The Middle Ages of Decadentism

Of all of Umberto Eco’s Ten Little Middle Ages, one of the ones I’ve struggled with the most is Decadentism, and for a simple reason: he linked it with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, aka the PRB. This happens to clash with my view of the original movement, which preceded the later “Aesthetic” Pre-Raphaelites, that I formed through my understanding of Tony Mason, a leading character in Knights of the Blackdowns.

Now, for me English Decadentism, in a nutshell, is epitomised by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (who came together with the landmark play Salome). And I ask WHAT has that got to do with the PRB?

Let’s be clear about some similarities and differences:

Decandentism

Kicked off: 1890s

The thing of value is the sensual experience of the moment.

Belittles nature in the name of artistry. Human creativity is superior to the natural world

Aesthetic delight in excess and artificiality

Belief in Art for Art’s Sake, i.e. art did not have a moral obligation

Pre-Raphaelites

Kicked off: 1848-9

Art essentially spiritual in character

Genuine ideas are expressed through study of nature

Medieval culture possessed a spiritual and creative integrity

Belief in Art for Art’s Sake, i.e. art did not have a moral obligation

The colourful pictures used here are Pre-Raphaelite examples (going beyond the early years of the Brotherhood) and include Waterhouse’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Burn-Jones’ Beguiling of Merlin and Millais’ Mariana. The black and white drawings are examples of Decadentism: Beardsley’s Salome, a portrait of Oscar Wilde and (to illustrate its medievalist roots) The Lady of the Lake.

We could focus on Art for Art’s sake, a belief which the two movements shared, and this British Library Article nicely expresses. Consider that the PRB initially attracted controversy through realistic portrayal of religious scenes, such as Christ in the House of His Parents, but then in its later years the “Aesthetic” movement was criticised for other reasons, including eroticism (both in paintings and in poetry), medievalism (some overlap here with the PRB) and general rebellion against cultural norms.

It is this later “Aesthetic” phase (long after the PRB, and also after a split with the “Realists” Hunt and Millais) that attracted exponents of Decadentism and Aestheticism, such as Oscar Wilde and Beardsley (there’s another British Library article on those later movements). And so there is a connection between the earlier and later movements, but it’s one of continuity and succession and so I feel it is a little unfair to equate the PRB, which ended in the 1850s, with Decandentism which only began 40 years later.

On the other hand, the deliciously seductive, sumptuous, romantic and eroticised images of the later Pre-Raphaelite artists (and earlier poetry such as Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci, published in 1819, the year Victoria was born) describe an atmosphere which tends towards decadence with a small ‘d’ and provide an enduring example of Victorian medievalism which lasted throughout the nineteenth century and loosely corresponds with Eco’s concept of the Middle Ages of Decadentism. That view of the Middle Ages is very much a part of Tony Mason’s dream. I could call it romanticised, but then I would be straying into the territory of another of those Ten Little Middle Ages, to be covered in another post.

Other interesting articles on this subject included this on the PRB and Symbolic Realism from Valencia University, a link to their common ancestor John Ruskin at Victorian Web, and the luscious Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site.


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