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Joséphin Péladan: A Proto-Curator?

Image: Marcellin Desboutin, Sâr Mérodack Joséphin Péladan, 1891.

In the March issue of e-flux journal, Beti Žerovc tells the fascinating story of Joséphin Péladan, a nineteenth-century French mystic and dilettante who may have invented the role we know today as the “independent curator”:

A quintessential aspect of aesthetic modernism in the nineteenth century is that it produced not only a body of artworks and a profusion of –isms, but also a body of institutions and a template of practices that, unlike the art itself, were accepted almost without protest by the European and American art public. As early as the late nineteenth century, the field of exhibition-making also had isolated examples of figures similar to the independent curator of contemporary art—although, of course, without the institutional support that is usual today. One such “proto-curatorial” figure was Joséphin Péladan, who among other things was the founder and director of the Catholic Rosicrucian Order of the Temple and the Grail (L’Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal) in Paris. In the 1890s, Péladan organized large group exhibitions as the order’s main public events, in which he presented artists who had been selected in accordance with his very particular conceptions of art. Viewed from today’s perspective, he was a typical independent curator who, at every level and wherever present, defended his “particular position” in art, communicating it through his public image and lifestyle as well …

With Péladan’s work, we can already witness the merging into a single job of the two positions that are usually kept separate in the art world, namely, those of producer and artistic director; indeed, it is this specific combination that gives curators today such extraordinary power. The ability to organize and coordinate numerous large productions thus brings the producer as well a direct means for establishing his ideas, views, and artistic aspirations, since in the process the producer is not divorced from the creative function but rather defines even the exhibiting artists and their work, and conceptualizes the event as a whole. It is understandable, then, that such a curator-as-producer also takes the lion’s share of the prestige and fame, as the greatest part of such bonuses attaches specifically to his name.

Read the full essay here.