Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 31, 2016
Sylvain Amic and Ségolène Le Men, eds. Cathédrales 1789–1914: Un mythe moderne Exh. cat. Rouen and Cologne: Musées de Rouen and Wallraf-Richartz Museum in association with Somogy Éditions d’Art, 2014. 416 pp.; 367 ills. Paper €39.00 (9782757207901)
Exhibition schedule: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, April 12–August 31, 2014; Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, September 26, 2014–January 18, 2015

Cathédrales 1789–1914: Un mythe moderne provides a rich overview of the post-Revolutionary European fascination for depicting Gothic architecture in art. Reproducing some 180 works by 60 artists working in different media—including painting, sculpture, photography, furniture, jewelry, and wood carving—this beautifully illustrated catalogue is the fruit of an exhibition presented first at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen and then at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum and Fondation Corboud in Cologne. Like many commemorative exhibitions from 2014, this one, too, references the Great War, yet it focuses much more on shared values (mutual fascination for cathedrals) than on the cultural antagonism inherent in the bombardment of French cathedrals by the Germans in 1914. The seven pages of acknowledgements in the front matter and an additional two at the back evoke the breadth of this international partnership, lauded in brief prefatory texts by a number of important cultural and political figures, and reinforced in the ten essays that constitute the first half of the volume.

The lyrical opening essay, “Cathédrales,” contributed by Alfred Grosser, a French citizen who describes himself as a German-born “Jewish atheist spiritually linked to Christianity,” and who praises Gothic cathedrals for their often ecumenical symbolic resonance, sets the tone. The subsequent nine texts range from four to eighteen pages; they provide a helpful overview of historical and aesthetic nineteenth-century interpretations of the cathedral summarized from previous scholarship (notably Paul Frankl’s 1960 The Gothic: Literary Sources and Interpretations Through Eight Centuries [Princeton: Princeton University Press]). Contributors Roland Recht, Götz Czymmek, and Klaus Kardering evoke the different perspectives adopted toward Gothic architecture in Germany, while Michela Passini, Ségolène Le Men, Dagmar Kronenberger-Hüffer, Armelle Sentilhes, and Jean-Pierre Chaline discuss its parallel nationalist and aesthetic development in nineteenth-century France. Mario Kramp compares terminology in nineteenth-century Germany and France, while Diederik Bakhuÿs surveys the British context. Several of these opening essays (notably Kronenberger-Hüffer and Sentilhes and Chaline) have been adapted from previous publications.

As suggested by the volume’s subtitle, “A Modern Myth,” editors accept previous scholarly narratives contending that the cathedral, neglected after the Middle Ages, was “rediscovered” and recreated in the nineteenth century, when generations of artists and writers projected their fantasies upon it. Contributors do not explicitly question the assumption that Gothic architecture had been forgotten by earlier periods; rather, most tend to document the profusion of nineteenth-century representations or explain restoration choices (particularly for Rouen and Cologne, the exhibition’s host cities). The exception is Thomas Bohl, who briefly compares medieval to nineteenth-century representations of the cathedral. The lack of explicit theoretical engagement—justification of the choice of the cathedral as a trope, definition of what is meant by “modern myth,” explanation of why the cathedral may have become such a figure of predilection for artists at this time—can be attributed to the exhibition’s focus on collaborative commemoration. Although the nationalist historiographies established by Pierre Nora and his contributors to Les Lieux de mémoire (1984–92) implicitly inspire the volume, most essays do not engage specifically with such theoretical concepts.

The fourteen thematically organized contributions contained in the second section, “Catalogue,” occasionally overlap with the longer earlier pieces, yet they present individual works in greater depth, juxtaposing high and low culture representations of the cathedral. In “Sacres et massacres,” Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau evokes the historical role played by Notre-Dame de Reims and Notre-Dame de Paris in public ceremonies through paintings, drawings, and even amateur wooden carvings. In “Goethe et le romantisme allemand,” by Bakhuÿs and David Liot, Romantic paintings of German and French cathedrals are set side by side with drawings for stage sets and architectural plans, while Bakhuÿs establishes the prevalence of British and French Gothic architecture in paintings and drawings by J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, David Roberts, Paul Huet, John Ruskin, and Camille Corot in “La cathédrale romantique: de Grande-Bretagne en France.” Aside from this essay, there is surprisingly little about Ruskin, much as Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc merits only a few pages (the exhibition pre-dated Martin Bressani’s valuable 2014 cultural biography, Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1814–1879 [Burlington: Ashgate, 2014]). A rich essay by Le Men, which draws from her La Cathédrale illustrée de Hugo à Monet. Regard romantique et modernité (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1998), reveals the astounding influence exerted by Victor Hugo’s 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), which began an entirely new cathedral franchise evident in popular painting, collectibles, book covers, and caricatures, not to mention the novelist’s own haunting drawings of Gothic architecture.

Cathelineau, Joëlle Bolloch, and Claire Lignereux’s “Naissance du monument” evokes the importance of photographers such as Édouard Baldus, Henri Le Secq, Edmond Bacot, Bisson frères, Médéric Mieusement, Charles Marville, Viollet-le-Duc, and amateur wood carver Charles-Joseph Mohen in documenting cathedral facades. In “Le Stryge: le gothique des gargouilles,” Le Men draws on the work of Michael Camille and others to present fantastical nineteenth- and twentieth-century imaginings of gargoyles in photography, drawing, and paintings. One of the volume’s most innovative chapters is also its longest, the excellent section “Le décor ‘à la cathédrale’” by Audrey Gay-Mazuel, Anne Dion-Tenenbaum, Cathelineau, Virginie Desrante, Véronique Ayroles, and Véronique de la Hougue. Drawings and paintings of Gothic-style French boudoirs from the 1820s and 1830s and a variety of furniture, wallpaper, clocks, mirrors, vases, table settings, and other accessories are stunningly reproduced here; they embody this nineteenth-century vogue for cathedral-like interior decoration.

The final six essays are dedicated to loosely defined aesthetic movements and periods: “Les impressionnnistes et le monument gothique” (Sylvain Amic); “Rodin: la voix des basiliques” (Antoinette Le Normand-Romain, François Blanchetière, Sophie Biass-Fabiani); “La cathédrale symboliste” (Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond); a rather underdeveloped section on “La Grande Guerre” (Passini, Stéphane Ferrand, Hélène Montout-Richard, Bohl); “La cathédrale des modernes” (Marie-Claude Coudert); and “Cathédrale et expressionnisme” (Adam C. Oellers, Czymmek, Amic). These last sections provide intriguing perspectives on twentieth-century representations of the cathedral, though taking the volume well beyond the stated 1914 end date.

While scholarly insights are limited in this catalogue intended for general audiences, it is extraordinarily valuable for the attention it brings to little-known or never-before reproduced works, displayed here in vibrant color. Claude Monet’s well-known paintings of Rouen cathedral are used, for example, as a productive locus for discussing other painters who also produced serial representations of Gothic cathedrals: Johan Barthold Jongkind, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Maximilien Luce, Albert Marquet, and Robert Delaunay, to name just a few. The editors have provided a remarkable service by bringing together so many different representations of the cathedral by nineteenth-century European artists, architects, and amateurs.

On the other hand, the historical and commemorative rhetoric framing this collaborative Franco-German venture leaves larger implications unaddressed. Was the exhibition’s intent simply to draw attention to the variety of ways in which cathedrals were depicted in the nineteenth-century European imaginary? If so, what prompted the selection of artists and movements? Why was such a long section dedicated to the reception of Hugo’s work while Goethe’s drawings and the popular reception of Faust and its cathedral scenes remain undiscussed? Was downplaying the religious function of cathedrals and their ambiguous political status in nineteenth-century France a calculated choice or an omission? Finally, why is a book with such overtly stated international emphasis so francocentric (and overly reliant on French-language sources in notes and bibliography)?

Although the catalogue lacks a general introduction or conclusion in which to respond to such questions or to link it to numerous other scholarly projects evoking the historiography and preservation of cathedrals, the images and accompanying essays implicitly argue that the cathedral became a locus for addressing modernity because of the ways it responded to new forms of European specularity. The cathedral’s appeal as a subject seems to stem as much from its role as tourist destination and for the multiple perspectives from which it could be depicted (inside and out, from towers, in the city, in the country, under different weather conditions, at a distance, from a moving train or carriage), as for the national associations explicitly discussed in this catalogue’s essays. Recht hints at this when he mentions a “changement d’optique” (24), as does Le Men, in suggesting that the book’s goal is to show the cathedral’s importance for “l’histoire du paysage” (59). The variety of images reproduced here suggest that it was the confluence of a renewed interest in the past and in landscapes, new modes of transportation, new technologies, and resulting new perspectives that made the cathedral such a compelling figure for nineteenth-century artists. In gathering so many different representations of cathedrals in so many media, and in drawing attention to a trans-European enchantment with the Gothic cathedral, Cathédrales 1789–1914 provides a fascinating and valuable resource for cultural historians.

Elizabeth Emery
Professor of French, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Montclair State University