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In the Frame for August 2010: Henry Chapront illustrating Huysman’s La-Bas

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The picture I have chosen is a print by the symbolist French illustrator Henry Chapront (1876-1965). It is one of a series he carried out for the 1924 edition of J.K.Huysmans’s novel Là-Bas (Down There).

The novel is now considered one of the key texts of the Decadent movement, but when it was published in 1894 it was considered somewhat controversial, so much so that its sale was prohibited at French railway stations.

Là-Bas deals with Satanism in contemporary France and is filled with occultists, incubi (male demons), succubi (female demons) and not forgetting the most terrifying of all, Parisian intellectuals. It tells the story of Durtal, a disaffected, middle-aged writer living in Paris, who is researching the life of Gilles de Rais, a 15th century nobleman, mass murderer and possible model for Bluebeard. As Durtal delves deeper he becomes embroiled in the world of 19th century satanic worship and the novel culminates with a description of a black mass.

The book is the first of four featuring this protagonist, who can be seen as a thinly disguised self-portrait of the author. Huysmans middle-aged and equally disaffected worked as a civil servant for the French Ministry of the Interior for over 32 years, a job which he found exceedingly tedious. Like Durtal he too suffered a spiritual struggle that resulted in him converting to Roman Catholicism.

This print shows a solitary male figure dressed in ecclesiastical garb and surrounded by a swirling mass of exotic creatures. Some are recognisable; fish, birds, a wolf and a rat in a cage, but some are more sinister and appear as the strange hybrids of bats, crabs, fossils and insects. In the top right hand corner appears a devilish hand with gnarled fingers and long nails. The figure is one of the most sinister characters in the story, the debauched Canon Docre. Rumours circulating at the time implied that this character was based on Louis Van Haecke, chaplain of the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruges.

Chapront has evoked the dark forbidding world of Là-Bas, capturing the ghoulish fascination of the occult. Throughout this series, the underworld to which Durtal is drawn is depicted with a glamorous decadence that epitomises fin-de-siècle Paris. Although Chapront’s style owes much to the work of earlier artists such as Félicien Rops, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec, his work continues the concerns of the Symbolist movement; the complex interweaving of death, decadence and desire.