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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

e) The new Middle Ages

2) Neo-traditionism and medievalism: avant-garde painting and politics in France in the 1890s

Sarah Linford

Texte intégral

1The idea of “reactionary modernism” has by now become common currency among historians and art historians of the 1920s and 1930s. Elsewhere, and at far greater length, I have argued that French avant-garde painting (and some sculpture) from the late 1880s to the 1910s constitutes the first case of reactionary modernism—this, well in advance of the so-called Return-to-Order that I have argued it enabled. Whether called Symbolist, Nabi or Post-Impressionist, the precedents of the older artists Puvis, Moreau, Redon, their “followers” Gauguin, Bernard, or the slightly younger still Denis, Sérusier, Roussel, Filiger, Verkade, Lacombe, or Maillol emerged as a reaction to the alleged corruption of French art and morals in the larger context of a call for national renewal in the Third Republic.

2In the 1870s it was with a sense of patriotic duty that Puvis and Moreau attempted to salvage painting from the impasses of académisme or Impressionist naturalism. Redon’s artistic mission was sealed, he claimed, with the national feeling sparked in him during the Franco-Prussian war. Bernard’s and Denis’ well-known patriotism was largely shared in the last decades of the nineteenth century by those who, using Denis’ own term néo-traditionisme, actively sought formally innovative means to revive tradition—not through historicism but through a recasting of its posited forms, techniques and values. Tradition was honored as a repository of national cultural identity and artistic value and reinvented in ways that enabled both the emergence of “abstraction” and the “reactionary modernisms” of the 1920s and 1930s.

3Neo-traditionalist painting instrumentalized selected pre-existing associations between Frenchness and classicism, as it did between Frenchness and medievalism. In its first phase, avant-garde classicism looked to a vaguely defined antiquity and identified synthetism as a classical and quintessentially French process. By the early twentieth century, neo-traditionalists redefined their commitment to classicism along the ethnic line of latinité; for some, the golden age of French classicism, the seventeenth century, dovetailed with the views advocated by Maurras. I have discussed elsewhere Denis’ (and Maillol’s) deep indebtedness to Maurras.

4The tutelary figure of the neo-traditionalist painters in the realm of reactionary medievalism was, instead, Mithouard. His innovative conception of the “medieval” was radically opposed to those of Republican figures such as Gonse or Viollet-le-Duc. Like Mâle, Mithouard’s writings can be characterized as a systematic refutation of a secular account of the Middle Ages, to paraphrase Sauerländer. For Mithouard, following Mâle, France’s distinct tradition of piety was responsible for the masterworks of French art and architecture of the thirteenth century in particular; French faith was and remained at the heart of its excellence and cultural influence. With Mâle, and especially with Mithouard, the Middle Ages returned to the anti-Republican fold, leading the way for the civilized world and dictating France’s future. Mithouard, a close personal friend and collaborator of Denis’, named his avant-garde review L’Occident, taking the Gothic cathedral as paradigm and symbol of Western values. I suggest that Mithouard’s conception of medievalism is comparable to Maurras’ and the Action française’s conception of French classicism and, further, that the Gothic cathedral played a similar iconic role for Mithouard as Versailles did for Maurras.

5Mithouard’s ideal cathedral, following Mâle’s, was inseparable from Christian theology. Both sought to counter the secularization of French medievalism, of the French state and society. Mâle’s partisan L’Art religieux du XIIIème siècle en France, like the recent Catholic convert Huysmans’ La Cathédrale, was published only three years after Clémenceau charged Faure with the purchase of Monet’s secular Cathedrals series as a bequest to the nation. When conservatives like Mauclair decried this idea in 1895, Bazalgette and other partisans of so-called social criticism celebrated the Republican values embodied by Monet’s cathedrals. Through essays such as “Les Deux cathédrales—Claude Monet et J.-K. Huysmans” Bazalgette summarized how these two belief-systems were engaged in an outright war over medievalism, faith, and politics in the 1890s. Each of these two political camps correlated to distinct artistic preferences: Impressionism for some, Symbolism/Neo-traditionalism for others.

6The second of these is the focus of this paper. Moreau, and above all Redon, helped the “generation of 1890” shape formally innovative but politically conservative medievalisms. I examine the artistic and ideological evolution of Bernard, Gauguin, Denis in the late 1880s and through the 1890s—time not permitting a fuller account, which would also include Sérusier, Maillol, Verkade, Filiger, Lacombe, Roussel and the less innovative painters who adhered to the larger Catholic Revival in painting. This renewal was more or less orthodox in the pictorial and spiritual solutions it found to the perceived crises in art and in nation. It was also reasonably short-lived. By 1900 Latinité had largely supplanted what remains, however, a crucial period in understanding the first moment of reactionary modernism: neo-traditionalist Medievalism in the 1890s.


7Bazalgette 1898
Huysmans, La Cathédrale
Mâle 1899

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

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