The Decadent movement was a lateth-century artistic and literary movement, centered in Western Europe , that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality. It first flourished in France and then spread throughout Europe and to the United States. The trends that he identified, such as an interest in description, a lack of adherence to the conventional rules of literature and art, and a love for extravagant language were the seeds of the Decadent movement. He later used the term decadence to include the subversion of traditional categories in pursuit of full, sensual expression. A friend of Baudelaire,  he was a frequent illustrator of Baudelaire's writing, at the request of the author himself.
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Many Victorians passionately believed that literature and art fulfilled important ethical roles. Literature provided models of correct behavior: it allowed people to identify with situations in which good actions were rewarded, or it provoked tender emotions. At best, the sympathies stirred by art and literature would spur people to action in the real world.
The supporters of aestheticism, however, disagreed, arguing that art had nothing to do with morality. Instead, art was primarily about the elevation of taste and the pure pursuit of beauty. More controversially, the aesthetes also saw these qualities as guiding principles for life. They argued that the arts should be judged on the basis of form rather than morality. It meant prising the sensual qualities of art and the sheer pleasure they provide. Aestheticism unsettled and challenged the values of mainstream Victorian culture.
As it percolated more widely into the general culture, it was relentlessly satirised and condemned. Caricature of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus featuring the key Aesthetic motif of the sunflower; the artist accuses Aesthetes of vanity and egotism. Usage terms Public Domain.
Critics still disagree about when aestheticism began and who should be included under its label. Some associate the movement with the Pre-Raphaelites , who were active from the midth century. Their emphasis on sensual beauty and on strong connections between visual and verbal forms was certainly highly influential. Perhaps the most important inaugurating phase of aestheticism, however, occurred during the late s and early s.
The poet Charles Algernon Swinburne is a crucial figure of this period. Like Baudelaire, he put this argument into practice by combining lyrical language and complex metrical rhythms with subject matter commonly seen as antithetic to aesthetically pleasing poetry.
Mainstream Victorian culture saw art and literature as a means of self-improvement or a spur to good works. Also influenced by French ideas was the critic Walter Pater. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance is widely regarded as the manifesto of aestheticism.
In a period when the Middle Ages were celebrated, Pater instead advocated Renaissance culture. Flying in the face of Victorian notions of both objective reality and eternal truths, Pater described a world of fleeting impressions. All the individual has is the subjective experience provided by intense sensory engagement with lovely things. Pater advises that the wisest people will seek to concentrate all their energies and efforts on the pleasure of these moments.
For some, this seemed a recipe for self-indulgence through the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. For others, though, it was a breathtakingly radical call to cast off the heavy weight of Victorian moralism and Christian doctrine in the name of art. Poetry was central to aestheticism, from the work of Pre-Raphaelites especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti , Swinburne and William Morris, through to the flourishing of poetic voices in the final decades of the 19th century.
After being lost to sight for much of the 20th century, recent literary scholarship has retrieved many important women poets of this period, including Alice Meynell and Amy Levy. Equally important, though, were the prose forms associated with aestheticism — and especially the essay of art appreciation. Aesthetes played with traditional oppositions or even hierarchies between art and life.
Wilde teased his readers with the claim that life imitates art rather than the other way round. His point was a serious one: we notice London fogs, he argued, because art and literature has taught us to do so. He presented himself as the impeccably dressed and mannered dandy figure whose life was a work of art. For others, similar notions propelled an interest in literature as a material thing of beauty.
In part, Morris was striving to preserve traditional skills against the ever-increasing cheap mass production of reading matter. In so doing, he was making an overtly political gesture. Morris was a socialist and rejected capitalist methods of producing goods which, he believed, exploited workers and reduced them to parts in machine-like factory processes.
He rejected consumer culture as deadening to the human spirit. However, his own work — including textile and other crafts as well as books — quickly became associated with desirable consumer objects.
Aestheticism has often been accused of complicity with the consumer culture it overtly rejected. Morris was one among a number of important proponents of aestheticism who saw art as inseparable from political ideals. He drew from the work of the great Victorian critic, John Ruskin, to argue that capitalism enslaves workers, and advocated instead a system in which work is creative as well as productive.
In creativity, proper human freedom resides. Oscar Wilde was also a supporter of socialist politics, as was the writer Edward Carpenter.
Carpenter was a socialist poet and a gay activist. He wrote as a prophet of a new age of fellowship based on socialist principles and a life lived with simple tastes and commitments to art and learning. News from Nowhere by William Morris, Frontispiece illustration depicts a Socialist ideal of freedom, equality and fraternity across the globe. In the press, aestheticism was roundly criticised.
It was also the butt of inventive satire. The magazine Punch was a leading force in this respect. Favourite aesthete caricatures included the poet Jellaby Postlethwaite, who had affinities with Wilde and was sometimes drawn to look like Whistler.
His artist friend, Maudle, was modelled on Swinburne. In one famous cartoon, Postlethwaite goes to lunch and sits contemplating a lily, preferring to feast his senses on its beauty rather than ordering food.
It has origins in common with aestheticism and the two terms often overlap and were sometimes used interchangeably. In relation to art and literature, it signalled a set of interlinked qualities. These included the notion of intense refinement; the valuing of artificiality over nature; a position of ennui or boredom rather than of moral earnestness or the valuing of hard work; an interest in perversity and paradox, and in transgressive modes of sexuality.
For Symons — as well as for others who were critical rather than intrigued and entranced — decadence was the literature of a modern society grown over-luxurious and sophisticated.
Focused almost exclusively on the inner life of its ailing aristocrat protagonist, Des Esseintes, the novel charts his obsessive sensual experiments. In England, it was Wilde himself who was identified as central to the English decadent tradition, along with Arthur Symons and the poet, Ernest Dowson. Wilde was important because of his high visibility in fashionable London clubs and theatres. He dressed flamboyantly, sparking fashions that others copied.
He was a brilliant self-publicist, and quipped that his life was a work of art. Other important poets include Lionel Johnson and John Davidson. Although often under-recognised until very recently, women also contributed to decadent style. Oscar Wilde, a prominent and widely recognised figure within the English decadent tradition, dressed according to Aesthetic principles - a style that was completely at odds with typical late Victorian fashion.
One of the most notorious exponents of what was labelled decadence was not a writer, however, but an artist. Beardsley provided the cover illustrations for perhaps the most famous and notorious of decadent publications, The Yellow Book. This was a periodical, featuring essays, poems, fiction and illustrations. Launched in , it ran until Yellow and green — colours associated with bruising and decay — were associated with decadent style, and The Yellow Book contributed to their startling new appeal.
Again, decadence was part of a culture of commercialism as well as of creativity. It seemed to signify a society and culture threatened to its core with decline and decay. By the s, decadence was associated with degeneration, an association popularised by the sensationalist writing of Max Nordau, who condemned writers like Wilde in his book, Degeneration.
But that same year also saw the event that did as much as anything to halt the inventive flourishing of decadence. Oscar Wilde, at the height of his fame as the most popular playwright of the moment, was put on trial. He was charged with gross indecency under recently passed legislation that allowed homosexual acts to be punishable under the law.
Decadence was intimately associated with dissident sexual desires. Many felt it wise to distance themselves from its dangerous label. Nevertheless, the experimentalism, creative energy and commitment to thinking against the grain that characterised aestheticism and decadence did much to prepare the ground for the Modernist period, which was beginning to gather its own distinctive powers after the turn of the century.
Cartoon from Punch 17 July The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License. Aestheticism and decadence. Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.
Aestheticism Many Victorians passionately believed that literature and art fulfilled important ethical roles. Caricature of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus Caricature of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus featuring the key Aesthetic motif of the sunflower; the artist accuses Aesthetes of vanity and egotism.
Aesthetic style Poetry was central to aestheticism, from the work of Pre-Raphaelites especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti , Swinburne and William Morris, through to the flourishing of poetic voices in the final decades of the 19th century.
Images Pre-Raphaelite magazine The Germ, published in , aimed to unite art and poetry. Swinburne was a leading pioneer of the aesthetic movement. Aesthetics and politics Morris was one among a number of important proponents of aestheticism who saw art as inseparable from political ideals. Photographs of Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde, a prominent and widely recognised figure within the English decadent tradition, dressed according to Aesthetic principles - a style that was completely at odds with typical late Victorian fashion.
The Yellow Book One of the most notorious exponents of what was labelled decadence was not a writer, however, but an artist. Her research and publications focus on the final decades of the nineteenth century, with particular interests in feminism, psychology, emotions, and ethics. Share this page. British Library newsletter Sign up to our newsletter Email. Supported since inception by.
The decadent movement in literature