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BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

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The dark side of the

Belle poque
Art at the turn of the last century was not all sun- ADVERTISEMENT

kissed Monet gardens. It was a time of angst and

decadence, expressed through some truly
disturbing paintings, writes Fisun Gner.

. . .

. . . !

By Fisun Gner
7 December 2016

When we think about art at the end of the

19th Century, who and what comes to mind?
Monet and Impressionism, certainly.
Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge,
perhaps. Post-Impressionism, of course:
Czanne and his heavy-set cardplayers or
Mont Sainte-Victoire shimmering on the
horizon, magnificent and majestic; Gauguin
in his Tahitian paradise; or the last ravishing
landscapes of Van Gogh, who died just as Page 1 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

the last decade of the century was getting

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into its stride.

But when we think of the
art thats actually
Art at the end of characterised as the art
the 19th Century of the fin de sicle,
particularly the last
is as far removed In the Frame
decade of that century,
from Monets Birds of prey perched
the mood changes, and it
sun-dappled darkens. We think of the in plane seats
garden as you art of anxiety and angst, What this photo shares with a 16th-
Century art genre
can get of drama and febrile
Art history
tension, of an acute
sense of alienation. And
its all as far removed from Monets sun-
dappled garden at Giverny as you can get.


How to discover a
A painting bought at a low price was
revealed to be by Brueghel

Art history

James Ensor, seen here in his studio in 1937, made his

body of work an index of the unsettling (Credit: - Art in Flanders vzw/DACS 2016)

We might, for instance, think, most famously,

of Munchs Scream, the first version of which
In the Frame
the troubled Norwegian artist painted in
Why a Trump photo Page 2 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

1893, or his various depictions of women as echoes this image

vampires, slaking their sexual thirst on Visualising the workings of
unsuspecting men. Or perhaps our thoughts
turn to the young and eccentric English Art history Photography

illustrator and printmaker Aubrey Beardsley

and his darkly erotic, sinuous vixens exotic
femme fatales who could captivate and Follow BBC
destroy any man. And as the embodiment of Culture
lust and evil, naturally the femme fatale
becomes a mascot of the fin de sicle, just
as much as the dandy, that ultra-refined
aesthete who rises above ordinary moral
concerns, becomes its icon.

Or we might even think of an artist who is
currently being shown at the Royal
Academy in London: the brilliant Belgian
painter James Ensor, whose rich palette
glows with Rubenesque colours but whose
subject matter is dark and satirical: skulls and
skeletons and eerie masks, all representing
the corruption at the heart of bourgeois Twitter



Best of Culture

Munchs The Scream is the best known example of Page 3 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

Expressionism, a movement that represented external

reality as indicative of emotional states (Credit: Edvard
Munch/Wikipedia) The 100 greatest films of the 21st

The 21st Centurys

Or his fellow Belgian, the lesser known but 100 greatest films
equally brilliant Lon Spilliaert, whose thin
The best in cinema since 2000 as
and haunted features stare out forlornly in his picked by 177 film critics

self-portraits, presenting himself as a The 100 greatest films of

strange, cadaverous figure trapped in gloomy the 21st Century
and oppressive interiors for Spilliaert, too,
is at the Royal Academy, where he
complements the work of Ensor, his older
contemporary who also lived at Ostend.

Or, in fact, we might even return to Gauguin,

who in some ways became a figurehead for
these disquieting forces at the end of the Art history
century. Gauguins fascination with religious
Are these waxworks
and mystical subject matter, and for the
purely imaginary and fantastical, were
When Venus was dissected
synthesised in his paintings with the ordinary,
Art history
everyday world that surrounded him - just as
James Ensors work also provided a
synthesis of the real and imagined.

What lies beneath

Ensor grew up above a curio shop in the

cold, coastal town of Ostend, where his
Concrete Ideas
mother sold trinkets, costumes and
grotesque carnival masks to tourists. At first The 10 most beautiful
Ensor painted in a loosely Impressionist ceilings
style, but he retained his childhood Mosques, temples and a golf club
fascination with these masks and was soon Architecture Page 4 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

incorporating them into his work. His

favourite motif became that of the surging
crowd, where ossified faces are leering,
threatening masks that overwhelm the whole
picture. For Ensor these props seemed to
provide the perfect metaphor for the
hypocrisies of polite society.

In one painting, The
Intrigue, 1890, which
Ensors faces are forms the centrepiece of
leering, the Royal Academy
exhibition, a group of
grotesques with barely
masks that
human faces congregate
overwhelm the in a bizarre wedding
whole picture group, the aged bride
and her ghoulish top-
hatted groom
grotesquely inverting family and Christian
values to be found in the embodiment of the
marriage ritual. in one self-portrait, painted a
year earlier, we find the young Ensor in an
elaborate, plumed hat, making him appear
slightly ridiculous. Surrounded by a swarm of
terrifying masks, he stares out at us with a
stern and frank gaze. Is he accusing us of
some unspecified crime against him, or
simply imploring us to bear witness to his
suffering? Page 5 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

Aubrey Beardsley helped establish the idea of the

femme fatale in his ominous black and white
lithographs like The Stomach Dance from 1893 (Credit:
Aubrey Beardsley/Wikipedia)

In other canvases, Ensor paints himself as

either a skeleton or as a tormented Christ-like
figure. In his monumental Christs Entry into
Brussels in 1889 (actually painted in 1888),
Christ himself is seen entering the city on a
donkey, but is barely discernable amid the
crushing crowd the implication being that
these self-obsessed and conservative scions
of the city would barely notice the messiah
arriving amongst them. And it may be a
sidelong reference to Ensors own
overlooked genius. Like Munch, one gets a
sense that Ensor suffered from an acute
persecution complex, though unlike Munch,
Ensors work has a darkly comic edge to it.
His fraught paintings bristle with humour and
are all the more vivid for that.

So why did artists revel in such outward

expressions of unease and dislocation? In an
era of relative peace and stability and, for the Page 6 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

few, economic prosperity (an era named,

after the destruction of the Great War, as the
Belle poque or Golden Age and which
stretched from the 1870s to the wars
outbreak) the art of fin-de-sicle Europe
expressed something contrary to those
outward signs of confidence. These were
anxieties connected with a sense of societys
spiritual emptiness and its growing
materialism. This was a rejection of the idea
that progress and reason, ideas which
intellectuals had embraced and promoted
since the 18th Century as Enlightenment
ideals, could sustain the spirit.

But perhaps, in a way,
these were also anxieties
It signalled a exacerbated by the end
deeper anxiety: of any century. It might
sound a trivial
our inability to
connection, but in our
control our own
own age we might think
destinies. back to the alarm over
the Millennium Bug,
where people actually
imagined planes falling out of the sky due to
programs having accommodated only two
digits instead of four (computers would think,
when the hour struck, they were back in
1900). Page 7 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

Gauguins Where Do We Come From? What Are We?

Where Are We Going? is no tropical idyll it can be
read as a panorama of existential ennui (Credit: Paul

It signalled a deeper anxiety that is perennial:

our inability to know and control our own
destinies. Where Do We Come From? What
Are We? Where Are We Going?,the title from
an 1897 painting by Gauguin, seemed to
capture this quest for that deeper knowledge
and he and many other artists of the time
looked for answers not in science but in
esoteric spirituality, in mysticism and often
the occult.

Darkness and despair

The fin de sicle encompassed the Symbolist

and Decadent movements, which were
primarily literary movements flourishing first
in France but then all over Europe, and which
provided a wellspring of ideas for visual
artists. As well as Ensor and Spilliaert, one of
the most notable artists in Belgium was
Fernand Khnopff, who, like Ensor, was a Page 8 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

member of the Belgian avant-group group

Les XX and whose most striking painting,
LArt (or The Caresses), 1896, depicted a
sphinx with a real womans head and the
body of a leopard, her face the picture of
ecstasy as she is shown caressing a male
figure (Oedipus).

Fernand Khnopffs LArt makes explicit the idea that

sexual expressiveness is a form of animal impulse
(Credit: Fernand Khnopff/Wikipedia)

Its a compelling and unsettling image, made

stranger for the meticulous realism of its
technique with the enigmatic fantasy of its
subject. Elsewhere were the weird Goya-
esque fantasies of Austrian Alfred Kubin,
and, in Germany, the beguiling and erotic
paintings of Franz Stuck, who co-founded the
avant-garde Munich Secession group in
1892. A generation older, we might also think
of the sweeter though no less haunting
dream-visions of French artist Odilon Redon.

In literature, one of the most influential works Page 9 of 13
BBC - Culture - The dark side of the Belle poque 2/6/17, 5:47 AM

of the Symbolist and Decadent movements

was Joris-Karl Huysmans Rebours
(Against Nature). Published in 1884, its
young anti-hero is an eccentric, reclusive
aesthete called Jean des Esseintes who
loathes bourgeois society and so roundly
rejects it. Instead he surrounds himself with
nascent Symbolist poetry and art, and lives a
life of excessive sensual indulgence.

Huysmans themes certainly found an echo

among many artists of the period. The
French writer Barbey dAurvillys reponse to
his seminal novel of Decadent literature was
revealing in its insight: For a decadent of this
calibre to emerge and for a book like
Monsieur Huysmans to germinate within a
human head, we must have become what in
fact we are a race in its last hour.

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