Procol Harum

the Pale

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So Sixties!

Gustave Moreau and Procol Harum.

What do Immanuel Kant, Philip Marlowe, Procol Harum and Gustave Moreau have in common? Answer: they could all be found on the same page in the arts section of Sweden's biggest daily – Dagens Nyheter (The Daily News) on 2 August 1999. The second-biggest article on that page carries the headline:

So sixties!
Peter Borgström discovers an unexpected parallel between the 19th century painter Gustave Moreau and Procol Harum.

The article is a review of the current Moreau exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

'Hesiod and the nine Muses' – a painting with slim figures in a pale pink color – is one of the first works that the visitor sees at the Gustave Moreau exhibition Between Epic and Dream at Metropolitan museum.

So sixties! That's the thought which strikes me and stubbornly clings to the mind. There may be a renaissance pattern for the design, but the emotional impact makes Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale sound in the back of one's head. The Muses are reproduced with closed eyes and venerable faces, some of them levitating (...) It is not only the bodies, thin as Twiggy's, that carry the associations more than thirty years back in time, but also the sublime state of trance that the painting expresses. A mild scent of marijuana emanates from the picture.

'If you could be intoxicated all the time,' wished Moreau's contemporary Baudelaire ... the notion that intoxication holds a key to insights and knowledge otherwise concealed was especially popular during the second half of the 19th century (...)'

Two things can be noted. First, the reference to Procol Harum is not really the obvious choice for the subhead. The reference to marijuana or to Twiggy could have been used as well. But by choosing it, the editor really emphasizes it as the starting point for the whole chain of thoughts in the review. (By now, I'm totally convinced there's a Procol fan among the editors of Dagens Nyheter. The final proof – it's spelled correctly, twice!)

Second, PH and AWSoP are referred to straight on, without explaining or further comment. This means that knowing something about A Whiter Shade of Pale' is expected to be a part of the public cultural consciousness, part of a proper education – in the same way as Baudelaire, Oedipus or Matisse (all mentioned in the same review). In fact, Moreau himself received the explanatory introduction 'the 19th century painter' in the headline.

Unfortunately, the article is not illustrated with those very Muses but with the painting 'Oedipus and the Sphinx' (reproduced above), which is discussed later in the same review. (If you live in the NY area, you could have a look for yourselves, of course.)

What other articles are there on the page? Top left: 'Marlowe – toughest of them all' (about Raymond Chandler); lower left: 'The soap and the British empire' (about late 19th century ads for Pears' soap); lower right: 'Kant is better' (a series about quotes from the Bible).

Click here for a closer look at the story

Thanks to Jonas Söderström for sending this to BtP.

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