The bust above, by sculptor Auguste Clésinger, stands guard over the French Senate, in the Palais de Luxembourg in Paris. It is one of numerous variations on the figure of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic, that adorn public buildings throughout the country. But the lawmakers who pass her day after day would probably be surprised, to say the least, to learn anything of the woman behind the likeness.
The model was Clésinger’s lover, poet and occultist Berthe de Courrière, who died in Paris 100 years ago today. But it was not just her beauty but also her passion for hermetic knowledge that inspired another lover, writer Remy de Gourmont. He described her as a “soul to which mystery has spoken – and has not spoken in vain”. Far more than a mere muse, she was his guide to a subterranean world of ritual, mysticism and the dark arts. It, and she, were woven into Gourmont’s novels Sixtine (1890) and Le Fantôme (1893). Between these two works Courrière served as a conduit for J.K. Huysmans’ own survey of this shadow realm, Là-Bas (1891). Everything suggests that her exploration of Satanism and the occult were more than merely academic; our old friend Rachilde relates that Courrière kept communion wafers about her person for the purpose of feeding stray dogs.
For more about this thrillingly wayward figure, Madeleine LeDespencer’s recent piece “Flowers of Evil: Satanic Feminists of Bohemian Paris Part 1 – Berthe de Courrière” for Dirge Magazine is a must-read. The writer performs a particularly valuable service in presenting Courrière as a personality in her own right, not just an adjunct to the male creative professional. Previous commentators focused on Courrière’s alleged insanity, but LeDespencer rightly notes that “they ignore how easy it might be for a woman to find herself committed for displaying the same peculiarities that the average bohemian man could flaunt without concern”.
And if nothing else, Courrière’s decorating tips – “Altar cloths, religious objects adapted to most unexpected locations, monstrance, corporals, dalmatics, candelabra with multicolored candles lit in mysterious corners of shade” – could clearly rival Gustav Meyrink‘s.