Gustave Moreau and the Obsession of Process

August 10, 2014

Gustave Moreau and the Obsession of Process
By Kathryn Cole (CMS student)

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My artistic process has always been of the ‘order-from-chaos’ variety, typically consisting of something like the following: a quarter-inch stack that includes not one, but two cocktail napkins, three pieces of large tracing paper examining different bits of the same drawing, two sketches on either side of a piece of graph paper in which the ink has bled through to the other side, several torn-out pages of stream-of-consciousness prose that would make Joyce’s head spin, computer printouts of Illustrator outlines, photos of body parts, and a dog-eared handout on andamento in which every available space has been consumed by meandering red-marker doodles. The only nod to any kind of artistic process is that I staple the whole mess together, fold it in half and stick it in a folder. When the stack eventually becomes too thick for my stapler, I move on to a binder clip.

At the urging of a mentor and friend, I began to examine ways in which I could create a process for myself that would not only organize, but archive my thoughts, concepts, and schemes, and in so doing facilitate their metamorphosis from idea to reality.

For my process ideal I looked back to the 19th Century, to one of my favorite artists and arguably the father of (or inspiration for) several artistic movements including Symbolism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. If ever there was an iconic protagonist for the necessity of artistic process, it was Gustave Moreau.

I could easily write a small volume about Moreau; but for the purposes of this post, I will focus solely on the subject at hand, and will attempt to distill a complex life story into a few paragraphs.

Although Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) benefited from an education at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, he found it difficult to meet the expectations of a society devoted to the erudition of historical painting, nor was he enticed by the erstwhile fashion of the Impressionists. Disillusionment followed disappointment and he ceased public exhibition of his works altogether, receding into the sanctuary of the small house his parents had bought for him, surrounded by his books and inspired by the intangibility of his own imagination. He set to work in earnest.

Most of Moreau’s paintings were shown only to visiting artists, as he was determined to circumvent the influence of popular opinion in favor of discussion with artists whose opinions he truly valued. After several years, when urged to exhibit at the Salon de Paris, his paintings were met with surprise and adulation. The public had been excluded from the gradual evolution of what must have seemed a miraculous artistic transformation.

By the end of his life he had obtained the respect and success that had proved so elusive. Taking a position as professor at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, his students became the evangelists of his legacy.

Having no family to speak of, Gustave set into motion an idea he had been contemplating for years. He bequeathed his house and all its contents to the city of Paris, not for personal glorification, but as a testament to the necessity and discipline of artistic process. His only requirements to the State were that his intimate letters be burned, and that his house be presented in its received working condition.

When the Gustave Moreau Museum opened its doors in 1903, the Parisian public was shocked to discover that within its three floors were housed over 20,000 sketches, drawings, watercolors, paintings (most have which had never been seen by the public), notes, sculptures, color studies, and palettes, as well as Moreau’s library of rare books and remaining personal correspondence, furnishings, clothes and everyday objects.

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I was fortunate enough to visit this museum many years ago and it left an indelible impression on me. Every wall is lined top to bottom with paintings in various stages of completion. There are display cabinets and hinged contraptions housing hundreds of sketches and drawings: figures, flowers, feathers, hands, faces, friezes, sculptures and detailed studies of every subject and composition. Just for his painting of Salomé alone, he created hundreds of these studies. All are cataloged, ordered, and to-hand. It truly must be seen to be believed.

So what was Gustave Moreau’s process and how could it be employed to make my process better, or anyone’s process better?

In life:

  1. Learn your craft (Technique)
  2. Study what has gone before you (Edification)
  3. Keep your mind open, follow your own voice (Discovery)
  4. Organize your work time and workspace (Discipline)
  5. Work diligently and continuously (Persistence)
  6. Keep a sketchbook and pencil handy (Practicality)

In method:

  1. Write out ideas, give them words and meaning
  2. Research/create images that inspire
  3. Make preliminary sketches
  4. Make secondary more detailed drawings
  5. Isolate and study elements within your work
  6. Make color and composition studies
  7. Create a materials ‘mood board’
  8. Review, catalog and comment on progress
  9. Make notes on size and construction, method, detail
  10. Select materials
  11. Prepare workspace
  12. Execute

My new process utilizes an accordion file for each project to organize my notes, sketches and drawings. However, as I am a product of the digital age, I have tailored my method to make the most of my hard-fought computer skills. A flash drive now stores pdf versions of all that paper, as well as Illustrator, Photoshop, and image files for each project. Everything is accessible, reviewable and organized.

Although I am still a long way from meeting my goals as an artist, I think that M. Moreau would approve.

To read more about Gustave Moreau, check out the following links:

L’Art Magique
Atlas Obscura – Stairway to Heaven
The Many Faces of Gustave Moreau

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 As part of our Certification Program at CMS, we ask our students to do research on artistic practice and process. Student Kathryn Cole wrote this excellent piece for our CMS Blog- Thank you Kathryn!

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