GDT on Felicien Rops

Felicien Rops (1833 – 1898)

Felicien Rops was born in Belgium and, like Schwabe, illustrated a number of books and periodicals, including his own journal, ‘Uylenspiegel’. He spent most of his adult life near or around Paris.

I was first exposed to Rops when in Cannes with CRONOS. A young French critic urged me to seek him (much like you did with Dodd, HM) so, while staying in a crappy hotel in Paris (someday I shall relate the unnerving experience that took place there) I bought a book or two on Rops.

I was blown away by his sensibility. For the first time I understood the essence of the Symbolist school. Allow me to go back a bit-

In the late 70′s (yes, I am that old), while walking through a flea market in Puebla, Mexico, I saw an art book with a startling cover: A Forensically detailed oil painting of a drowned satyr being pulled out of a river. Its body was purplish and bloated and his tongue hung loosely to the side. It was a book about the Mexican painter Julio Ruelas. Ruelas is a bona fide Symbolist, his work seems heavily influenced by Rops, to the point that they share some shockingly similar vignettes. This cannot necessarily attributed to plagiarism. The Symbolists, like the Pre-Raphaelites after tended to gravitate to the same imagery and themes: Blind Faith, Circe, Satyrs, Socrates, etc, etc- I now own a couple of inks by Ruelas and a few engravings by him. I never cease to marvel at his penmanship and as an amateur (bad) artist myself I feel nothing but nasty envy.

The similitudes between Rops and Ruelas made it all click for me. The 19th century was a century of enormous moral contrast: Nobilty, Honor and good manners all of which were supported by ‘Academic’ art- started to be sabotaged by a wild and perverse notion: that life was full of Pagan pleasure and savage impulses. That our flesh made us weaker, yes, but it also made us human.

Baudeleire, Rops, Bocklin, Verlaine, Schwabe, Rimbaud, etc approached mythology and artistic themes with a new eye. Classic artists often approached grand figures in Mythology, like Hercules or Zeus or Hera, etc but most of the time these were used to inspire in us the spark of the divine, the idea that within us lied a better essence than that evidenced by our daily tribulations.

But this was not the take of the symbolist movement. Bocklin’s centaurs or mermaids are sensuous and perverse and his paintings are full of dread and set against perpetual dusk.

Sex for these artists is a savage almost demonic task. Yes, in Academia such themes were also hidden in a few themes (biblical or mythological) ‘Susan and the old men’ or ‘Leda and the swan’ were but a couple of the paintings that always hung in the most private ‘smoking’ chambers at a good, decent house or castle. But Just take a look at Ruelas’ ink drawing ‘Socrates’ in which the mortified philosopher is being mounted like a pony by a sensuous, curvaceous lady or take a gander at the lower regions of Schwabe’s Satyr and you’ll see the difference. Nevertheless none of them is more accurate in portraying the hopelessness of male desire than Rops.
I had the opportunity of seeing -for the first time- an exhibition of his original drawings in Barcelona, just before PAN’S LABYRINTH started. I knew many of them, but seeing there, physically reminded me of their true power. They are abundant in detailed, deformed genitalia standing side by side with images of death, evil and decay. Evidently Rops was a prisoner of dread and desire, but so was his century.

Sex and politics go hand in hand, that is a fact. So, I guess it was a double blessing -or curse- that Rops was also blessed with a sharp satirical eye that yielded some of the best political cartoons of the time, all of them mordant portrayals of the changing social climate.

He was incessantly drawing, etching, painting(almost 1500 pieces of Rops’ art endure in private and public collections) to capture a ‘tainted’ century where the right of Royalty, the excuse of nobility and birthright were about to be supplanted by more mundane rights and ambitions. The Symbolist cast their gaze towards the past to find the root of this most needed stain on the human soul and in that they are -in my opinion- completely the opposite of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Savage and sensuous as his themes may be, Rops line work is supremely elegant. Exquisite even. His use of the dry-point is testament to the precision of his draughtsmanship. Most of his many travel paintings and landscapes are impressively rendered but are far more conventional than any of his line work or watercolors.

It is said that in his old age Rops was burdened by failing eyesight but that his spirit remained untamed to his last day. Rops died on the 23rd of August 1898, at Essonnes, Seine-et-Oise.