Science, Belief and the Art of Subjectivity: From Fromentin’s to Huysmans’s Modern Primitifs

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“ One of those who defined themselves as modern in order to believe”: 1 J.-K. Huysmans’s autobiographical comment in an 1883 letter to Paul Bourget, pinpoints an emerging paradox both in his and his period’s art. That is, an increasing focus on art and literature as stimuli for suggestively aestheticized religious and mystic experiences, yet as mediated through the fin-de-siècle’s newest scientific interests and discourses. There is a rich literature on science, its interfaces with art and transforming ideas of the spiritual from the mid-nineteenth century onwards – from Jules Verne’s “science-in-fiction,”2 Darwinist-inspired spiritual evolutionism,3 to Symbolist occultism – especially in fuelling fascination with shifting boundaries of fiction and life; sensation and self; modernity and the spiritual. The extent to which resurgent late nineteenth-century religious revivals or their newer expressions contributed to, politicized, and complicated this momentum is perhaps less explored and merits closer study.4 This article’s concern is a more specific, yet neglected aesthetics and politics of spiritual revival through conceptions of art which, arguably, were to contribute compelling new insights within these broader developments. Focusing on two of the period’s most prominent art writers – Fromentin and Huysmans – it examines their suggestive navigation of tensions between science, the natural, art and subjectivity around a growing interest in the spirituality of Northern European Renaissance artists as so-called “primitives” to develop models of art that do not so much transcend, but rather amplify these tensions. My article’s particular focus is two-fold. First it considers how and for what purposes, Fromentin and Huysmans reposition ideas of “primitive” or regressive artistic tendencies from earlier art-historical periods as touchstones for a fin-de-siècle evolving modernity of vision and perception. My second, closely linked theme examines Huysmans’s developed interest in such innovations to show how, via Impressionism and especially from Certains (1889), his concern with a suggestive spirituality of both art and its experience, becomes consummately embodied in his emblem of the primitif modern artist.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBetween Light and Darkness: New Perspectives in Symbolism Research
EditorsMarja Lahelma
Place of PublicationHelsinki
PublisherThe Birch and the Star – Finnish Perspectives on the Long 19th Century
ISBN (Print)978-952-93-4025-5
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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