Are we living through a new ‘Fin de Siècle’?
The 'Fin de Siècle' was about replacing one set of values with another
Posted on: 12th July 2013
Many of my favourite illustrators - such as Aubrey Beardsley and Edmund Dulac - produced their best work in the period known as the 'Fin de Siècle'. 'Fin de Siècle' means simply end of the century, but it has deeper connotations than that. The phrase usually refers specifically to the end of the nineteenth century, and conjures up an idea of decadence and decline.
That is how things seemed to some observers at the time - but from the vantage point of the present, we can see that it is really about one set of values being replaced by another. The 'Fin de Siècle' was a time when a revolution in social attitudes was reflected – and encouraged - in the art of the time.
We can even see this in the Royal Family. Edward VII (who was born in 1841 and became king in 1901) was a rebel whose activities in Paris (out of sight of his mother, Queen Victoria) were whispered about. Edward VII’s relationship to his parents represented a wider social ‘rebellion’. It was a rebellion against Victorian respectability which, as practised in the 'middle classes', was complete hypocritical humbug. The 'housemaid's baby', for example (resulting from the activities of a young 'master') was dismissed as being of no account because it was 'only a little one'.
During this period, there was an increasing dislike of power generated by privilege. There was a constitutional crisis in the last year of Edward’s reign which arose when the Conservative majority in the House of Lords refused to pass the budget of the Liberal government. The eventual result of that crisis was the Parliament Act of 1911, which gave the Commons the power to overrule the Lords. George V threatened to create sufficient new peers to force that legislation through.
So, the 'Fin de Siècle' was a time of social change and the art which was created at the time conveys the excitement and danger of that. In today's world, we also often witness 'rebellions' whether they take the form of 'leaks' of official information, or of popular uprisings. These 'rebellions' often have their roots in technological developments. Although the modern world is very different to the 'Fin de Siècle', I believe that the art of that period can still speak to us, and show us new possibilities.