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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fin de Siecle

Progressive ideas, art, literature,
and people.
Several years ago, as the end of the 20th century approached, I came upon an interesting French phrase I'd never seen before that seems more and more apt as time goes by. Maybe you recall it too--"fin de siecle." Strictly translated it means "end of the cycle." Originally it was used to refer to the end of the 19th century in speaking of progressive ideas or customs. However, at the end of the 20th century, probably reflecting the questionable nature of these "progressive" ideas and customs, it has come to be used with reference to social and cultural decadence. What piqued my interest in the phrase was, first, the question as to what progressive ideas or customs of 1899 were seen to be decadent, and second, if we might apply this phrase just as appropriately to ideas and customs prevalent at the end of the 20th century and since.

photo by J. Crocker
Art Nouveau subway entrance, Chicago, Illinois
(transplanted from Paris).

In terms of art, fin de siecle is most often associated with Art Nouveau. For those not familiar with this term, I guess it could best be described as "botanical." That is, painting, sculpture, architecture, consumer products, interior design, poster, and commercial art with a strong organic motif--everything from stair banisters to clocks and cloisters. And while it may not be everyone's favorite style, and not at all popular today, I can see little that would be considered "decadent" in such decidedly flamboyant delicacy. However the work of the graphic design artist and illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley also comes to mind in terms of fin de siecle. His work is definitely Art Nouveau and is often considered quite decadent in it's moral perversity, formal elegance, and delicate eroticism. In literature, the fin de siecle work of playwright, Oscar Wilde, comes to mind; and their join effort, his 1894 book of poetry, Salome (below, right), which Beardsley illustrated, very neatly fits this decadent image.

Salome illustration, The Peacock Skirt,
1894, Aubrey Beardsley
So much for the 19th century, what about 20th century. Do we see fin de siecle art and culture then and now? Certainly no particular art style dominates as did Art Nouveau. And while one could easily identify plenty to find decadent in both the art and culture of the last few decades of the 20th century, is there any particular development along this line peculiar to the end of this century...indeed of the  millennium? We might easily latch on to any flare-up regarding guns and violence in entertainment, though one might be hard pressed to argue that the situation is any worse now than say in the late sixties. Sexual mores and the easy access to pornography perhaps? Decadent? Certainly, but fin de siecle? If we can apply this phrase to more recent years, I think we'd have to say it relates more to our attitude, with relation to some of the things I've mentioned, rather than the perverse influences themselves. The fin de siecle of the 20th century is the attitude that all these things are an inbred, embedded, permanent parts of our culture and not likely to change significantly no matter how many bombs explode, students die, laws are passed, or Internet porn sites come and go. Now that is fin de siecle decadence.

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