Fin de siècle

Even before WWI, even before discoveries in science disrupted the feeling of certainty that it had inspired during the enlightenment, a profound feeling of anxiety and crisis pervaded fin de siècle culture. Rapid urbanization and industrialization led to a malaise that was captured in the art and literature of the era.

Oscar Wilde wrote about the dismal opium dens in East London, Edgar Degas painted the absinthe-addicted matrons in Paris.



Depictions of the human body were distorted and disturbing, reflecting the unsettling nature of modern life.






Changes in culture and science were reflected or presaged by changes in art, music and literature.

Perhaps a more concrete example of these changes can be found in the parallel changes that were taking place in science.

How was the atom conceived of at the close of the 19th Century?

Like this. As indivisible units. These wooden models were made by John Dalton in 1810. His theory of the atom stated that:

  1. Matter is made up of indivisible atoms.
  2. All atoms of an element are identical.
  3. Atoms are neither created nor destroyed.
  4. Atoms of different elements have different weights and chemical properties.
  5. Atoms of different elements combine in simple whole numbers to form compounds.

How does this differ from our current conception of the atom?

The discovery of x-rays in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen led to the discovery that atoms were actually divisible and that this division was, itself, destructive.

Marie Curie’s work on radioactivity resulted in her being awarded two Nobel Prizes, the first in physics in 1903, the second in chemistry in 1911.

Consider our present day model of the atom:

How does the twentieth century atom get reflected in twentieth century culture? What about in twentieth century conceptions of the self?

Composer Richard Wagner’s music symbolize the changes in Western Culture that we now call Modernism. Wagner was  a vegetarian, fought against anti-Semitism and participated in the revolutions of 1848. His ring cycle is considered a diagnoses of the flaws of industrial society, particularly their capacity to corrupt us through power and money.

Friedrich Nietzsche initially admired Wagner intensely, though he later reversed this opinion. Why? Because Wagner loved civilization too intensely and Nietzsche thought it was nothing more than a collective fantasy. “Religion, morality, the arts, even science, were all ways of distracting attention from reality, which lies in the ‘will to power’. Only those who reject all moral restraints, and use their unbridled energy in their ‘will to power,’ can win independence”(Cannistraro 993). An individuals capable of freeing himself in this way would be a superman.

Here is Edvard Munch’s portrait of Nietzsche:

Nietzsche did not speak for the last eleven years of his life and died in an insane asylum in 1900.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wanted to understand the workings of the human unconscious and subconscious and though his thinking is considered to be very controversial, it has made an indelible imprint on our modern thinking.

How could we have Woody Allen without Freud?

Perhaps most importantly, Freud was one of the first thinkers to write openly about sex, constructing it in clinical and not moral terms. His terminology–genital, anal, and oral drives–is widely familiar, as is his schema for the human psyche–the Superego, the Ego, and the Id. His use of myths to explain the human psyche replicates Wagner’s use of myths to explain society. His most famous extrapolations from myth are the Oedipus and Elektra complex.

Modern Art

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

Georges Braque’s Violin and Candlestick is one example of early cubism, a movement whose most famous disciple is Pablo Picasso.

Trams were a fin de siècle addition to European cities. Note the speed of the tram as it moves through a British street in 1900. What other vehicles are people using? How are people dressed? How does people’s movement on the street compare to the way we move on our city streets?

Here is a video of Pennyfarthing lane. It gives us an idea of a typical British street scene in 1903.

Another important movement at this time was futurism. Futurists, such as Filippo Marinetti, were obsessed with the cult of the machine and with technology. Consider the excerpt from the Futurist Manifesto, written in 1909:

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

Picasso’s Guernica is a later piece. It’s political commitment is unusual for Picasso and many have argued that this piece, painted as a rejection of the Franco’s Civil war in Spain and the bombing (by the Nazi’s) of a Spanish town of that name, was a turning point in the painter’s career.


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