case for renewing interest in this neglected Belgian artist, who was a master of many forms of graphic art including lithography, etching and aquatint, as well as drawing and painting.

In his lifetime, Rops was well-known. The poet Paul Verlaine repeatedly asked him to illustrate his verse, and Baudelaire was a personal friend. In 1865, Baudelaire wrote to the Impressionist Edouard Manet: “Rops is the one true artist — what I and perhaps I alone mean by artist — that I have found in Belgium.”

Rops fitted the idea others had of an artist; too — during the late 1870s he was the highest-paid illustrator in Paris. But Baudelaire was right to recognize the singular nature of the artist’s work.

It is tempting to class Rops alongside the English decadent Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98): The two artists share a predilection for cruel erotica, oversized phalli and exotic creatures from the Aesthete culture of the day, such as sphinxes and skeletons. Yet as the current exhibition makes clear, the Belgian’s work is shot through with an earthy observation that is quite different from the elegant fantasy of Beardsley’s illustrations for, say, Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” or Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.”

It is true that Rops produced frontispieces for Baudelaire and Verlaine, and also worked for Mallarme and the dramatist Alfred de Musset, yet his lifelong inspiration was drawn not from imaginary worlds but from life around him. An ability to depict low-life sympathetically but without sentimentality is what sets Rops apart from his peers.

But before plunging visitors into the absinthe bars and whorehouses of late 19th-century Paris, this exhibition first follows Rops on his European travels. These inspired a number of gentle, accomplished, Impressionistic landscapes. The countryside was the artist’s lifelong refuge: “Whenever life is harsh to me, I go to the forests and the beaches, I take refuge like a wounded animal and Nature cradles me, watches over me and restores me,” he wrote toward the end of his life. Sensitive visitors might profit by Rops’ example: If the perversity of later rooms in this exhibition becomes a little overwhelming, cast your mind back to these lovely landscapes.

Whereas his urban works are shadowy etchings, aquatints and drawings, in the countryside Rops changed both palette and medium, using paint in glowing natural hues. Dazzling clouds fill the sky in the upper half of “Etang de Bambois” (c. 1870); their no-less-luminous reflections crowd the water in the lower half of the canvas. With broad and flat horizons, the empty vistas of these scenes are almost devoid of human figures: “I enter into the religion of Art,” wrote Rops of his landscape work. “I paint and no longer look at women.”

Yet the peace of the countryside could not hold him long against the pace of the city. Like Wilde, Rops could “resist everything except temptation” — and many of his works show others equally powerless in the grip of their own particular vices, whether cheap alcohol, easy sex or, often, both together.

One powerful portrait, “The Absinthe Drinker” (c. 1876), shows an elegantly dressed young woman, fan in hand, slouched against a lamppost. Her smart gown, cinched at the waist, seems at odds with her glazed stare and hungry expression. A pair of works, “The Drunken Dandy” (lost, but represented here by a 1910 copy) and “The Fourth Glass of Cognac” (c. 1880), show a couple in the initial, then the advanced stages of intoxication — the woman half-naked in the second picture. Rops invites the viewer to strip away dress and outward appearance (often an actual stripping, as in “The Fourth Glass”) in order to perceive the underlying depravity.

Some disturbing pieces take those moral X-rays to the extreme, showing the literal bare bones of their rotten-through subject. “Dancing Death” (c. 1865), is a skull-faced but full-breasted figure in elbow gloves lifting her skirt. Even nastier is “Naturalia” (1875). From her corset up an attractive, mascara’d blonde, Naturalia is a skeleton below.

For all that Rops was a penetrating observer of the follies of his day, at times he was equally content to let his eye rest indulgently on its subject. For every stark image there are two or three rosy nudes depicted with palpable affection: a plump blonde perches on one side of a giant balance, being weighed against a heap of worldly ornaments — jewels, artworks, flowers, volumes of poetry. She tips the scale as the weightier beauty. These coquettish girls are not the unselfconscious nudes of Classical painting. One saucily eyes the artist as she receives a massage; another reveals an exquisite profile as she is hosed down at the public baths.

Feminist these works are not — though it would be equally erroneous to label most of them exploitative. Despite their nudity, the women are poised and confident as they regard the viewer.

Rops did, however, create an iconic image of the woman of his age that is far from flattering. “Pornokrates” caused a scandal when exhibited in Paris in 1886. The artist, however, cherished it:

“This drawing delights me,” he wrote to a friend in 1879. “I would like to show you this beautiful naked girl, clad only in black shoes and gloves in silk, leather and velvet, her hair styled. Wearing a blindfold she walks on a marble stage, guided by a pig with a golden tail. . . . I did this in four days in a room of blue satin, in an overheated apartment full of different smells, where the opopanax and cyclamen gave me a slight fever conducive toward production — or even toward reproduction.”

The meaning of “Pornokrates” was fiercely debated. The pig was a common literary and artistic motif of the day, but here did it symbolize bestial man, his animal nature restrained by woman? Or was the beast emblematic of stupidity, its golden tail connoting luxury and greed, the guiding passion of blinded womankind? As his own account of the work shows, however, Rops himself didn’t make — or demand — a value judgment on “Pornokrates.” His subject’s naked beauty alone, it seems, was reason enough to paint her.

Aultre ne veult estre (No desire to be other than I am)” was Rops’ oft-stated motto, and his art, too, prizes things as they are. Although he borrows the symbolism of the day — one beauty contemplates a puppet punchinello, emblem of human folly; sphinxes unfold their wings in a number of studies — his talents are most evident in studies from life. Rops was a prolific correspondent all his life, and his letters reveal the same talent for observation as the best of his artworks. One of his strangest and most satisfying pieces is “Funeral in Wallonia” (1863). He described the scene that inspired it in a letter to another friend, Charles De Coster:

“A gouty priest, with his stockings falling around his ankles, two priests chanting, gloomily grotesque; with red complexions from their troubled digestion; . . . All this mumbling did not lack for a certain gloomy and sinister comedy, beneath a gray autumn sky. . . . During the oration the altar boy splashed the dog and the pall-bearers drank. I liked this scene and decided to draw it on a big lithographic stone.”

Rops did indeed draw the scene just as he described it. The artist’s pencil portrays the protagonists with a pitiless accuracy that is, nonetheless, just on the right side of caricature; the carbonate tones of lithography perfectly capture the lowering autumn sky.

The season of autumn struck a chord with Rops’ sensibility. “Each time autumn arrives, with its austere intoxications, I suffer,” he wrote to a female friend. “I am afraid of being old and of no longer being able to inspire love in a woman, which is a true death for a man of my nature and with my needs for madness of mind and body.”

Drawn to the intoxications of the world around him, Rops captured them in a style that is austere in its unflinching honesty. And few, certainly, better understood — or depicted — the madness of mind and body that gripped his age.