Posts tagged ‘Huysmans’

February 24, 2011

Crossing Paths

Once upon a time, on the old Telemachus, I wrote a little post about a couple of letters of Joris-Karl Huysmans. A French writer of Dutch origin (hence the name), he is best remembered for his novel A Rebours, which is usually translated into English as Against Nature. The novel was a reaction against Emile Zola’s L’Assomoir (1877). Until that point, Huysmans was Zola’s example of a true naturalist writer, the writing style Zola aggressively advocated. When A Rebours came out, the split with the then and now much more popular Zola – who was also known to go after his ideological and aesthetic opponents with his sharp journalistic pen – was highly publicized.

However, the two men knew better. Here are the two letters I was referring to earlier. (In my translation, anachronistically.)

J.K. Hysmans’ letter to Jules Destrée (Nov. 22, 1884):
As far as the split between Zola and myself, shouted from the rooftops, it’s idiotic. We often discuss amicably questions in which we disagree completely, but we are old friends from before L’Assomoir. I take it as proof of quality of our friendship that all the claims of the press to the contrary have not been able to chip away at it.

E. Zola’s letter to J.K. Huysmans (May 20, 1884):
There, my dear friend, are all my reservations. I didn’t want to hide them, for you know me well enough, don’t you, to know that the fictional is not my cup of tea. Luckily, there is in you something else, a sort of outrageousness of art that excites me, an originality of strong feelings that is enough to set you apart, put you on a high pedestal. Bottom line is that I spent three happy evenings with your book. It will count at the very least as a curiosity in your oeuvre. And you should be proud of it. What will people say? If they don’t calm down, they might very well celebrate it ecstatically. Or they will throw it back at you, at us, as the latest rotting corpse of our literature. I smell nonsense in the air.

I bring this up because I found out that Huysmans is credited with something else as well. According to (a certain) Dorothea von Mücke, he is responsible for bringing back to light the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528). Says Mücke, over at
But around 1900 the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans made a passionate plea for the relevance and modernity of Grünewald. In his description of the altar at Isenheim, Huysmans called attention to Grünewald’s shocking insistence on the physical details of Christ’s suffering, alerting its beholder to the disgusting marks of torture and the signs of dying and decomposing flesh. Such a Christ, Huysmans observed, is no longer the well-groomed, handsome man who has been venerated by the rich and powerful throughout the ages. Grünewald’s Christ is rather the “God of the Poor. The one who chose the company of those in misery and of those who had been rejected, of all those for whose ugliness and need the world could only feel contempt.” And it was exactly this approach to pain and suffering highlighted by Huysmans that subsequently became a point of reference for many artists who invoked Grünewald’s work, especially when they cited the triptych from the Isenheim altarpiece or The Mockery of Christ from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Here are the two works she is referring to:

Isenheim Altarpiece, First view (Crucifixion), c. 1512–15, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France. Limewood, 269 x 650 cm

The Mockery of Christ, c. 1503–05, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Grünewald also liked to put his self-portrait into his paintings. It can be found in many of his works, including these two. In the Mockery of Christ, he is the Commiserator, the only one not attacking Christ. In the altar piece he is St. Sebastian, the figure on the left.

Self-portrait, c. 1512–16 Nürnberg, Germany.

Commiserator, detail from Mockery of Christ

St.Sebastian, detail Isenheim Altarpiece









What brought all of this to my attention is W.G. Sebald’s After Nature. It is a triptych in verse with the enigmatic motto “As the Snow on the Alps… .” The first part is about Matthias Grünewald, and at the very beginning Sebald tells us that
“… The face of the unknown
Grünewald emerges again and again
in his work as a witness
to the snow miracle, a hermit
in the desert, a commiserator…
…Always the same
gentleness,  the same burden of grief,
the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled
and sliding sideways down into loneliness.”

Right after that Sebald wraps up my entire post of curious connections throughout history.

Grünewald’s face reappears, too,
in a Basel painting by Holbein
the Younger of a crowned female saint.
These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art
men had revered each other like brothers, and
often made monuments in each other’s
image where their paths had crossed.”