The link that connects visual art with other forms of expression is often elusive, like the desert road that turns out to be a mirage. Sometimes, however, the connection is more convincing. It appears to be a kind of sturdy bridge traversing great distances of time and space. It allows one easy access to various cultures, histories and geopolitical realms like a causeway connecting islands in the great archipelago of truth. This enigmatic passageway came sharply and abruptly into focus when a visit to a retrospective of works by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 1 coincided with my reading of Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, a recently published English translation of a book by Jacques Derrida.2
A painter known for his treatment of mythological and biblical themes, Moreau is one of the rare figures in art history who was admired in his lifetime by both the academy and the avant-garde, including his devoted pupils and younger followers such as Matisse, Rouault and Redon. Derrida's reputation might be comparable. Deconstruction's inventor stirs controversy among academics as well as young writers and artists, yet his work over the past several decades has had consistent and broad appeal. Nevertheless, the Algerian-born French writer is mired in feelings of being an outsider, which he explains in Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, a book that serves, in spite of the author's protests, as an illuminating autobiography of his early years. He does admit, however, to indulging in a bit of "nostalgeria" (a term Derrida uses in reference to these Algerian musings).3
The remarkable clarity of the connection between Moreau and Derrida has most to do with the notion of "possession," a pervasive issue in their works. In various ways, each asks the same question: Does one possess language, or is one possessed by language? Derrida in Monolingualism of the Other asserts that if language is able to possess, then it does so by means of a form of aggressive colonialism. Moreau's work reflects just such a colonialist enterprise in which, one might say, the artist aims to seduce the phantoms of language. No doubt, Moreau feared that left at large, these apparitions would likely endeavor to possess the artist's soul.
1. The exhibition, "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," opened at the Grand Palais, Paris, Sept. 29, 1998-Jan. 4, 1999, and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 13-April 25, 1999 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where I saw it several times during its run, June 1-Aug. 22, 1999.
2. Derrida, Jacques, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, translated by Patrick Mensah, was published by Stanford in 1998. The book was originally published in French by Editions Galilee, Paris, 1996.
3. ibid, p. 52.
Art: Gustave Moreau, study for Oedipus and the Sphinx, watercolor on paper, 1861.
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