EVEN before the last quarter of the century had set in the world was conscious of a mood of spirit which it eventually characterized as fin de siecle. It was compounded of negation and pessimism with resultant mocking and contempt; and of lust of sensation, brutal and bizarre, on the one hand, as the product of gross and brutal naturalism; on the other, in the way of retaliation, overwrought with refinement and the appetite for exotic stimulus.
It commenced in a subtle epicureanism of taste which found its literary expression in J. K. Huysmans’ “À Rebours” and Flaubert’s “Salammbo.” The hero of Huysmans’ novel is a typical decadent. His taste has been so exquisitely exacting that he shuts himself from the world in a paradise of his own sensations. He has a mystical faith in a future which will arrive when the present civilization is annihilated. He has ceased to strive because he has found no ideal worth his pains and is, moreover, conscious of his own impotence. In women he is attracted not by strong and healthy beauty and fitness for maternity, but by the fascination of the over-ripe and the morbid. His favorites among authors are 13 audelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme, Villiers and the Goncourts. He accepts from the last named the definition of beauty as that which uneducated people regard with instinctive distaste. In the matter of painters he limits his choice to Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau.
Redon (18401904) has been called the French Blake, but such mysticism as he exhibited is of the surface quality, not the actual life of the spirit, as it was with the English artist. Redon has more affinity in his imagination with Edgar Allen Poe, who is the subject of one of his lithographs. He was, as Meier Graefe says, compounded of all imaginable ghost stories, or rather ghost fragments, for it is in fragments that his art is finest. His drawing, for example, of Beatrice, the head and shoulders, is most sensitive in its tenderly impalpable modeling and correspondingly exquisite in expression. It is in drawings and lithographs that his genius was best displayed, and an exhibition of them in 1881, aided by the pronouncements of Huysmans, made him famous and for a time the center of a cult of mysticism. Twenty years later he reappeared before the public with an exhibition of pastels from which, to quote again Meier Graefe, all compositional intention was rigidly excluded. There are no lines, no planes ; a shimmer of specks stream over the canvas like flowers of strangely material colors, compounded of gold, silver, gems and the black of rare butterflies ; in splendor comparable to certain early Japanese cabinets inlaid with mother of pearl. They represent an “excellent trifling,” which betrayed that Redon had succumbed to the incoherence of the times and his own increasing years.
Less the artist than Redon but surpassing him in vogue was Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Directly inspired by Flaubert and praised extravagantly by Huysmans, he passed in his time for a symbolist. This was because he drew his subjects from myths and legends and the Bible stories, connecting them in groups which he called “The Cycle of Man,” “The Cycle of Woman,” “The Cycle of the Lyre” and “The Cycle of Death.” But in his habit of crowding his compositions with enrichments of still-life detail, de-rived from German, Italian, and Persian art, he proved himself at heart a naturalist. It is the word genre of “Salammbo,” adapted to paint, that characterizes his style, which depends upon and appeals to sense and involves little or no spiritual suggestion. The large watercolor, The Apparition (p. 207), now in the Louvre, is regarded as his masterpiece and is fairly typical of the character and method of his work. The technique is lacking both in sweep and esprit, involving an elaborate mosaic of minute bits. Originally the effect may have been lustrous and jewel-like. Today it is tame and spiritless in color.
How the temper of the time found expression in spiritualized refinement has been illustrated in another chapter. Here it is rather its mundane and material phases that occupy attention. Typical of these in the best sense, has been Paul Albert Besnard (1849-). He is one to whom the unusual is abhorrent. He has dipped into the exotic as mirrored in Southern sun-shine and Oriental types of femininity. All flesh becomes to him constructed masses of plasticity and movement on which colored luminosity may play in response to the magic of his subtle and ardent imagination. He finds his motive equally in the glossy quarters of a kicking pony, annoyed by flies; in sleeping and crouching nudes, as in the woman illumined by firelight, Femme qui se Chauffe, of the Luxembourg, or in the sporting torsos and limbs of young girls plashing beneath a waterfall. He extends his bizarrerie of vision to the portrayal of the nervous elegance of women of society or the voluptuous liveliness of a Réjane. But, if we except his decorations in the Chemical Laboratory of the Sorbonne, where the over-straining forms writhe in a welter of putrescent color, his vigorous mentality and executive ability in handling the brush have saved his painting from at least the weakness of decadence.
One can scarcely say the same of Gaston La Touche (1854-). The blatancy and banality of an age of mushroom millionaires and diamond Kaffir kings is reflected in the decorative orgies of his canvases, where men and women are steeped in an iridescent slough of self-indulgence, extravagance and lasciviousness in the company of satyrs and monkeys. Yet his shallow and vulgar art has been rewarded with a gold medal at one of the most important exhibitions in the United States! Judged, however, by the traditions of ‘his race, he is a distant connection of Watteau, who has debased the latter’s art to a more or less tipsy debauche.
Above the confusion of tongues, accompanying the revolt of individualism against the time honored restrictions imposed by official art and public morality, one cry resounds : the horror of the conventional ! We have seen how it led Puvis back to the example of the Primitives; and that he reduced from it an organized science of decoration which suited his own temperament and what he felt to be the spiritual need of the time. Others have been led farther back than Florence of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and mostly without discovering for themselves any organized system of art. A forerunner of this backward movement was Paul Gauguin (18511903) . A Breton on his father’s side, with a strain of Peruvian on the mother’s, he worked for a time in Brittany, gathering followers around him in what was called the School of Pont Aven. Eventually the exoticism in his blood drew him to the island of Tahiti where the remainder of his life was spent. He found his models in the copper-skinned natives. They resemble those of Samoa, whose figures and simple grace of life represented to John La Farge the nearest approach in the modern world to what he conceived of the old world of Hellas.
These Tahitians, whose nudity was almost complete, Gauguin painted in poses that recall the immobility and profound calm of Egyptian sculpture, against a background of vivid green tropical verdure, ruddy sands and cliffs and the azure of sky and sea, or the deep lapis lazuli or purple blue of shaded pools and waterfalls. To Gauguin, sick of what he called the “disease of civilization,” the “barbarism of this new world,” he declared, “was a restoration to health.” It was the “realization of his dreams” “a foretaste of Nirvana.” Strindberg had been shocked by the “Eve that dwelt in this Eden.” Gauguin replied: “Only the Eve I have painted can stand naked before us. Yours would always be shameless in this natural state.” Gauguin’s feeling for “barbarism” has been misinterpreted by many younger painters whom he influenced.
Meanwhile, there is another artist whose influence has also gone awry. It is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1865-1901). An accident in childhood had robbed the lower part of his body of vitality, while his brain was one of singular acuteness and his appetite for life as keen. Degas and Forain attracted him chiefly, but he was a natural artist and quickly discovered his own metier and method. In paintings and pastel, but most decisively in lithographs, he exhibits an exquisite sense of design and nervous, vibrating color and an incisive use of line, now strong, now delicate, but in-variably expressive in the highest degree. With this technique that thrilled with the nervosity of the time, he depicted fragments of the Vie Parisienne, as displayed on the turf, in the hospitals, café concerts, bal publics and bagnios. The grossness of many of his subjects become transfigured by the exquisiteness of his art. Accordingly the latter lent a cachet to the subject, stimulating its vogue. Other men, who found his art inimitable, could emulate his choice of subject. Hence Toulouse-Lautrec, like Gauguin, though the latter has little of his consummate artistry, has had a share in promoting the particular form of decadence that characterizes much of the painting of the new century.
The significant feature that is common to its otherwise variable manifestations consists of an abnormal horror of everything that passes current for propriety in society as at present constituted. It not only recognizes, as every thinking person does, that society is suffering on the one hand from a deep-seated disease of hypocrisy and false standards and on the other from a brutal callousness to consequences so long as its own materialism can be indulged. But it also imitates this very brutality and in the frenzy of its pessimism would overturn all existing conventions, heedless of the fact that conventions must exist for the preservation as well of art as of society, nay, of life itself, whether physical, mental or spiritual. “Down with everything that is up!” This is its insensate cry against that which art has sanctified and the conscience of the world holds sacred. It raves most madly against beauty, as beauty has heretofore been conceived alike by artists and by man’s yearning after betterment. It sweeps aside all culture and extols the most primitive sexual instincts. It degrades the human body from its place in art as the high symbol of imagined physical and spiritual harmony and represents it as a crude fleshly organism, now gross and torpid and now contorted with the spasms of animal desires.
In thus flaunting the red rag of anarchy some of these men may be actuated by the malicious enjoyment of outraging the philistine bourgeois ; but the majority seem to be sincere in the belief that out of this chaos of violated decencies an era of higher artistic purity will ensue. Meanwhile, let us note that it is reflecting elements in the modern social system that have no parallel in history and can only be partially compared to the excesses of the degenerate Roman Empire. The world’s rapid increase of wealth has changed the standards of society. War today is seldom conducted by generals and their armies but is being waged perpetually by financiers and their hordes of parasites. It has been a war to death, directed against private rights, crushing down all opposition and resulting in a power so nearly absolute that the old standards of right and wrong and the old safeguards against their violation have been swept away. The spirit it has engendered is one of cynical contempt for humanity and decency. It is assumed, and with much reasonableness, that all men and women have their price and are eager to sell themselves ; the highest rewards are not for noble lives but for success; and the kind of intellect extolled is that which is characterized by audacity, unscrupulousness, ferocity and cunning. It is to intellects of this caliber that half the world to-day crawls in abject admiration. In place of the Goddess of Reason the revolutionaries of this later century have set up the Moloch of Success, whose creed is lust of power and a cynical reliance upon brute force. It is this social and economic “Terror” that the Robespierres and the Marats of modern painting have emulated.
What is to be the end? Already the social and economic revolution is showing signs of abatement, and reorganization is in process of being effected. Will a corresponding reorganization be evolved from the present chaos of painting? This is the question that particularly centers around the work of Henri Matisse.