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Fin de siècle

1880s - 1890s - 1900-09

modernism - Aesthetic movement (UK) - Art Nouveau - symbolism (art movement in France and Belgium) - decadence (art movement in France)

Pornokrates (1879) - Félicien Rops


Fin de siècle is French for "End of the Century". The term "turn-of-the-century" is sometimes used as a synomym, but is more neutral (lacking some or most of the connotations described below), and can include the first years of a new century.

The expression "Fin de siècle" generally refers to the last years of the 19th century. It has connotations of decadence (seen as typical for the last years of a prosperous period, in this case the Belle epoque), and of anticipative excitement about - and/or despair facing - impending change (which is generally expected when a century or time period draws to a close).

That the expression is in French, probably comes from the fact that "Fin de siècle" is particularily associated to certain French-speaking circles in Paris and Brussels, exemplified by artists like Stephane Mallarmé, movements like Symbolism, and works of art like Oscar Wildes "Salomé" (originally written in French, and premiered in Paris) - which connects the idea of "Fin de siècle" also to the Aesthetic movement.

In a broader sense the expression "fin de siecle" is used to characterise anything that has an ominous mixture of opulence and/or decadency, combined with a shared prospect of unavoidable radical change. Note that it is not change itself that is implied in the expression fin de siècle (but only its anticipation), e.g. for the historical 19th century Fin de siècle the radical changes in the cultural and social order would only occur more than a decade after the new century had started (World war I), while by the end of the 19th century the Belle epoque was not even at its height (nor had the Edwardian era, almost seamlessly following the Victorian era, even started). A more recent example of fin de siècle can be found in the Y2K problem: the general turmoil caused by this in itself relatively insignificant technical issue becomes a lot more understandable when acknowledging an underlaying fin de siècle mechanism. Also e.g. the War on terror could be seen to have a definite fin de siècle touch (allegedly anticipating an era without dictators). Even Hitler probably could never have pushed his compatriots thus far in accomplishing his Thousand Year Reich fantasies without the support of fin de siecle-like filosofies (see e.g. the article on Millennialism and Nazism), and the fin de siecle atmosphere of the interbellum. Many other 20th century phenomena, like e.g. Goth and New Age, could be interpreted as building on at least some fin de siecle ideas.

A good introductory text on the 19th century Fin de siècle is Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fin_de_si%E8cle [Aug 2004]

Aesthetic movement, Decadent movement and Symbolist movement

In search of fault lines in Modernism: social realism (Manet, Courbet, Millet) vs art for art's sake (Aesthetic movement, Decadent movement and Symbolist movement)

Part 1: art for art's sake

Aestheticism: no spokesperson

Unlike aestheticism, which (as Ruth Z. Temple observes) never had an official or self-appointed spokesperson, during the fin de siècle the phenomenon of Decadence became the object of considerable explanation in both England and France.

Decadent movement: no coherent position

Even then, as Asti Hustvedt has pointed out, the contributions to the literary journal Le Décadent, which Anatole Baju edited in the late 1880s "never articulated a coherent position."

Decadent movement: Nietzsche has little to say

... Charles Bernheimer observes, "Nietzsche has very little to say concerning French decadence, about which he is not particularly well informed.

London tries to create a clear distinction between Decadence and its near-twin Symbolisme

London literary culture engaged seriously with Decadence somewhat belatedly. It was in 1891—a threshold moment after Baju abandoned Decadence and before Nordau railed against it—that Lionel Johnson attempted to make one of the first, necessarily inchoate assessments of this novel French import. In an issue of the Century Guild Hobby Horse (a leading art journal, ... he tried to create a clear distinction between Decadence and its near-twin Symbolisme—a term that Jean Moréas in 1886 devised to classify a tradition of modern French poetry that also traced its roots back to Baudelaire.

All quotes are from page 9 of The Fin-de-Siecle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s (2005) edited by Joseph Bristow [Jun 2006]

See also: Aesthetic movement - Symbolist movement - decadent movement

See also: social realism - art for art's sake

Sexual anarchy: Gender and culture at the fin de siècle (1990) - Elaine Showalter

Sexual anarchy: Gender and culture at the fin de siècle (1990) - Elaine Showalter [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

A history of the sexes and the crises, themes, and problems associated with the battle for sexual supremacy and identity, this work draws striking cultural parallels between the end of the 19th century and the end of the 20th century. Showalter explores the history and attitudes toward homosexuality, unmarried men and women, the concepts of masculinity and femininity, sexual fears and fantasies, sexual surgery, and sexual epidemics as represented in psychological, medical, and literary texts, visual art, and film. Fascinating and provocative, this book reflects the realities of history repeating itself and the impact of gender crisis on culture.--From Library Journal

Art for All? : The Collision of Modern Art and the Public in Late-Nineteenth-Century Germany (2003) - Beth Irwin Lewis

Art for All? : The Collision of Modern Art and the Public in Late-Nineteenth-Century Germany (2003) - Beth Irwin Lewis [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Basing her study on a wide reading of what critics wrote on German art journals and magazines, Lewis fills an important void in our knowledge of the German art scene of the 1880s and 1890s, which set the stage for later shocks and public alienation.

Book Description
This book tells the story of Germany's rich, flourishing, and diversified world of art in the last decades of the nineteenth century--a world that has until recently been eclipsed by the events of the twentieth century. Basing her narrative on a close reading of contemporary periodicals, and lavishly complementing it with cartoons and other illustrations from these publications, Beth Irwin Lewis provides the first systematic, comprehensive study of that German art world. She focuses on how critics and the public responded to new forms of painting that emerged in the 1880s, when the explosive growth of art exhibitions supported by local governments across a recently united Germany was accompanied by skyrocketing attendance of a new mass public.

Describing the rapid critical acceptance and dominance of the new modern art in the 1890s, Lewis analyzes these developments within a complex interweaving of social, cultural, and economic factors. Although critics had hoped for a unified new art for the new nation, the success of modern art fragmented the art world, as modern artists and their supporters turned away from the often unreceptive mass public of the great exhibitions. Lewis's approach through the popular journals reveals the public's growing alienation from modern artists and an increasing contempt for the public on the part of these artists and their supporters--all of which prefigured tensions in the contemporary art world. Her wide-ranging text examines not only the various ways art was promoted to and received by the public, but also anti-Semitism, the role of women artists, and changes in style of both art and criticism.

Well documented, engagingly written, and vividly illustrated, this book will interest not only scholars and students but all readers interested in German cultural history and art history.

Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture - Bram Dijkstra

    Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture - Bram Dijkstra [Amazon.com]
    Fully illustrated, this volume provides a provocative analysis of the unprecedented eruption of misogyny at the turn of the 20th century in the works of the key artists of the age. --Synopsis, amazon.com

    At the turn of the century, an unprecedented attack on women erupted in virtually every aspect of culture: literary, artistic, scientific, and philosophic. Throughout Europe and America, artists and intellectuals banded together to portray women as static and unindividuated beings who functioned solely in a sexual and reproductive capacity, thus formulating many of the anti-feminine platitudes that today still constrain women's potential.

    Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity explores the nature and development of turn-of-the-century misogyny in the works of hundreds of writers, artists, and scientists, including Zola, Strindberg, Wedekind, Henry James, Rossetti, Renoir, Moreau, Klimt, Darwin, and Spencer. Dijkstra demonstrates that the most prejudicial aspects of Evolutionary Theory helped to justify this wave of anti-feminine sentiment. The theory claimed that the female of the species could not participate in the great evolutionary process that would guide the intellectual male to his ultimate, predestined role as a disembodied spiritual essence. Darwinists argued that women hindered this process by their willingness to lure men back to a sham paradise of erotic materialism. To protect the male's continued evolution, artists and intellectuals produced a flood of pseudo-scientific tracts, novels, and paintings which warned the world's males of the evils lying beneath the surface elegance of woman's tempting skin.

    Reproducing hundreds of pictures from the period and including in-depth discussions of such key works as Dracula and Venus in Furs, this fascinating book not only exposes the crucial links between misogyny then and now, but also connects it to the racism and anti-semitism that led to catastrophic genocidal delusions in the first half of the twentieth century. Crossing the conventional boundaries of art history, sociology, the history of scientific theory, and literary analysis, Dijkstra unveils a startling view of a grim and largely one-sided war on women still being fought today. --Book Description, amazon.com

The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France - Asti Hustvedt

    The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France - Asti Hustvedt [Amazon.com]
    In France at the end of the nineteenth century, progress and material prosperity coincided with widespread alarm about disease and decay. The obsessions of our own culture as the millennium comes to a close resonate strikingly with those of the last fin-de-siècle: crime, pollution, sexually transmitted disease, gender confusion, moral depravity, alcoholism, and tobacco and drug use were topics of popular discussion then as now. The Decadent Reader is a collection of novels and stories from fin-de-siècle France that celebrate decline, aestheticize decay, and take pleasure in perversity. By embracing the marginal, the unhealthy, and the deviant, the decadent writers attacked bourgeois life, which they perceived to be the chief enemy of art. Barbey d'Aurevilly, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Guy de Maupassant, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Catulle Mendès, Rachilde, Jean Moréas, Octave Mirbeau, Joséphin Péladan, and Remy de Gourmont looted the riches of their culture for their own purposes. In an age of medicine, they borrowed its occult mysteries rather than its positivism. From its social Darwinism, they found their monsters: sadists, murderers, transvestites, fetishists, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs, and hysterics. And they reveled in them, completely upending the conventions of romance and sentimentality. The Decadent Reader, which includes critical essays on all of the authors, many novels and stories that have never before appeared in English, and familiar works set in a new context, offers a compelling portrait of fin-de-siècle France. amazon.com editorial review

    1900: A Fin-De-Siecle Reader (1999) - Mike Jay (Editor), Michael Neve (Editor)

    1900: A Fin-De-Siecle Reader (1999) - Mike Jay (Editor), Michael Neve (Editor) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Book Description
    At the turn of the nineteenth century, just like today, many people were terrified--or thrilled--by the seemingly unstoppable progress of science, wrestling with questions of sexual identity, and turning away from traditional religions or taking refuge in spiritualism, the paranormal, and "new age" philosophies. This selection of more than 120 writings from the four decades around 1900 brings together newspaper clippings, poetry, pulp fiction, scientific polemic, and sexological speculation, alongside classic texts by Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Wells, Dickens, Ibsen, Ruskin, and Zola. Vividly illuminating both the similarities and the differences between millennial and fin-de-siecle anxieties, this dazzling anthology forces us to look again at the progress we have made (or failed to make) in the last hundred years.

    Mike Jay is the author of Artificial Paradises: A Drugs Reader - Mike Jay [Amazon.com]

    see also: fin de siècle - literature

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