Ropsodies Hongroises – Félicien Rops master of Belgian symbolism

- 1 October 2010 - 9 January 2011


“I am a son of the Steppe […], born with the broad nostrils of the horses in the Puszta, racing against the winds on the plains, down by the Tisza”, wrote Félicien Rops in 1879, summing up the experiences of his travel to Hungary. Throughout his ten-day tour Rops was enchanted by Hungary, or rather, by the image he formed for himself of Hungary-he was greatly impressed by the endless spaciousness of the Puszta and Gypsy music. He felt he had found his spiritual home in the endless, wild Plain, and his brethren in the Gypsies who were living their lives full of that strange, captivating music, free from constraints, defying social expectations. Rops had plans of publishing a peculiar “travel guide” called Ropsodies Hongroises, a book of writings and drawings based on his experiences.

Félicien Rops was, in fact, of Belgian stock, born in Namur as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He began to draw caricatures for university publications while reading law in Brussels. In 1856, he founded his own satirical weekly, Uylenspiegel, in which he published caricatures (Nadar 1856). In large lithographs and drawings, Rops reflected on the wrongs of political and social life (Waterloo Medal 1858, The Death Penalty 1859, Order Reigns in Warsaw around 1863). The first great impact on his art was made by Gustave Courbet’s Realism. This is how Rops summed up his creed as an artist at the time: “Quite simply, I want to reproduce what I feel with my nerves and see with my eyes.” His best known work from the period is titled A Burial in Wallonia (1863).

In 1864 Rops met Charles Baudelaire in Brussels, and a close friendship developed between them, based on the mutual admiration the two artists shared for one another. A fruit of their collaboration was one of Rops’ first literary frontispieces, the one he created for the Brussels edition of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, suppressed in France (Scraps 1866). His acquaintance with Baudelaire had a decisive impact on his art. Skeletons, demons, death in various forms, Satan, and sinful, immoral women made an entrance in Rops’ iconography (Death at the Ball 1895, Mors syphilitica, Cold Devils around 1860).

In 1874 Rops separated from his wife and moved definitively to Paris where he had visited regularly since the 1850s. For subjects he drew on the Paris underworld, the marginalised, coquettes, and dandies (The Drunken Dandy 1882, Poverty 1882). No longer content to reproduce what he felt with his nerves or saw with his eyes, Rops condemned social depravity (the album of “A hundred unpretentious light sketches to gladden the honest people” 1878), and created symbolic works to represent the power of women over men (the series The Puppet Mistress 1873-1890, Pornokrates 1878). In Paris Rops gained fame chiefly through his literary illustrations created for the works of Mallarmé, Verlaine, and decadent writers such as Jules Barbey d’Aurévilly, Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam and Joséphin Péladan.

An important part of Rops’ oeuvre includes erotic drawings and etchings depicting sexuality with a frankness that sometimes verges on pornography. Eroticism, whose existence Rops, without any bourgeois hypocrisy, regarded as natural, was a tool for him to express his attitude to bourgeois society, the Church, and women, an attitude that was part of late nineteenth-century Symbolism and Decadence (Naked Woman, Saint Theresa). In Rops’ oeuvre an important place was occupied by Satanism, which marked the French fin-de-siecle scene, attributing the evil prevalent in the world to the operations of Satan. The medical examination of female personality and behaviour also commenced in the era. Joining the result of such studies with the philosophy of Satanism, Rops created his series Les Sataniques (1882), displayed in the last section of the exhibition.

The exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery is the first retrospective in Hungary of this peculiar representative of Belgian Symbolism. The works on display have been selected from the collection of the musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, and from private collections in an effort to give a comprehensive picture of this brilliant, eccentric and autonomous artist who summed up his life and art in a meaningful motto also serving as a response to his critics: “I am Rops, and I have never wanted to be otherwise.”

Curators of the exhibition: Véronique Carpiaux, Chief curator of the musée provincial Félicien Rops, Namur, and Eszter Földi, Head of Department of Prints and Drawings, Hungarian National Gallery.

Recommended exhibitions