31 December 2015


Richard Bergh, Death and the Maiden, 1888. Photo: Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde.

We must recalculate in ourselves the superior qualities of the soul. We must become mystics again. We must relearn to love.

– Albert Aurier, “Essay on a New Method of Criticism” (1890–93)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The decennium of Symbolism and Decadence was similarly the era of the first modern Olympics (1896) and the rebarbative ideals of Taylorism and citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger – the way humanity was going. However, one of the main desires that the Lumières picked up from the public when cinema was first invented in the year before Athens was to watch moving pictures of people who had died. The 19th century ended with a new kind of flickering light and a prevailing sense of “fin du globe”.

“Modern society is rocked without end by a nervous irritability. We are sick and tired of progress, industry and science,” wrote Émile Zola in 1896. The British man of letters Holbrook Jackson described the nervous splendour of the 1890s more positively as “A decade singularly rich in ideas, personal genius and social will,” and whose “central characteristic was a widespread concern for the correct – the most effective, most powerful, most righteous – mode of living.”

In The Exterminating Angel (1962) we encounter a company of highly Buñuelian socialites – foolish and ill-prepared as they are for the privilege of living – who twice enter the house of Lucia and Edmundo Nobile for a soirée that will gradually collapse into decadence, frenzy and a pile of dead bodies. “So close to civilisation is the cave,” wrote Roger Ebert in his review of The Exterminating Angel. The film’s overall tone and texture of spiritual inertia, entrapment and the moral decay behind the decorum, as well as the director’s wondrous obscurities and dreamlike anarchy, do so well reflect this near-life experience that was the fin de siècle.

“For the self-styled Decadents,” as Murray Pittock argues in Spectrum of Decadence: The Literature of the 1890s, “the decay of their civilisation was part of their own growth as artists: they drew strength from what weakened their society, vampires of art sucking the life out of science, commerce and imperialism.”

The Decadents were the exterminating angels of the 1890s. Like the demons, they slept with their eyes open. They were an unformed society of plaintive sensualists who infected the air around them with a variety of profound and revolutionary artistic expressions as they choked on the woozy forces behind materialism and over-accelerated change. “Decadence was thought to express an intense dissatisfaction with the idealism of inherited cultural forms,” writes Eugen Weber in France, Fin de Siècle. “By finding beauty in disease, truth in insanity, and pleasure in perversity, Decadence for [British writer Arthur] Symons defined the shared project of a group of mostly French writers who sought to bring traditional aesthetics to a decisive fin.”

The Decadents ran for the shadows, for the netherworld, for a restart of the human race. “The life of art became a substitute for the life of action. Indeed, as civic action proved increasingly futile, art became almost like a religion,” informs Carl Schorske in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. “Art became transformed from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value. The disaster of liberalism’s collapse further transmuted the aesthetic heritage into a culture of sensitive nerves, uneasy hedonism, and often outright anxiety.”

Paul Valéry remarked that the haste of early modernity required a new kind poison, like the Decadents and their explorations into aestheticism and deviancy. In his book Decadence and Catholicism, Ellis Hanson describes their words and images as a distinctive idiom “characterised by an elaborate, highly artificial, highly ornamented, often tortuous style; it delights in strange and obscure words, sumptuous exoticism, exquisite sensations, and improbable juxtapositions; it is fraught with disruption, fragmentation, and paradox”.

The Decadents and the Symbolists were the magicians who sparkled in satin and velvet. The aberrant Decadents looked like an alien race as they turned themselves and their lives into studied works of art – similar to Jean Des Esseintes, the fantastic character of artifice and splendour that Huysmans created for his novel À rebours (1884) during the peak of Romanticism. The Decadents cultivated their fundamental principle of self-deconstruction and extreme individualism (it did not work out so well for Des Esseintes in the end), while the sombre Symbolists catered to a greater reality not available to the naked eye.

“Symbolism was an attempt to think mythically: to abandon a world of ordinary cause and effect for one of vision and transcendence,” writes Murray Pittock. “That is the seeking for a world beyond their own, found in the past, in mysticism […] the occult, the Church, or in the self, in the heart of darkness of the artist’s existential drive to be free from his increasingly scientifically defined environment, or the hunt for beauty which is temporal, and thus in the end a hunt for death.”

Talking from his grave (as this was published posthumously), Baudelaire said that, “I have cultivated my hysteria with delight and terror.” Henri Dorra’s comment in Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology is that “this hysteria implied a state of trancelike awareness that transformed the objects of everyday life into apparitions endowed with spiritual meaning”.

The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones explained that, “The more materialistic Science becomes, the more angels shall I paint.” But Neo-Platonic beliefs were by all means reinforced by a string of scientific discoveries of invisible forces such as radio waves and x-rays during the fin de siècle (and of course by a keen interest in séances and psychotropic drugs).

Herschel Chipp talks about the method behind French writer Gustave Kahn’s works in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics: “Rather than begin with the tangible world and then subjectivise it according to feeling, he took feeling or idea as the starting point of a work of art, which was then objectified in the actual form of the poem of the painting.” This was truly Symbolism as the exact opposite of Romanticism.

The Symbolists and the Decadents laid the sufferings of the world to their own identity, with different resonances. “Find expression for a sorrow, and it will become dear to you. Find expression for a joy, and you will intensify its ecstasy,” urged Oscar Wilde – later prisoner 4099 at the Reading Gaol, while four of his plays were running in London. Homophobia and eyes not used yet spurred a lasting disregard for the art and the artists of these last hours of mankind. When 20th-century critic Raymond Williams looked back at the fin de siècle, he looked down at it as some kind of transitional period, a “working out, rather, of unfinished lines, a tentative redirection”. He was wrong.

You see, the sense of awe just mounts and mounts as one moves through the galleries with the Symbolism and Decadence exhibition at Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, “for art” – as Walter Pater described it in his History of the Renaissance (1873) – “comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake”.

“What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space.” These are the magic words that Carol (Cate Blanchett) says to Therese (Rooney Mara) during their first lunch together in Todd Haynes’s very successful Carol (2015). Väinö Blomstedt’s beautifully mournful Francesca, painted during a stay in Florence in 1897, is such a girl. In this painting, Dante’s tragic Commedia heroine Francesca da Rimini holds a white poppy flower in her hand, in a “dry” Renaissance-like landscape in which the artist has erased the conventional one-point perspective to produce a remarkable flatness.

The Symbolist artist and critic Maurice Denis famously stated in 1890 that “We should remember that a painting before being a warhorse, a nude woman, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours and assembled in a certain order.”

And as Russell Clement explains in Four French Symbolists: A Sourcebook on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, and Maurice Denis: “Symbolist works tend to be static and simplified in form, composition, and colour. Pictorial space is often shallow, and the viewer is often forced into an intimate relationship with the image.” Arthur Symons talked about the “eternal, minute, intricate, almost visible life, which runs through the whole universe”, and it looks like Blomstedt has scratched young Francesca’s left cheek with a key (these are fine pink brushstrokes) as to remind us to focus on a greater matter of importance: the Ideas behind appearances.

One-fourth of the Swedish population left for America in the latter part of the 1800s due to misery and distress at home. For most of those who stayed behind, in the vast areas of the country’s endlessly depressing spruce forests, life remained grounded on rural values – as opposed to Britain, where the population moved from eighty per cent rural to eighty per cent urban from the beginning to the end of the 19th century – and a fundamental belief in folklore spirits.

The exhibition concentrates on the kinship between the Nordic and Latvian artists of the fin de siècle, with some continental additions (like the two excellent paintings by the Dutch Jan Verkade): “Artists in the 1890s were in a state of debate: on the one hand, the ‘Self’ was an urban, French-speaking and cigarette-smoking person with a view to world exhibitions, medals, assignments and introductions in the press; on the other hand, a solitary brooder in the twilight, in the nature that was homeland and origin, and the sceneries of folk tales, legends and national myths,” writes Margaretha Rosholm Lagerlöf in the lavish (though Swedish-only) Symbolism och dekadens publication.

Sweden and its neighbouring countries were of course a world apart from the cosmopolitanism and the buoyancy of Paris “where everyday life was elevated to a spectacle”, as Vanessa Schwartz puts it in Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, and the city’s many world’s fairs (the Exposition Universelle in 1900 drew forty-eight million visitors to Paris). Nor were the artists of these countries dependent on the death-by-bling maximalism of the Catholic Church.

“Roman Catholicism is central to both the stylistic peculiarities and the thematic preoccupations of the Decadents,” argues Ellis Hanson. “The Church is itself a beautiful and erotic work of art, a thing jewelled over like the tortoise that expires under the weight of its own gem-encrusted carapace in À rebours”:

“In short, the Decadents did not invent decadent Catholicism, they simply embraced it where they found it. They were the culmination and the ironic reversal of an already popular tradition that regarded the Church as a decaying empire. Instead of writing anticlerical tirades, they drew from the mysticism and archaic strangeness of the Church a romantic ideal.”

White Ophelia floats like a great lily in Georg Pauli’s painting of 1891 in which he focussed on her dreamy face. She floats, she sings, she is carelessly happy. The flowers around her that she has picked will still float when she drowns in her dress made heavy in the water. Women in the Waldemarsudde exhibition are fairy tale princesses or maidens or flowers, or they are cloaked old hags snapping the thin thread of life with their shears. But spared we are of the Catholic staple of the femme fatale (except, of course, for Munch).

Ophelia is the human symbol of the indeterminate, intermediate and ambiguous nature of this strange artistic movement that captured so many twilight brooders in the North. They did not think like the French, however, and they did not paint like the French. Rather than mimicking a Golden Age that never was with a gallery of ornamental characters based on imaginative renderings of ancient figures from the bible and Greek and Roman mythology, they evoked the essence of their claustrophobic woods, among gnomes and trolls.

“Such beliefs were common in Europe’s less industrialised regions, and intellectuals interpreted this as a charming residue of the prehistoric past that indicated a holistic, bio-mystical relationship between humans and nature,” explains Michelle Facos in An Introduction to 19th-Century Art. Ernst Josephson expressed his guilt and grief over the loss of his beloved sister Nelly when they were young through his powerful painting Näcken (1884). The nefarious Näcken was the alluring water sprite who called people to treacherous waters with his fiddle to make them drown.

Prince Eugen – whose home and studio at the beautiful Waldemarsudde premises, out on a promontory on the island of Djurgården, became the Waldemarsudde museum after his death in 1947 – fancied the much popular Isle of the Dead that Arnold Böcklin painted several times during the 1880s. (“I really yearn for it. If you have it in your bedroom, then you can certainly put up with much,” he wrote.) The “Painter Prince” purchased an etching by Max Klinger with the same motif and title for his art collection. This exceedingly moribund image was a precursor of the art of the fin de siècle and its array of ruins, borderlands and burial grounds, unaffected by time, and where the vibrations of life have reached an absolute zero.

When Richard Bergh painted Death and the Maiden in 1888, he used his wife Helena as the model for the young woman with the Grim Reaper hot on heels. The painting was a premonition of his wife’s true destiny as her life came to a sudden end the following year. Bergh’s Dagens död (1895) is a work in charcoal and oil with a title that can be read as both the final curtain of the day – this was the world on the cusp of the century, on the cusp of civilisation – and the death of man. We see the last curvature of the orange sun as it dips into the ocean, and in the foreground the extinguished man and his allegorical slayer. If there are any human beings at all in the many works in the exhibition, they seem just placed there like marionettes bereft of this illusion called free will.

Trees are the true individuals in this show. It is interesting to see how they sometimes, in some of the best works, appear as true self-portraits. You see the chilly trees in solitary confinement among other trees or in perfect isolation. They remind me of how the Swedes choose to live their lives.

The writers in the book Symbolism och dekadens tell us that Latvia merely functioned as a paint yard for German tastes, which is quite hard to believe when you experience these works, and that the fin-de-siècle artists in Norway and Finland exaggerated their national folkloristics (which is accurate). These artists approached a more continental style after the turn of the century. The world was still here.

“The 19th century had a habit of putting an end to things,” as Eugen Weber suggests (in France, Fin de Siècle). But mankind had to jostle itself into the Great War of the next century to really put an end to things. “After that war was over it became fashionable to refer to the years preceding it as the belle époque, and to confuse that period with the fin de siècle, as if the two were one. Perhaps they were; the bad old times are always somebody’s belle époque. But the belle époque, named when looking back across the corpses and the ruins, stands for the ten years or so before 1914.”

One does feel like a happy Parisian in a patisserie in front of the stands with the arts and crafts items. Everything is lush Art Nouveau. Deborah Silverman discusses the agenda of these great artists in her book Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France: Politics, Psychology, and Style:

“First, they wanted to disrupt the hierarchy of media and to reunite art and craft. Second, they sought to a new and distinctively modern design style, liberated from the conventions of historical eclecticism. In the return to nature’s forms they found a powerful antidote to the moribund formulas of the period styles. Third, they wished to assert the primacy of individual vision over the function of the materials. For Art Nouveau artists, materials were vessels; design substances, no matter how durable and intractable, were destined to yield, bend, and rend according to the dictates of imagination.”

Stéphane Mallarmé opinionated that “To name an object is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which is made to be discovered little by little: to suggest it, that is the dream. It is the perfect usage of this mystery which constitutes the symbol.”

The suggestive suite, here much fragmentary, by the Swedish poète voyant Tyra Kleen (outside the room with the graphic prints) deserves a presentation on its own. “Between 1903 and 1907, she created what should be termed as her Symbolist masterpiece: a series of prints in which she in a sublime way in the motifs invokes a number of her main sources of inspiration, artistic as well as literary,” writes Daniel Prytz who curated the exhibition together with Museum Director Karin Sidén. “By its consistently continental Symbolist character, with a noticeable streak of Decadence, this series of prints has no other parallel in Sweden.”

In his fine anthology of British poetry and prose, Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s, Karl Beckson introduces their texts by claiming that the “Aesthetes and Decadents command our attention by their determination to transform their lives into works of art, to centre the meaning of life into private vision in order to resist a civilisation intent on debasing the imagination and thus making man less human.”

The whole movement was like a glorious sunrise mistaken for a dawn, with the three backbone questions about being here made into one: D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we heading?

Väinö Blomstedt, Francesca, 1897. Photo: Hannu Aaltonen, Suomen Kansallisgallerian.

Symbolism and Decadence at Waldemarsudde in Stockholm through January 24, 2016.