Between morbidity and vitality

The fin de siècle

Pallas Athene by Gustav Klimt, 1898
(Photo: Gustav Klimt (Artists), Birgit und Peter Kainz (Photographer), CC BY 4.0, Wien Museum)

The term “fin de siècle” calls to mind a dazzlingly sophisticated art of decline and of new beginnings, of decadence and of closeness to nature. At the same time, it represents a creative exploration of the approaching 20th century, with its promises of progress and visions of doom.

For the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, the Berlin chocolate manufacturer Theodor Hildebrand & Sohn brought out its own collectors’ pictures. The amusing images look ahead to the year 2000 and suggest a spirit of optimism: flying machines and balloons populate the futuristic sky, mobile houses and roofed cities adorn the urban living space. It seemed as if there was a sense of excitement in anticipation of a bright future. Or was it more of a “cheerful apocalypse”?

That was how the writer Hermann Broch described the Vienna in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s time. From the distance of the immediate post-war period, Broch looked back on an era that had flourished over 50 years earlier in a state of glorious decline. The Habsburg monarchy, with its seemingly immortal Emperor Franz Joseph I, had settled into a spirit of farewell and preserved a “value vacuum”, according to Broch. “Was it a fear of death? No, it was more a fear of the degeneration of values; and it was Austrian.” Karl Kraus even spoke of Vienna as the “experimental ground for the end of the world”.

Dazzling ornamentation, unimaginable excesses, and a dash of erotic wickedness

The Austrian blend of conservation and sophistication paved the way for one of the most dazzling periods in art history. Of course, Vienna around 1900 is not the same as the vague term “fin de siècle”, which was coined in Paris in the 1880s. But in today’s popular imagination, the golden paintings by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt have come to symbolise the end of the 19th century: dazzling ornamentation, unimaginable excesses, and a dash of erotic wickedness seem to be the hallmarks. In a strange contradiction between morbidity and vital energy, what emerged was an art of eternal longing.

As Hofmannsthal wrote in 1893: “We have nothing but a sentimental memory, a crippled will and the uncanny gift of self-duplication. We are the spectators of our own life; we empty the cup prematurely and yet remain infinitely thirsty”. After 1939, Stefan Zweig – a librettist for Richard Strauss, like Hofmannsthal – also looked with pained bewilderment at the loss of the “world of yesterday”: a culturally vibrant, multi-ethnic state that had extinguished itself.

Apocalyptic mood

From today’s perspective, the upheavals of the two subsequent world wars sometimes exaggerate the apocalyptic mood of the fin de siècle. The German Jugendstil and French Art Nouveau art movements saw themselves – as their names suggest – as a new departure, a counter-movement to ossified historicism and suffocating social stuffiness. Alternative approaches, such as the Lebensreform movement in Germany and the famous corset liberation, characterised the fin de siècle just as much as foppish aestheticism.

The focus on nature, such as in the floral patterns of William Morris, the English forefather of the Arts and Crafts movement, was also a reaction to rapid, progress-obsessed industrialisation. The British Isles in particular knew a thing or two about grubby Manchester Liberalism. The obsession with mechanisation, which intensified in the second half of the 19th century, also fuelled the desire to “drop out” and get closer to nature – just as people today cultivate urban gardening in response to technological weariness and fear of AI.

Soundtracks for the mind trip

The social and political situation around 1900 was undoubtedly complex: splendid boulevard buildings for the winners, and miserable, cramped working-class neighbourhoods for the losers. Poisonous anti-Semitism, burning questions of social participation, the proletarianisation of entire city districts, nationalist sabre-rattling by world powers, and small states were all unresolved challenges. People feared, but also longed for the powder keg to explode. Unbridled indulgence and narcissistic self-centredness offered themselves as escapes from the confusion of everyday life.

This approach to life created space for itself in the form of “décadence”. Originally, the term decadence was applied to the fall of the Roman Empire, when the loss of power was accompanied by a greater sophistication in art. But then the Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire adopted the slogan of decadence as his flagship, and as such, it remained as an attendant  phenomenon of European modernity. A longing for death and a retreat into the world within led to the exploration of one’s own psyche. And Richard Wagner offered the “décadents” – especially in France – the soundtrack for their mental trips.

“Mysticism of the nerves” and “Nervenkontrapunktik”

The discovery of the body was accompanied by a breakdown of taboos surrounding sexuality. Works such as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which alludes to a woman’s “illegitimate” child, shed light on social problems not in a gritty, naturalistic manner, but in a poetic and psychologically heightened form. Both artistic directions coexisted at one and the same time. Schoenberg decided in favour of a musical interpretation of dreams, clearly following in Wagner’s footsteps.

Fin de siècle was also the title of a volume of novellas by the “Young Vienna” author Hermann Bahr. The book was immediately banned in 1891, the second edition was cancelled, and Bahr was fined. The title and content were obviously sufficiently explosive. Just a few years later, Bahr predicted the end of the era: “The narrow world is exhausted, and the meagre food it can provide for the senses has been used up. We can no longer find new stimuli for the old senses and nerves; how would it be if we tried new senses and nerves for the old stimuli?”

Nervousness was introduced into art. Bahr called it “mysticism of the nerves”, Richard Strauss called it “Nervenkontrapunktik” (counterpoint of the nerves). Strauss was well acquainted with Bahr, who also worked as a theatre critic. In his Studien zur Kritik der Moderne (1894), Bahr saw Gustave Moreau’s painting Salomé as an icon of the decadent. The figure of Salome was described in a cult book of the time, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 À rebours (Against the Grain), as a “symbolic deity of indestructible lust”. Strauss portrayed her as a femme fatale in his scandalous opera of 1905, but the ecstatic sonority of the ornamentally intricate score also has an explosive force that shakes the boundaries of tonality: Expressionistic howls, violent blows, murder and manslaughter. Strauss clothes the end and the apocalypse in a golden robe.

Kerstin Schüssler-Bach

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