Sunday, May 13, 2012

Les chimères

Gustave Moreau, Les Chimères

On one wall, half in shadow, was a large untinted photographic reproduction .... In the background I could see the pinnacles and archways of a gothic palace or cathedral; mysterious towers half-hidden in vegetation; and on the far horizon, rocky crags. In the foreground, fantastic images were layered one upon another, bewildering to the eye: naked goddesses mounted on bulls and hippogryphs, a queen in the crown of Charlemagne stroking a unicorn’s head, a serpent-headed goat; as well as fairies, angels, witches, and all manner of fabulous birds and beasts.

“I see you are admiring M’sieu Gustave Moreau’s famous picture,” said M. d’Artois. “Les Chimères –a masterpiece of artifice and invention, He never finished it, you know. To portray all of myth, all of history, all of religion – what artist is equal to such a task?”

And I, who know so little of art, could only murmur, “It’s beautiful, and very strange – and I think quite frightening.”

“Just so. A journey through the haunted forests of the imagination. The reflection of our dreams, our terrors and our innermost desires.”

Even in black and white, the picture had the power to mesmerize. If one looked too long, one had to tear one’s gaze away. I could well imagine that beyond the distant mountains of that never-to-be- finished painting lay a still more marvellous and seductive country existing only in the artist’s mind.

I was raised to believe that in this life, at least, there is only one reality, and that is the world of ordinary experience, that has no place for unicorns and hippogryphs. But all that has happened these past months has tested that belief. If we believe in Heaven, is it so impossible to believe, as spiritualists do, that other worlds exist above and beyond our own?