Remaking Cultural Sense – The Symbolist World of Peladan

Sasha Chaitow


Added on March 13, 2021

Symbolism is a forerunner of contemporary visionary art. Symbolism prefigures the transformation from classical and traditional pre-modern forms into a more dynamic personal vision. It is with great pleasure that Era Of Visions can share this original interview with Sasha Chaitow, who generously shared her expertise. Sasha is a contemporary scholar of the Symbolist Movement who has focussed her research on the enigmatic, influential figure known as Peladan.

Painting by Jean Delville depicting a figure using strength to push apart symbols of institutional religion to reach the unconditioned light of the Divine
Jean Delville.1867-1953. The Last Idols.c.1931.

Thankyou very much Sasha for talking to Era Of Visions about your work regarding Symbolism and Peladan. What provoked your interest in this particular epoch of art and the figure of Peladan?

As an artist myself, I was led to study the history of esotericism in an effort to learn and understand the visual and symbolic vocabularies embedded in alchemical emblems and other esoteric systems. I discovered whole worlds of symbolism – and plenty of vocabularies, and eventually wrote my Master’s thesis on an alchemical emblem book – now published as “Atalanta Unveiled.” I wanted to return to art, but was also drawn to academia, so as I looked for a good PhD topic, I knew it was going to have to be something to do with how visual symbolism inspires, challenges, and engages us; more specifically, how it can spark change and inner evolution. For practical reasons (my language skills – or my lack of Latin and German!) led me to more recent history, and since I read French, the French Occult Revival seemed like the ideal period to explore.

Having established that Jean Delville had already been studied by another scholar, I contacted that scholar, who advised me to look at Peladan more closely, as there was no English-language work on him. Initially, I was dubious, as what I had read of Peladan made him out to be little more than an eccentric fool, but as I explored, I realised the richness of his work, enormity of his vision, and the ultimate tragedy of his story.

Indeed, no scholars had looked at his actual work, and the few French biographies that did exist, only repeated the story based on second-hand accounts of him, but had not examined or understood his work. So I set out to do so, and my doctoral thesis is a full review of his life and work, with particular attention to distilling his philosophy through his own words. It is in preparation for publication in 2022 with Fulgur Press, but I have also made a lot of material available through my website www.peladan.net. After completing my doctorate, I returned to painting full-time, and continue the balancing act between art and academia.

Jean Delville – La libération–  , 1936–1936

Who would you define as being the Symbolists, and what was Péladan’s role within that movement?

Historically the Symbolists have been seen as a kind of continuation of the Romantics, or as being linked to the Decadents. Yet, as some historians of art have made clear, neither is entirely true. One thing that makes the Symbolist artists in particular stand out from other contemporary movements is their deliberate desertion of academicism and naturalism – the academically approved art of the period – and their focus on expressing ideas, emotions, and ideals through the arts.

Jean Moréas’ Symbolist manifesto is a great guide to the essence of their approach, in which he basically says that the artist should create embellished, complex forms to house an idea, precisely because the form must keep a certain distance from the “kernel of the Idea in itself”. This obliges the viewer to engage intellectually with the work in order to begin to decipher it, and the use of archetypal and allegorical imagery, subjectively deployed but based on a shared frame of reference, should help the viewer to translate apparently mundane representations into their Ideal forms.

Artists such as Gustave Moreau went to elaborate lengths within this framework – using a kind of fragmentation of history to build hugely complex works inspired by classical myth, in a similar way to the Renaissance artists who reached back to antiquity for inspiration and in order to express what many of them saw as lost wisdom. In one sense, the Renaissance Great Masters (and especially the Mannerist painters) were earlier Symbolists, though we have to go even further back in time to trace how this particular perception of art has travelled through the centuries. But speaking strictly of the Belle Epoque Symbolists, their focus was on expressing an idea through whichever particular symbolic vocabulary was either relevant or special to them. The difference between this kind of Symbolism and the earlier Romanticism or the later Surrealism is that it is not about the vision of the individual, but about shared values and frames of reference – the forms given to these ideas are things that should resonate and build a silent dialogue between viewer and artist, so that the painting becomes a book to be read. To Péladan, this was the sole purpose of art anyway.

Strongly inspired by Renaissance art, as well as by the archeological discoveries from ancient Egypt, Assyria, and so on that were coming to light in his time, he believed passionately that art should be turned to the sacred purpose of filling the gap left by secularism, and that bombarding the world with Symbolist art in which artists would encode sacred Ideas, he could spark a spiritual renaissance in his time. That was his driving force, and it was to that end that he organised the Salons de la Rose+Croix, using all the arts, but particularly painting and sculpture, to attempt to ignite this dialogue. Symbolism died with the First World War, as Modernism took the arts in a totally different direction, and the commercial art world acquired a decisive influence on how art was received. But the impulse survived, and I very much see the Visionary art movement as a direct descendant of the Belle Epoque Symbolists.

Jan Toorop – Dalende Geloven – 1894

What do we know of how Peladan appeared on the arts scene, how did he gather artists together, and what was the level of his influence in defining and consolidating Symbolism as a movement?

In 1881 , Péladan moved to Paris to pursue a literary career, supplementing his education by auditing courses in art history and Chaldean history, the latter at the École du Louvre. His first foray into art criticism came with a review in Buet’s Le Foyer, Journal de Famille and a month later with further pieces in L’Artiste. Over the next few years these two journals, and later, La Plume, carried many of his articles and critiques. He had a sharp pen, provocatively challenging academic conceptions of art:

When […] art turns into portraits of houses, […] of tulips, […] of markets […], it has ceased to exist. And so the theoreticians advance themselves. […] Chairs are founded to explain why Léonard represents intelligence, Titian colour, Rubens health, Raphael harmony, Holbein physiognomy, Correge grace, Van Dyck distinction, Gérard Dow calm, and Delacroix fever. They date each painting, weigh each genius. They research […] what Raphael took from Pérugin and Frate, and what Jules Romain and Garofalo owe to Raphael. […] Benevolent to all, contemporary criticism has only one fear: of being exclusive or partial, and only one pretension, which is to understand everything, as if to excuse this epoch for no longer producing anything. […] Historians and aestheticians have become incompetent, because they only consider art a reproduction of that which is. […Contemporary painting] crawls behind [art] just like journalism, that monkey’s tail of literature.

Péladan’s critiques became the bane of the annual Salons. Following his damning, though influential, critique of the 1882 Salon, in 1883 he was obliged to enter under an assumed identity. Vowing that he would not be silenced, he penned equally harsh critiques of the 1883 Exposition Nationale de Beaux-Arts, a Manet retrospective in early 1884, and the Salon of 1884, until L’Artiste obliged him to stop writing reviews following reader complaints.

His Salon critiques were published together under the series title La Décadence Esthétique, Vol. I: L’Art Ochlocratique, Salons de 1882 et 1883, first in 1888, then again in 1890. In 1891, having broken away from his erstwhile occult companions Stanislas de Guaita and Papus (Gerard Encausse), Péladan established a new organisation dedicated to artistic events.

That year, the Paris newspapers carried a call to artists specifying what kind of art he was looking for: “… all allegories, legends, mysticism and myth, as well as expressive faces if they are noble, or nude studies if they are beautiful. Because you must make BEAUTY to enter the Rose+Croix Salon.” However, “any contemporary representations, rustic, military, flowers, animals, genres such as history, and portraits or landscapes” were strictly forbidden on account of their lack of deeper meaning. It was the sacerdotal nature of art that Péladan wanted to promote.

For six years, the Rose-Croix Salons gathered thousands of visitors, some curious, some skeptical. Technically the art may not have been the best that the world has ever seen, but in terms of content and composition, it served Péladan’s goals. The Salons certainly became a rallying point for Symbolist artists, but Péladan’s eccentric character and frequent tensions with other members of his organising committee led to the Salons’ eventual demise.

Possibly the most significant impact was through the artist Jean Delville, who, with Péladan’s blessing continued much of the work of the Salons in his native Belgium. The movement included mostly French, Swiss and a few German artists, but despite Péladan’s repeated overtures, the English pre-Raphaelites did not show much interest in participating, and the movement seems to have dissipated after a few short years.

Nevertheless, from an art historical perspective Péladan’s influence primarily on the subject matter and focus on specific mythical themes is undeniable, while his manifesto on Mystical and Idealist Art is especially interesting in terms of his philosophical musings regarding the meaning and importance of technical aspects of art, from line, to volume, to composition. However, it is best understood within the context of his overall philosophy and goal of regenerating society through engagement with the arts.

‘Woman with a puppet’ – Félicien Rops – (1833-1898)

Can you describe something of Peladan’s spiritual background and orientation? Rose+Croix obviously sounds Rosicrucian. Was this the case?

Péladan was an unusual and precocious child, not least due to his home environment and the intense influence of his father and older brother, both of whom were steeped in occult science. For a time, his father held a salon in Lyon, frequented by celebrities of the world of arts and letters, at which the young Péladan assisted as a child, listening in to all sorts of conversations.

His brother belonged to a Rosicrucian circle founded in 1850 by viscount Edouard de Lapasse (1792–1867). Péladan’s most intensive study of occult texts seems to have taken place between 1880 and 1884. Key to the Rosicrucian practice of this particular circle was the emphasis on doing work out in the world, not within the confines of a closed order. Péladan’s Rosicrucianism was a significant part of his identity, and this approach appears to have strongly influenced his activities, and his strong reactivity against social conformity.

Though his father had been a faithful Roman Catholic, and Péladan always professed a strong Christian faith, it is clear from his writings that he also disagreed on many matters of doctrine, believing that the clergy had misinterpreted and misrepresented what true faith should be about. He did not believe in original sin, nor in absolute evil, and at the heart of all his work is an intense belief that reintegration with the divine can be achieved within the human lifespan, through awakening into our true selves and through an understanding of the truth of human nature as partly divine. Though many scholars have claimed that he was a fanatic Catholic, this is an error; in fact, he explained that he understood the word “catholic” in the Greek sense, to mean “all-encompassing,” or “all-embracing.” He believed firmly in the equality of all people, across borders and across racial divides- he was in fact an early anti-colonialist.

The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1883 by Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921)

How was Peladan’s spiritual orientation connected to the era and changing values of the society he lived within?

Péladan in many ways embodies the intellectual and existential concerns of early Modernism, combined with a nostalgia for antiquity, but seeking to repackage it for his time. He lived and worked in the heart of the French Occult Revival, but he was not actually typical of it, since he sought to take esoteric and spiritual teachings and repackage them in a way that would make them comprehensible to the general public – and one of the key reasons he split away from some of the better known figures of that milieu was because he did not believe in secrecy and keeping such knowledge hidden. He also believed deeply in the importance of individual self-determination; before Jung’s theory of individuation, Péladan expresses something very similar, but based on Platonic philosophy and esoteric theory, rather than any scientific basis.

The intellectual backdrop to Péladan’s time is complex and multivalent: As the multiple rifts within the uneasy French Republic began to heal in the post-Revolutionary years, new freedoms evolved; social and ideological boundaries were torn down. By the fin-de-siècle, many of these freedoms were taken for granted, marking the end of an era that the Romantic poets and painters had grieved for in the wake of the Enlightenment.

Only decades earlier, traditionalists mourned the order and security of a world apparently lost to rampant decadence, yearning for a reimagined, glorious past where God was in his heaven, the Pope ruled the Holy Roman Empire, social order was maintained by divine mandate and Catholicism provided both the ritual and the rulebook for aristocrat and pauper alike. This sense of loss was the reality for Péladan’s father, but the inhabitants of the Fin de siècle, Péladan among them, represented a generation poised on a threshold. They were prepared to shed their forefathers’ dreams of restoring the ancien régime and to embrace the idea of creating a new society, but not at the expense of powerful aspects of their cultural identity.

As noted by historian Michael Burleigh: “eighteen centuries did not disappear from men’s characters just by declaring it to be so, the psychological legacy of the ancien régime did not simply vanish.” This held true for post-revolutionary intellectuals and visionaries, for whom to jettison their past was one sacrifice too many—though ironically it was the revolution itself that allowed its re-imagining in the ever-more fantastical narratives that emerged. . The secularism that replaced Catholicism in post-revolutionary France was more of a “political religion,” giving equal space for inclusion to other belief systems.

The intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment and its Counter-Enlightenment foes – who included the Romantics and representatives of Illuminist thought – were embedded within this mêlée of oppositional dynamics and emergent currents. These generated hybrid narratives and cultural complexes sharing a mutual quest for a new understanding of human origins and history, while clinging to familiar notions of allegorical mythography and philosophical historiography.

This is the background against which Péladan emerged, and in that sense, he is actually very representative of his time. The new-found freedom of expression gave him the room to develop his own philosophy that is actually a very cohesive – if incredibly complex – worldview, according to which, ultimately, we are each responsible for forging our own destiny, and with it, the destiny of the world.

Fernand Khnopff (Grembergen, 1858-Brussels, 1921) Hérodiade (ca. 1917)

What was the relationship like between Peladan and individual artists? Particularly Jean Delville, what can we imagine of how they interacted in real life between theory and practice, philosophy and painting?

Regarding relationships with other artists, Delville was one of the few who seems to have really understood Peladan, and along with him, Carlos Schwabe, Felciien Rops, Alexandre Séon, Fernand Knopff and Jan Toorop. These were all artists with whom Peladan worked repeatedly, they exhibited (I think) in every salon, illustrated his books, and generally Peladan spoke highly of them.

Any more interpersonal details will be in Peladan’s diaries (in the Bibliotheque Nationale), but I am sorry to say I did not access them, mainly because the trajectory of my research was different and for my purposes I didn’t need to. These were the ones who Peladan felt understood and expressed his ideas the best, and Delville in particular was the one to carry it all on in Belgium after Peladan abandoned the Salon effort. Delville had a much better manner altogether, and was able to carry the idea – there’s a great study out about that now which I still haven’t got my hands on – https://books.google.gr/books?id=AOqmBgAAQBAJ&printsec=copyright&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

It was actually the author of this book who put me up to researching Peladan in the first place – I had wanted to study Delville, but it seems he had already done an excellent job of it, and he told me the one thing he wished was out there was a study of Peladan. That was the clincher when I was banging around trying to find a good PhD topic related to the Symbolists, so I really owe him that.

Jean Delville. Tristan et Yseult 1887

Symbolism is a manifestation of high European culture; intricately connected to the tensions between traditional religion and metaphysics, with secular society, the ascent of materialism, the changing values and relationships between the genders, etc. In the early part of the millenium, we find ourselves in an analagous situation of tremendous change. When visionary artists learn their roots, their antecedents, it provides context and grounding to a multi-generational creative work of ‘sensemaking’, of ‘intuitive gnosis’ through art. What do you think the Symbolists and Peladan may have to say or contribute to the artistic practice of people only just discovering their art, or orientating toward visionary art?

Peladan proclaimed art to be a religion in the sense of a process “mediating between the physical and the metaphysical.” and defined it as follows: Art is the totality of the methods of realising Beauty. Beauty is the essence of all expression through form. Techniques are nothing more than the means to an end. If Beauty is the objective, and art the means, what is the rule? The Ideal. Therefore Idealist art is that which reunites within a work all the perfections that the spirit can conceive on a given theme.

As Péladan saw it, the heart of this process was the act of giving form to intangible Essence, based on the Platonic notion of the world of Ideas, so in his vocabulary the “Ideal” is the sublime, ethereal aspect of creation, which needs to be given a shape, a body to inhabit, if it is to become perceptible in the material world. These “bodies” are nothing other than works of art, and a “perfect work” would also be an ensouled work – like religious icons, it would be inhabited by the Idea that it represented.

Péladan was quick to specify, that not all works of art are reflections of the Ideal; rather, they must conform to specific rules, and he wrote many long explanations arguing the philosophy of this point, summarised in his axiom that “A work that is real in form, and unreal in expression, is perfect”.

For Péladan, a perfect work had to conform to the two characteristics of idealism and mysticism. He defined Idealism according to the dictionary definition: “that which reunites all the perfections that the spirit can conceive”. To achieve this goal, the idea had to be clothed within a form. Péladan stated that the content could, and should use a recognisable and realistic form to express the Idea it housed, but this was not all. It also had to express something of “the beyond”, something ineffable that could tell the viewer that the apparently mundane object, or figure they observed in a painting, was something more than it appeared. This, he suggested, was to be achieved by a combination of three aesthetic principles: Intensity, subtlety, and harmony, combined By adjusting and balancing the relationships between the content (Idea), the form, and the technical rendering , one could create Péladan’s notion of a “perfect work” that would serve as an aesthetic springboard to awaken the soul out of materialism and decadence, and if the public were exposed to this on a grand scale, then the cumulative effect, he thought, could only be a spiritual renaissance.

One quote that I have always found to be tremendously helpful when looking to understand creatives working at the heart of cultural shifts, is this excerpt from anthropologist Victor Turner: “[As] stories that purport to impose meaning on social life in … critical (i.e. historical) situations, myths are … dramatic stories of tradition. They become significant precisely in moments when common traditional meanings of life and history have become indeterminate, as in wars or revolutions, and their social utility is to sustain the structural tradition of society by some dramatic reactivation of its original motivations. Where historical life itself fails to make cultural sense in terms that formerly held good, narrative and cultural drama may have the task of poesis, that is, of remaking cultural sense.”

To my mind, all creatives are engaging in “remaking cultural sense,” whether they are aware of it or not, and those engaged in Visionary art even more so, since the very name suggests that it is they who are capturing the vision of the best we could be. Peladan and his coterie of artists were attempting to remind people caught up in a period of paradigm shifts of their deeper connections to the unseen, to what makes us all human, past all divisions, creeds, and doctrines. And he called to artists to manifest beautiful images that could remind and inspire this. So I can think of no better focus for visionary artists, whatever stage in their career they may find themselves at, as it’s a message that our time needs more than ever.


Explore Further the work of Sasha Chaitow and the World of Peladan

Peladan website: www.peladan.net
Sasha’s personal website: www.sashachaitow.co.uk
Book: Atalanta Unveiled: http://sashachaitow.co.uk/atalantaunveiled/
Lectures: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjCyp9udP7MRTzmmcnBItlA

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