on 19th century symbolist art and its stress reducing properties

I welcomed the weekend with open arms and desperately tried to sink into it, anticipating instantaneous calm and peace. However, Saturday morning found me in much the same way Friday afternoon did- heart pounding, nail-biting and edge of seat wriggling all the way to the city. I counted my breathes, I repeated affirmations to myself and I listened to (usually calming) podcasts about meditation- none of which deflated the persistent low-level anxiety I have been experiencing on a daily basis. However, after meeting up with K and a fortuitous lunch with the hare krishnas, we made our way to the NGV to see the Gustave Moreau “Eternal Feminine” exhibition. The moment I stepped my aptly clad (feminine sandled) foot inside the door of the gallery I relaxed and found that I could exhale. Art galleries are a refuge for me- a place where I can simply be, and beauty (formal or conceptual) is presented to me in an orderly fashion. Being a visually orientated person I find that I need regular aesthetic nourishment otherwise I begin to feel subdued and life becomes dull (thank goodness I do not work in an office building!).

That day my diet consisted largely of the 19th century symbolist painter Gustave Moreau. I must admit that I left Moreau back in first year art theory, nestled neatly next to Edvard Munch and Gauguin. However, this exhibition reintroduced us on a much more personal level than the back row of a lecture theatre can provide. On entering the space I was instantly confronted with the piercing gaze of the artist himself, which drew me in and led me through the vast array of simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous women;  flirting with the virgin/whore dichotomy and the symbolic power of eroticism.

While an art theory major has allowed me to understand and appreciate art for its contextual relevance, I couldn’t help but be more visually moved by the artist’s drawings and unfinished studies than the completed works themselves. The drawings, classical at first and then later referencing the european interest in Orientalism, were subtle and balanced in their form and depth, offering sculpted nudes and nightmarish mythical beasts, while the paintings teetered uncomfortably between neo-classicism and impressionism. Critically speaking, I found the paintings to be overworked and lacking in the expressive energy brought forth by the smaller drawings.

If you would like to go and see Gustave Moreau and the Eternal Feminine (you should!) the make your merry way to the NGV International on St Kilda Road, Melbourne.  The entrance fee is $15 or $12 for concession and the exhibition runs until April 2011. Go take a peek and then let me know what your thoughts are….

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