Soul under the spell of the moon. The thrill. The construction of empty form. Kitsch before there was kitsch. It meant using high art to express low life, the underworld and it was the beginning of sensationalism that the reign of terror in France seemed to give rise to. It was the absurd charismatic appeals that romanticism would conventionalize, from the fetish of Byron, to Kean doing Shakespeare, to grave robbing Wordsworth’s tomb. And Girodet was there at the beginning, giving meaning to H.L. Mencken’s expression that nobody ever went broke underestimating the public taste.Democracy seemed to demand escapism. The success and uproar over Girodet’s paintings came as no surprise to anyone trying to make an honest franc. After all, almost everyone is sympathetic to a sensation, and if it’s soaked in schlock-eroticism,fantasy, so much the better for spectator and artist. Menken also wrote that all men are frauds, and the only difference being that some admit it. Whether Girodet denied it or admitted it….
from Donald Kuspit:Girodet pictures it in exquisite detail, but bathes it an aura of inarticulateness — the torso is a startling burst of light, making it all the more hypnotic, while the genitals are veiled in darkness, suggesting a secretive sexual act (the painting is generally dark, with light edging Cupid’s body and the forest of leaves) — that makes it seem seductive and supernatural at once. Asleep in an erotic haze, as though bewitched by the moonlight that falls on him (a symbol of the goddess who was taken with his beauty), the viewer is also bewitched. If a dream is a wish fulfillment, as Freud said, then The Sleep of Endymion is a bewitching dream picture, fulfilling universal unconscious wishes….
…The Symbolists and Surrealists also made dream pictures — pictures that were modeled on the dream and were meant to have a dream-like effect. Girodet made what many scholars regard as the archetypal dream picture, The Ghosts of French Heroes Welcomed by Ossian into Odin’s Paradise (1801). (When the painting was exhibited in the Salon of 1802, it was titled The Apotheosis of French Heroes Who Died for Their Country during the War for Liberty, and was accompanied, as Bellenger notes, by a six-page catalogue “description of the picture” written by Girodet, minutely detailing and decoding the complex scene, which “baffled. . . the members of the press.”) What Goya signaled in The Sleep of Reason Produces Nightmares (1795) blossomed into a florid daydream in Girodet’s theatrical painting….
…Girodet’s two paintings are not simply romantic, but, as I want to argue, they are sensational: They are the beginning of modern sensationalism — kitsch romanticism, as it were. Kitsch means popular and mass culture, and Girodet’s two paintings were very popular, indeed, notorious crowd-pleasers, all the more so because they were “bizarre,” to use Girodet’s word, or, as Bellenger said, had a “sense of mystery.” They imply the same thing: The paintings were absurd. They had charismatic appeal, like Girodet himself, rather than classical appeal, like the sober academic paintings of David, his teacher. The cognoscenti may have been perplexed by their symbolism and upset by their departure from classical tradition, but the public couldn’t care less: They were thrilling. Girodet may have been an advanced artist before there was “advanced art” — Bellenger lists his avant-garde credentials, among them the fact that he is “the archetype of the artist tormented by originality and creative innovation,” that is, “the accursed artist,” and “herald[s]. . . artistic bohemianism” and flamboyance, even “organiz[ing] what might be called ‘happenings’” in his studio — but he was also kitschy before there was kitsch. Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit8-16-06.asp …
It was the beginning of what could be called an aesthetic of radiant but broken. The search for beauty had found itself in some dark rooms.Corrupted classicism within the infinite dynamic of light. A rejection of the overcontrolled and generally restraining style of academic classicism to be supplanted y the values of anti-redemption, a sort of mutual decay being played to the hilt. A striving to recover and make sense of this new world, the world now of the literary novel which represented a victory of fiction over reality. The moral strain and ambiguity presented for popular appeal.To his credit, Girodet avoided a descent into the gothic darkness of a Walpole, turning the Janus face into a light that existed only at night, illuminating a soul that had outpaced memory. A memory full of a future illuminated by shadows. The voyeuristic aspect was the theme that every soul maintained a private door, a secret passage, which the viewer could pass through….
… ( Kuspit) The lighting in the Endymion and Ossian paintings leads directly to Hollywood (the former to the sultry glamour film, the latter to Disney fantasy world), and the cynical eagerness with which Girodet marketed himself, especially to Napoleon — another flamboyant character with a cynical talent for show business (tyrants know it’s a great way to dazzle and manipulate crowds) — suggests that he was a predecessor of what Erich Fromm calls the “marketing personality,” for Fromm the personality type of our time. In Girodet, the avant-garde “cult of [artistic] personality,” as Bellenger calls it, and the kitsch cult of marketing personality — the marketing of the atypical artistic personality and the marketing of the stereotypical mass society personality (epitomized by Hollywood celebrity “artistes”) — effortlessly converge. Girodet was an original — one of those individuals who are not predicted by history, but radically change it, Bellenger says — but he quickly became a stereotype, that is, the very model of the model modern artist, as an avant-garde personage and as a kitsch culture caricature.( ibid.)
The alternative to conscious, rational control may be creative freedom, but liberty — taking creative liberty with classicism — carried too far becomes romantic lunacy. Girodet wanted artistic freedom, but in overthrowing the super-ego control of David’s classicism, he exposed the infinite madness of the unconscious. The silvery moonlight in The Sleep of Endymion is a sign of lunacy — divine madness, if you want to call it that. Luna is the ancient Roman goddess personifying the moon, and to be a lunatic — a devotee of Luna — is to be moonstruck, as Endymion is. Luna is the alchemical sign of silver, and Endymion’s torso is embalmed in silvery moonlight. The lunatic light feeds on his body, as though replenishing itself, however much it remains self-generating. Girodet’s light gathers momentum, becoming more and more manic, threatening to obliterate all sense of control. All forms will completely dissolve in its delirious formlessness, which is what seems about to happen in the Ossian painting. Girodet seto flesh out his elated phantom figures only in nominal conformity to classical demands.
I am suggesting that Endymion is a soul-portrait of Girodet under the spell of the moon. Endymion is totally self-absorbed, a narcissist waiting to be reflected in the eyes of the admiring public, like Girodet. I am suggesting that the peculiar unintelligibility of Girodet’s painting — thus the incomprehension of the press, which was accustomed to the classical intelligibility of David’s paintings — has as much to do with the moonlight that informs the scene as with its novel rendering of Cupid. Read More:http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit8-16-06.asp