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Fin de Siècle

  Fin de siècle (French, ‘end of century’) is a bizarre artistic offshoot of millenarianism, that inexplicable psychic unease engendered by the approaching end of each millennium. Only one century has so far had a fin-de-siècle in the arts, the 19th—perhaps because it was the first century in which, thanks to the arrival of the Industrial Society, people in the developed world at least were governed by clocks and watches, and the passing of time units larger than a day or a harvest season was universally perceived. Certainly the passage from (say) 400  BCE to 399  BCE, or 1599 to 1600, took place without fluttering anyone\'s sensibilities. Even the move from 999 to 1000 was marked by only a few Christians, whose zeal in Bible study was matched only by mathematical ignorance, and who convinced themselves that at 12.01 am on the first of January, 1000, Gabriel would blow his horn and the Day of Judgement would begin.

Throughout the Western world, the passage from the 19th to the 20th century roused extremely strong feelings of a different kind, fanned (and in some cases originated) by popular newspapers and by authors (such as H.G. Wells in the UK and Jack London in the USA) who should have known better. The general thesis was that advanced society had reached a point of exhaustion, of stagnation, and that all its institutions (save possibly commerce, then more immune to fashion than it is today) desperately needed an injection of new ideas if they were to survive. The first day of the new century was perceived as a good moment to aim for such an injection, and accordingly, for a couple of decades beforehand, pundits and commentators began assessing situations, discussing possibilities and making forecasts.

Politically and socially, the turn of the 20th century happened to coincide with (rather than triggered) a general feeling of dissatisfaction and radical experiment frantically opposed by the conservative. Republicanism, women\'s suffrage, educational and penal reform, changes in work practices all were feverishly discussed. Anarchy was suddenly no longer the idea of a lunatic few, but was a serious possibility, seriously discussed and even attempted in most of the university towns in Europe. New machinery (such as motor cars and moving-picture cameras) and ‘new’ ideas (such as modular construction in buildings) suddenly began to suggest that the future (that is, the new century) would look, and be, radically different from the past. The scientific community—by this period it was beginning to think of itself as a community—was no longer reeling under the implications of Darwinism, but was beginning to cope with the possibilities of the ‘new’ physics: Quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity were well on the horizon.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the arts of the West had been particularly subject to fads and fashions, responsive to social and intellectual change as at no previous time. The fin-de-siècle atmosphere of the 1880s and 1890s therefore had a profound effect on artists of every kind. This was partly due to the fact that in most of the arts, major creative bombshells had been detonated in the previous few decades, so that musicians, for example, were still coping with the fallout from Wagnerism, dramatists with that of Ibsenism, painters with the collapse of the Academy tradition and the rise of such ‘movements’ as Impressionism. The Paris Exhibition of 1889, held to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution, had attracted exhibitors from throughout the world, and for many Western creative artists their first experience of Eastern techniques (for example, Mughal Indian painting, Japanese print-making, Chinese poetry, or Balinese gamelan music) had indicated realms of possibility previously unimagined. Oriental visions and versions of reality chimed with the then-current Western interest in ‘other’ states of being, from dreams to the spirit world, and encouraged artists to believe that each exploration of ‘reality’, each personal refraction, was as valid as any other. The new medium, film, all the rage in Europe from the mid-1890s onwards, also suggested that ‘surreal’ happenings (for example, speeded-up time, or the unexpected juxtapositions achieved by jump-cuts) were not so much signs of a disordered mind as perfectly legitimate versions of ‘reality’.

Artists reacted to all this ferment in two different ways, or rather three, if one counts aggressive philistinism and refusal to have any truck with the new as an ‘artistic’ reaction. Some were inspired by the feeling of exhaustion, of the impotence and perceived irrelevance of art to life, and produced work notable for its aloofness, its dandyism, its refusal to take any responsibility or make any references beyond itself. Exquisite decadence, in such people as Beardsley, Maeterlinck, Satie, Whistler and Wilde, was more than the pose its detractors imagined: it was an energetic and creative force. Its surviving manifestations—Debussy\'s and Maeterlinck\'s Pelléas et Mélisande, Wilde\'s The Portrait of Dorian Gray and the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh are notable examples—may seem somewhat peripheral to the mainstream of art, or of artistic masterwork, but the impact of decadence was crucial to the development of almost every major art movement of the succeeding century, from Dada to minimalism, from expressionism to the the twelve-note system, from surrealism to the theatre of the absurd.

The second response was eager innovation. Artists everywhere began devising agendas and writing manifestoes for the ‘art of the future’. This usually involved three things: complete junking of any ideas or methods regarded as valid in the past, confrontation (for which ‘outraging the bourgeoisie’ was a less polite alternative name) and political activism based on the feeling that art had the power to remake, and if necessary redeem, society. To some extent, the entire history of ‘modern art’ in the 20th century, and our perception of artists, has suffered from this attitude, the outraged bourgeoisie turning away from art in far greater numbers than those which supported it, and the ‘proletariat’ (whose lot most of the early programmes were devised to ‘better’) remaining as aloof from the arts as when they started. It may seem a paradox that the ‘hard’ programmes of the reformers had such negative results (most, from futurism to serial music, from vorticism to structuralism, had a deadening rather than an invigorating effect on the arts at large), while such ‘soft’ artistic manifestations as those of the decadents had and still have such insidious and lasting influence. But such remains the case. The 20th century, artistically speaking, has been a battle-ground between the two approaches, and the seeds of the conflict (which has occupied our best creative minds and energies ever since) lies in work produced, in Europe especially, 100 years ago. Fin-de-siècle may be an accurate temporal designation for what was going on, but in terms of influence, we are talking far more of the 20th century than of the 19th, and of beginnings far more than ends. KMcL

Further reading C. Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson; , R. Shattuck, The Banquet Years; , D. Silverman, Art-nouveau in Fin-de-siècle France: Politics, Psychology and Style.



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