Péladan and me

Damien Delille

  • U+1F913-000

    Nerd Face

  • 🤓


  • w.n. [Brétigny-Optique]

    Black print, 2,9 × 3,4 cm

  • Brétigny Aujourd'hui, №169, p. 2


Dear Joséphin,

What haven’t they written about you? Imposter, degenerate, homosexual, misogynist, opportunist!

You tried to usurp the spiritual heritage of the writer-dandy Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who bestowed his imprimatur on your first novel, Le Vice suprême, in 1884. The literary war of the Two Roses, which witnessed the clash of two clans of Parisian esotericism, following the death of the great supreme commander of Literature, proved you wrong.[1] It launched both your career as a polemicist and your forever prickly emblem, the rose!

You found yourself shoulder to shoulder beside the great names of the Decadents, Baudelaire, Gautier and Wagner first and foremost, in the dock of the German journalist Max Nordau in 1892. His pamphlet entitled Degeneration made you a sexual pervert, obsessed by inverted androgyny. Such publicity, one vast advertisement, which allowed you to pursue your Wagnerian lectures in Bayreuth!

You were suspected of homosexuality by the Queen of Romania, the dear writer Carmen Sylva, who had your indecent books returned. In a letter addressed to her Swiss friend William Ritter in 1889, you make fun of this allegation and explain that you are “forging ahead dandily.”[2] Your kingdom is void of all fleshly temptation, filled with the clouds of the eternal.

You published in your 1894 catalogue that “magic law” which limited women’s access to your Rosicrucian salon.[3] Not terribly fair play or feminist, that artistic vision! And yet so many friendships with women, including Judith Gautier, the daughter of; Clémence Couve, the French translator of the Pre-Raphaelite writings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and Louise Abbéma, a forgotten painter. All of those “sisters” to whom you vowed a platonic love in your letters and that mysterious lesbian tribe of the white carnation that inspired your book entitled La Gynandre (1891), why did you betray them?

Most of the commentators recall the fin-de-siècle misogyny that was shared by other artists and writers, who were anxious before the rise of the ambient feminism.[4] We also need to see in this an artistic strategy. That is, eclecticism in art reigned supreme in the salons, and juries meant to check the massive flood of artworks to be displayed and sold were out now. You, too, took to imagining that your salon could replace the official one, which had just split into two rival factions in 1890. This third way looks like your project to achieve the ideal via the ways of sacred neutrality, with the founding of the Association of the Ordre du Temple de la Rose + Croix in 1891. Far from the independent salons that are rooted in the ranks of the Realists and the Impressionists, far from the commercial circles of the art galleries, which you denigrate, it is indeed the commercial bourgeois domain that is targeted. It is women who are going to cop it! A number of them will exhibit just the same in your salon under pseudonyms in keeping with this era of masks and hidden identities.

You were called an art opportunist: six salons from 1892 to 1897, several controversies, and numerous feuds with artists. William Ritter, to whom people loved to confess, will gather the impressions of Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, your patron at first, “M. Péladan served as a scarecrow by distancing very worthwhile artists like Puvis de Chavannes, Dagnan-Bouveret, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Olivier Merson, Boecklin, Fantin-Latour, James Tissot, and many others! But I was personally committed and I rushed ahead.”[5] Everywhere in the show, on the walls with your portraits and in the press with cartoons caricaturing you, you are becoming increasingly wary of painters and are weary of this Rosicrucian adventure, whereas an esteemed group of young Symbolist artists has been joining the idealist parade.

At which point, why take any interest in you? Why so much time and space devoted to your dandy persona, idealistic, exceptional, at the very least, folle (mad and queer), in the Foucaldian understanding of the term?


Inevitably several reasons force me to beef up my scientific discourse to better reveal myself to you and place you as an antimodel of an art that is resolutely modern.

There is first of all your truculent phrasing and your rigmarole, that “lyrical disease,” as Christophe Beaufils, your best biographer, loves to describe it, quoting your magical flights of fancy, “The dust of thrones has peopled the desert with simooms carrying along crushed scepters… Let me be visited by sublime ideas, welcomed by the cause, and served by ether.”[6]

There is then the artistic dynamic that you inject as an exhibition curator, before the term was coined, ready to defend the sacred moments of ideal art at the heart of dissonant voices of Symbolism.[7]

There is also that irresistible unconscious force of the turn of the century, gladly raucous and madcap, derisive and daft, affected and irresolute, of incoherent laughter which you are becoming the victim of without your knowledge of your own accord.[8] This will give birth to the irrational Dada, the nihilism of Duchamp, and the Surrealist madness. How should we place the stand you take within that complex chessboard of art history, you whose artistic ideas are so conservative, you who understands neither resounding Fauvism, nor primitive and cerebral Cubism, and even less the epic upon which the artists of abstraction are entering on the cusp of the Great War? You will have eyes only for Léonard the hermetic alchemist, another one of your doubles whose famous notebooks you publish in French very early on before being condemned for plagiarizing the original Italian version.[9] What a train wreck!

Above all there is your passion for androgyny, an impossible ideal to which I devoted several studies that reached often paradoxical conclusions. I saw you as the one who initiated the challenge to gender norms that will take shape in the early years of the 20th century, a proto-queer concept of art that goes beyond the figurative identifications of masculine and feminine. In the first French homosexual review, Akademos, published in 1909, you defended an ideal that goes beyond the heterosexual norms:

Precisely when visible character is disappearing, the soul, until now, masculine or feminine, is beginning to be dualized, it is becoming the theater of contradictory impressions. Its attractions seem perverse at times. Here begins a digression that is rather heavy with consequences. The soul of a being is not necessarily the same sex as his body. I am not saying that it is of the other. His instinct and sensibility are not moved in accordance with their organism; and this composite instinct and this disparate sensibility form an unclassifiable personality, and precisely a third sex.[10]

Your sexual theory has long gnawed at my conscience. Steeped in esoteric writings having initiated the possible separation between body and soul, sex and gender, that theory resolves the impossible equation of opposite sexes found in the hermaphroditic body being examined around the same time in the Salpêtrière Hospital, where Jean-Martin Charcot worked. Your vision takes shape as a resilience in the face of the period’s changes. Thus, the autonomous woman no longer needs man in order to live and create; the fractured hero divides into multiple fictional characters that enable him to relive melancholically the object of lost desire. Male civilization and its discontents! The feminine becomes for you a literary and theatrical obsession, i.e., a source of creativity to be modeled, and reinvention of the self to be embodied. Your brocaded velvet capes, patent leather pumps, abundant lace and jabots, feathered hats, and other perfumed frills have only served to celebrate the feminine, object that is missing for it is lost. These artifices and masks have enabled you to embody the desired ideal on stage and in life performatively.

Your writings revolve around that aesthetic tipping point. Androgyny is the middle way that suspends the irreparable loss of the eternal feminine and leads to abstract forms of art and sexuality. The bourgeois drama of the union of opposite sexes can finally disappear. The artist invents himself as an androgynous bachelor of art. Kandinsky will praise these magic principles in On the Spiritual in Art, “…the artist is a ‘king,’ as Sar Peladan [sic] called him, not because of equally heavy duties, but because of the power accorded him.”[11] Your positions reenact that impossible ideal. Nowhere else will caricature and acerbic portraits capture that despairing eloquence and absurd body language that make you a campy being before camp was even a thing, as Susan Sontag defined it. “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric – something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.”[12]

More than anyone else, you will have suspended my certainties and made it possible to blaze other trails in the invisible meanderings of art history.

I am thinking once again of that series of Cubist works that Duchamp produced about 1910 on erotic chess games in a Cubist style that verged on a form of mechanical abstraction. As artists establish new creative processes, in the same way that chess players construct complex game strategies, art historians need new paradigms to model these often paradoxical practical and mental constructs.

Have you been an artist or an arist, dear Joséphin?[13] The definitions are shifting in the early years of the 20th century. Having officiated as a writer and art critic, you put me in mind, with your positions, of the performances of L’Idiotie (The Idiocy) described by Jean-Yves Jouannais.[14] With you, on the other hand, the artist is the promoter of an unintentional catastrophe for which he creates the ideal conditions to exist. He is not van- or rearguard; he is hors guard, outguard. Neither incoherent, nor idiotic, Joséphin, you are a folle, a queer one who’s mad about art! As Jean-Yves Le Talec and Patrick Cardon describe it, “lunancy” corresponds to that exuberant unchecked share of femininity that the dominant masculine refuses to consider and tries to push away or sublimate.[15] It is the feminine irrational, the witch sent to the stake or the hysteric shut away in the hospital cell, good for Charcot or Freud, ready to play the elusive sylph and the manic pixie dream girl, at men’s pleasure.

Hysteria of serious exaggeration, intelligence of plagiarized knowledge, tacit though accepted (homo)sexual sublimations. Begat by the angels, Joséphin, you like to jaculate about your queer madness with us!

I am thinking again of your role as a middleman-sorcerer of artistic ideas. You are willingly transforming Puvis de Chavannes into a spiritual heir of Rosicrucian esotericism, a title that he himself will eventually offload. Other aesthetic flashes of genius will come to mark the historical understanding of Symbolism. Your reflections resonate like so many signs of a modernity impeded by the subterranean forces of sacred irrationality, of which you were the promoter. In her recent work on Bauhaus, Elizabeth Otto brings up this form of “queer hauntology”[16] of the German school, associated for too long with modern rationality and not often viewed with respect to its connections with queer supernatural subjectivities. Other expressions of non-normative gender come to life through the photographic traces of a portrait of Marcel Breuer as a young miss sporting a magnolia flower, of an image of architecture through transparency by Judit Kárász, or another of Paul Klee as a buddha wiseman. You probably would have loved that kind of thing.

Finally I am thinking once again of the quietly mocking look in your eye captured by the photographic light when you were clowning around at night in your wiseman getup sporting the garb of a puppet hero.[17] Your artistic strategies have been revealed in turn and yet, you persisted to that month of June 1918 when you died of food poisoning, after enjoying shellfish at Prunier’s, as Beaufils tells us.[18] The latter quotes your obituary penned by Guillaume Apollinaire: “That wiseman of aestheticism, that lover of the Dead Arts, that herald of a hypothetical decadence will remain a singular figure, magic and religious, a bit retiring, a bit ridiculous, but with great appeal and infinite thoughtfulness, a golden lily in hand.”[19] Hero of an era swept away by the Great War, you remain that paper mystery each page of which you valiantly formed.

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, as Jeane Manson sang. 

Dandily yours,

Damien Delille  


Invitation made on the occasion of the exhibition Sâr Dubnotal (2020).


[1] Joséphin Péladan, Études passionnelles de décadence : Le Vice suprême, preface by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, frontispiece by Félicien Rops, Paris, Librairie des auteurs modernes, 1884. On this episode, see Christophe Beaufils, Joséphin Péladan 1858-1918. Essai sur une maladie du lyrisme, Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, 1993, 171-175.

[2] Péladan, letter to Ritter, 30 December 1889, Fonds William Ritter, Bern, Switzerland.

[3] Joséphin Péladan, Catalogue du Salon de la Rose † Croix : Geste esthétique, Paris, Librairie Nilsson, 1894, 28.

[4] See in particular a work by Joséphin Péladan with a strong whiff of misogyny, Amphithéâtre des sciences mortes. Comment on devient fée. Érotique, Paris, Chamuel, A. Messein, 1892-1911. As his second wife stressed, “Péladan loved women, although he feigned to scorn them, but what he wrote is not at all addressed to them,” Beaufils, Péladan, 262.

[5] Antoine de La Rochefoucauld, letter to Ritter, 22 May 1892, Fonds William Ritter, Bern, Switzerland.

[6] Beaufils, Péladan, 150.

[7] For this context, see especially Rodolphe Rapetti, Le Symbolisme, Paris, Flammarion, 2007; Michael Marlais, Conservative Echoes in Fin-de-Siècle Parisian Art Criticism, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992; and Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009.

[8] See Daniel Grojnowski and Denys Riout, Les Arts incohérents et le Rire dans les arts plastiques, Paris, Corti, 2015.

[9] Joséphin Péladan, La Dernière Leçon de Léonard de Vinci à son Académie de Milan, 1499, précédée d'une étude sur le Maître, Paris, E. Sansot, 1904. See Beaufils, Péladan, 414-415.

[10] Joséphin Péladan, “Théorie amoureuse de l’androgyne. II. Le sexe de l’âme,” Akademos 7 (July 1909), 236.

[11] Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, ed and trans. Hilla Rebay, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1946, 94. https://archive.org/details/onspiritualinart00kand/page/94/mode/2up (accessed 05.01.21).

[12] Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Partisan Review, 31, 4 (autumn 1964), 515, https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf (accessed 05.01.21).

[13] See Joséphin Péladan, Amphithéâtre des sciences mortes. III. Comment on devient artiste. Esthétique, Paris, Chamuel, A. Messein, 1892-1911.

[14] Jean-Yves Jouannais, L’Idiotie : Art, Vie, Politique – Méthode, Paris, Beaux-Arts Magazine, 2003.

[15] See Jean-Yves Le Talec, Folles de France. Repenser l’homosexualité masculine, Paris, La Découverte, 2008 and the activities of Patrick Cardon, who, in 1979 in Aix-en-Provence, founded MFL (Mouvance Folle Lesbienne).

[16] Elizabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus. Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2019, 9.

[17] See the Fonds Joséphin Péladan, manuscript papers, Ms 13412, folio 64, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

[18]  Beaufils, Péladan, 437.

[19] Guillaume Apollinaire, “Échos. Mort de Joséphin Péladan,” Le Mercure de France, vol. 128, no. 482 (16 July 1918), 373, quoted on page 438.