“We want to decipher skies and paintings, go behind these starry backgrounds or these painted canvases and, like kids trying to find a gap in a fence, try to look through the cracks in the world.”

― Georges Bataille

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Decadent sexual personae crowd literature and art. An 1893 poem by Albert Samain proclaims “the era of the Androgyne,” who mushrooms over culture like an antichrist. The sex-repelling Decadent androgyne is Apollonian because of its opposition to nature and its high mentalization, a western specialty. It is louring and enervated rather than radiant. Colette calls this type of androgyne “anxious and veiled,” eternally sad, trailing “its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears.”

Decadent art suffered the same fate as academic painting of the Salon, swept away by the triumph of the avant-garde and modernism. The last twenty years have seen an international revival of figurative painting. Museums are dusting off the discards in their cellars. What is now needed is a revision of art history that would acknowledge how much avant-garde art really was Decadent Late Romantic: much of Whistler and Manet, all of Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, and Gaudi, and even Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, with its Decadent immobility and claustrophobia.

Decadent art is ritualistic and epiphanic. Its content: Romantic sexual personae, the hierarchs, idolators, and victims of daemonic nature. Even depicting episodes from poetry, Decadent art is never mere illustration. It dramatizes dominant western image and sexual subordination of the aggressive eye. Decadent art makes hostile claims on the viewer. Its style is pagan spectacle and pagan flaunting. Behind the trashiest Decadent painting are complex Romantic assumptions about nature and society overlooked by textbook accounts of nineteenth-century art. Modernist culture-heroes like Cézanne are overemphasized. Cézanne’s plainness and “honesty,” homely Protestant values, are in the Rousseauist-Wordsworthian line. Decadent art, like Counter-Reformation Baroque, tells big lies. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Gustave Moreau, and Aubrey Beardsley must be given higher rank. Despite brief popularity in the 1960s, Beardsley, a major graphic artist, is shockingly absent from American university curricula and slide collections. Like Sade, he has been censored by the liberal humanities.

On Decadent Art, Literature & Poetry