Monday, 26 March 2012


"Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you. Be always searching for new
sensations. Be afraid of nothing(...)"

Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement represented in Art by the so-called Pre- Raphaelites represented the fin-de-siècle hedonism and a radically new conception of the arts which can be considered the main symptoms of the end of the Victorian Age.
The Aesthetic Movement developed in the universities and intellectual circles in the last decades of the 19th century. Originating in France with Théophile Gautier (1811 - 1872) it reflected the sense of frustration and uncertainty of the artist, his reaction against materialism and the restrictive moral code of the bougeoisie, his need to redifine the role of art. As a result, the French artists withdrew from the political and social scene and escaped into art, into what Gautier himself called"Art for Art's sake". Walter Pater (1839 - 1894), who was one of Wilde's university professors, is regarded as the theorist of the Aesthetic Movement in England. In his "Studies in the History of Renaissance" (1873) he wrote: "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life".
Life itself was then the greatest of the arts. This  is what Wilde stated in his only novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1891).
In his "The Social History of Art" (1951) the historian Arnold Hauser, writing about the 1880s underlines: "This younger generation is absolutey hostile to the bourgeoisie, but it is, on the whole, by no means democratic or even socialistic. Its sensualism and hedonism, its aim of enjoying life  and  becoming enraptured with it, of turning every hour of this life into an unforgettable and irreplaceable experience, often assumes and antisocial and a-moral character".
Also Gabriele D'Annunzio contributed to this new conception and in his "Il Piacere" (1889) he writes: "Bisogna fare la propria vita, come si fa un'opera d'arte. Bisogna che la vita d'un uomo d'intelletto sia opera di lui. La superiorità vera è tutta qui".

The Dandy: Art and Fashion

Dandyism is the stud of personal elegance and refinement, the search for perfection in all things, clothes, motions, wit, and tastes, and ... a form of rebellion.
"Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only the shallow people who do not judge by appearances" (O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)
"Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear" (O. Wilde, An Ideal Husband)
The history of dandyism begins in the mid-18th century with George (Beau) Brummel (below) , a celebrated dandy of the Regency (1811 -1820) who dominated

London society in that period and innovated style and fashion with his understated elegance and refined restraint- This fashion was rejected by the Romantics who created a new pose which was always to appear casual and a little wild, although 
this casualness was as highly cultivated as the perfection of the dandy. Think of lord Byron, for instance...

Lord Byron

The Victorians, instead, serious and practical people, fought against dandyism, but English dandy conquered mid-19th century France where he became the symbol of anti-vulgarity and the outward manifestation of the inner perfection of the self. French 19th century artists such as Gautier, Baudelaire and Huysmans made a phylosophy of dandysim. Let's read from Baudelaire's essay "The Dandy":
 "Contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind. Thus, in his eyes, enamoured as he is above all distinction, perfection in dress consists in absolute simplicity, which is indeed, the best way of being distinguished. (...) It is, above all, the burning desire to create a personal form of originality, within the external limits of social conventions...".

Charles Baudelaire (see the photo below) black from head to toe and took great pains with his toilet. According to him, the artist had to shock not only through his works but also through his dress, manners and eccentric views.

When in the 1880s the "art for art's sake" doctrine was brught to England from France, it found its prophet in Oscar Wilde, whose dandy was an individualist who appreciated beautiful things and greatly enjoyed exquisite sensations. Wilde dressed to shock: his clothes were a weapon employed to reach success, as well as  to protest against the dull, unimaginative bourgeoisie.


Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans

Around 1880-1895 writers in France reacted against realism and naturalism in literature, stressing instead the priority of suggestion and evocation over direct description and explicit analogy. Poets like Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud, and novelists like Huysans and Dujardin, were called Symbolists because of their interst in mystery, dream and imagination, and their attempt to reveal the "correspondences" hidden beneath "signs". The symbolist movement, expressing the uneasiness and decadence of the final years of the century, reacted against the positivism and materialism of modern life and is usually associated with moral and physical deadation, sadness, irony and ennui.

J-K. Huysmans

Huysmans (1848 - 1907) offers the quintessence of decadence in the character of Jean Des Essaintes, the aristocrat who, after wasting his fortune, withdraws from the world and from "natural life" to live "against nature" ( à rebours), cultivating subjective experience stimulated by artifice. His life is then characterized by an excess of attention paid to the artificial and the refined. His novel ,"A rebours", was immensely popular and Des Essaintes became the model of decadent life for a whole generation of European artists and young people. Wilde considered it "his bible", his Dorian Gray reads it (in the novel it is referred to as "the yellow book") and Gabriele D'Annunzio tried to conform to it in his life and art.


When Wilde published THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY in novel form in 1891, he added a preface which embodied his aesthetic doctrine of "art for art's sake". The Preface consists of a list of paradoxical and apparently contradictory statements which challenge long-standing assumptions about art and the role of the artist. Read it...

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.
This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.
That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies.
An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician.
From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.

1. G. Mistrulli, MAKING WAVES, Ed. Zanichelli
2. Cattaneo - De Flaviis, LITERARY TRACKS, Carlo Signorelli Editore
3. M.Spiazzi - M. Tavella, LIT & LAB, vol. 2, Ed. Zanichelli
4. G. Thomson - S. Maglioni, LITERARY HYPERLINKS 2, Ed. Black Cat
5. O. Wilde, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, Modern Library Classics 



1 comment:

  1. Bravo for your wide ranging study of the writers of that era when they sought to renew themselves. With these helpful notes, your students should now easily pick out the elements of Dorian Gray that respond to the new Aesthetic movement. For example, the hobbies that fascinate Dorian over some years - tapestries, etc [sorry, can't find the book to remember all of them]. I hope your students enjoy their studies and reward your efforts with lively discussions.