French writer Joséphin Péladan died one hundred years ago today. By that time he had become “an absurd relic of a receding age” as Alex Ross says in his highly recommended New Yorker article, “The Occult Roots of Modernism“. But as that piece demonstrates, Péladan the self-styled “magus” was both of, and very much ahead of his time, not least in his interdisciplinary activities. Ross’s article was published to coincide with an exhibition at the (New York) Guggenheim entitled Mystical Symbolism, which in turn referenced Péladan’s own highly influential Salon de la Rose+Croix, staged annually in Paris between 1892 and 1897. Not just a selection of canvases, these shows raised art to the status of religion and were crucial in the modern revival of occult thinking.
Péladan’s strange cosmology and even stranger appearance inspired, it has to be said, as much mockery as admiration. He turns up as a deeply eccentric apparition in memoirs of the time, or thinly disguised in fiction, such as Jacques d’Adelswärd-Fersen‘s Lord Lyllian. German writer Oscar A. H. Schmitz recorded a visit to the Salon de la Rose+Croix in a diary covering his Paris years, and appears to have enrolled the magus in his 1902 hommage to French Decadence, Hashish. As I mention in the afterword to the recent English version (tr. W. C. Bamberger), the book’s description of an unnamed hashish club habitué with “a blue-black square-cut beard, like an Assyrian magus … wrapped around with purple velvet” closely matches the best-known portrait of Péladan, by Alexandre Seon.
Sasha Chaitow has written extensively on Péladan, and you can find a wealth of material at her dedicated website, while in the video below she provides a highly informative introduction to this singular figure. While Belle Époque Paris produced thrillingly wayward characters on an almost industrial scale, Joséphin Péladan may just be the most intriguing of them all.