New Life for the Decadents by Philippe Jullian

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This essay by cult writer Philippe Jullian appeared in an edition of the Observer colour supplement in 1971, shortly after Jullian’s chef d’oeuvre, Dreamers of Decadence, had been published in Britain. Esthètes et Magiciens (1969), as Jullian’s study was titled in France, was instrumental in raising the profile of the many Symbolist artists whose work had been either disparaged or ignored since the First World War. A year after the Observer piece, the Hayward Gallery in London staged a major exhibition of Symbolist art with an emphasis on the paintings of Gustave Moreau; Jullian alludes to the exhibition in his article, and also wrote the foreword to the catalogue. His Observer article is necessarily shorter and less detailed than his introductory essay, emphasising the reader-friendly “Decadence” over the more evasive “Symbolist”. But as a primer to a mysterious and neglected area of art the piece would have served its purpose for a general reader.

Many thanks to Nick for the recommendation, and to Alistair who went to the trouble of providing high-res scans that I could run through the OCR. The translators of the article, Francis King and John Haylock, had previously translated Jullian’s biography of Robert de Montesquiou.

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New Life for the Decadents

The end of the nineteenth century was the Age of Decadence in the arts. The painters of that time (who have since influenced Pop art) and poets (echoed in pop songs) are back in favour: Philippe Jullian, chronicler of the Decadent period, explains why.

AS THE nineteenth century drew to a close, a number of the finer spirits of the time wondered if progress, increasing mechanisation and democratic aspirations were fulfilling their promises. Horrified by the direction in which Western civilisation was moving, they called themselves “The Decadents” in protest against a society that was too organised, an art that was too academic and a literature that was too realistic.

The Decadents produced some delightful symbolist poets, particularly Belgian and Austrian; at least one musician of genius, Debussy; and a number of painters who, having been despised for many years, are now at last beginning to be admired by a generation surfeited with Impressionists in museums and abstract paintings in galleries.

The genius of these Decadent painters, like that of the Decadent poets, only came to full bloom in the 1890s, when they themselves were in their twenties. Never were painting, music and poetry so close to one another. The gods of the Decadents were primarily Wagner and Baudelaire, then Swinburne and Poe. The Decadent movement, so active all over Europe, turned towards two great sources of inspiration: the Pre-Raphaelites, and a French painter whose glory was for a while eclipsed by the Impressionists but who is now once again accorded his place among the great—Gustave Moreau.

The women whom the Decadents loved and of whom they dreamt resembled the women created 30 years previously by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Moreau.

Nothing could be more naturalistic than the artistic style elaborated by the Pre-Raphaelites in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model, inspiration, mistress and finally wife was the sweet and sad Elizabeth Siddal, on whom so many fin-de-siècle ladies had to model themselves on the Continent as did all the aesthetic ladies of England in the 1880s. She posed for Rossetti as Beatrix and as the Belle Dame sans Merci.

She was a rare spirit, about whom everything was nebulous and evanescent: the thick, wild hair; the tunic of a simplicity to challenge the elaboration of the crinolines then in vogue; the frail hands burdened with lilies; the gaze turned towards eternity. She also posed, fully dressed and lying in a bath, her hair outspread around her bloodless face, as Ophelia for another Pre-Raphaelite, Millais. Elizabeth died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1862.

A macabre episode, which might have been imagined by Poe, was the exhumation of a sheaf of Rossetti’s poems that had been buried in Elizabeth Siddal’s coffin. When this symbol of the New Woman died, the grief-stricken poet had insisted on placing the poems inspired by her under her long hair before the coffin was sealed.

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Beata Beatrix (1864–1870) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

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Rossetti and His Circle by Max Beerbohm

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Rossetti’s name is heard in America (Oscar Wilde).

The Happy Hypocrite was Max Beerbohm’s words illustrated by George Sheringham; here we have Beerbohm’s caricatures from a 1922 collection depicting notable figures among the Aesthetes and Pre-Raphaelites from the 1860s on. Beerbohm wasn’t born until 1872 so there’s something of a younger generation’s mockery in these drawings. That said, he was just as happy to mock his London friends of the 1890s, Oscar Wilde included, and often poked fun at himself in his cartoons and his writings.

Some of the pictures in Rossetti and His Circle are familiar from books about the period, the Wilde picture in particular is often reprinted. You don’t always see them in colour, however, so once again the scans at the Internet Archive give us a fuller view provided you ignore the security perforations on each print.

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Blue China (JM Whistler and Thomas Carlyle).

A drawing which complements Wilde’s description of Whistler as a “miniature Mephistopheles”. Beerbohm was more succinct in one of his verbal portraits: “Tiny”.

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Algernon Swinburne taking his great new friend Gosse to see Gabriel Rossetti.

Swinburne, it seems, was another diminutive figure.

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The sole remark likely to have been made by Benjamin Jowett about the mural paintings at the Oxford Union: “And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?”

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm

William Blake in Manchester

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Europe: A Prophecy by William Blake (1794).

Two exhibitions based around the work of William Blake open today at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, Mind-Forg’d Manacles, “organised to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth as well as the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade” and Blake’s Shadow: William Blake and his Artistic Legacy. The latter seems to be the more interesting of the two.

Blake’s Shadow: exhibition summary

This exhibition explores Blake’s continuing fascination for artists, filmmakers and musicians. It features around sixty watercolours, prints and paintings in addition to numerous illustrated books and a range of audio-visual material. Blake is a unique figure in British visual culture, attracting both academic and popular interest. In the years since his death in 1827, Blake has continued to influence the world of creativity and ideas. He has inspired people with such wide ranging interests as literature, painting, book design, politics, philosophy, mythology through to music and film making. Alongside works by Blake—prints, watercolours, engravings and book illustrations—the exhibition spans two centuries of his influence.

• His contemporaries in the late 18th and early 19th century are represented with works from John Flaxman, Edward Calvert, Samuel Palmer, J.H. Fuseli and Thomas Stothard
• Blake’s influence on artists in the Victorian period is explored through works by Ford Madox Brown, Walter Crane, Frederic Shields, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Simeon Soloman and G.F. Watts.
• British artists working in the 20th and 21st century include Cecil Collins, Douglas Gordon, Paul Nash, Anish Kapoor, David Jones, Ceri Richards, Patrick Proctor, Austin Osman Spare and Keith Vaughan. This section of the exhibition features photographs and original works.
• From the 1960s onward, writers, musicians, film makers like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison of The Doors and John Lennon have adopted Blake as a mystical seer and anti-establishment activitist. More latterly, as British musicians and activists like Billy Bragg and Julian Cope have grappled with notions of national identity, Blake has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Blake’s Shadow examines this more recent influence as evidenced in work by the filmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant, and various musicians, notably Patti Smith and Jah Wobble.

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The Dawn by Austin Spare (no date).

It’s good to see Austin Spare being included in something like this. He always referred to Blake as an influence but, as I’ve mentioned before, he’s frequently been treated disrespectfully by an art establishment that doesn’t know what to make of the occult basis of his work.

Mind Forg’d Manacles runs to 6 April 2008, Blake’s Shadow to 20 April.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Austin Spare in Glasgow
Tygers of Wrath
Austin Osman Spare