Fin de Siecle
Sensing that change was about to
sweep the world, the French began referring to themselves as the Fin de Siecle,
or end of the century, at the end of the 19th century. By this point, the
phonograph, telephone, automobile, and typewriter had been invented. England
had plunged into a depression, which only spurred the Labor Movement and ended
England’s reign as a world power. France also was experiencing major social
change. Crime, drug use, and alcohol abuse were on the rise, and France had
plunged into a type of moral decay unprecedented in modern history.
The end of the century also brought
to life several social movements that challenged traditional codes of moral
behavior. The suffrage movement was in full swing, and women in the United
States and England openly petitioned for the right to vote. Some women even
went so far as to wear men’s trousers openly as a statement of independence and
equality. England’s Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), an open homosexual, identified
himself as a decadent and challenged popular perception.
Social upheaval only fueled the
disruption that several scientific and technological developments brought on.
Innovations in transportation such as the car, although monumental, invited
additional chaos because there were no rules for automobiles and horse-drawn
carriages to share the road. Science, although proving to be a boon in the long
run, exacerbated the short-term discord felt across Europe and the United
States. Developments, such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and J. J.
Thomson’s detection of the atom, would stimulate a century’s worth of
technological advancement.
Literally “what came after
impressionism,†Postimpressionism is a broad umbrella for a diverse range of
aesthetic choices. Postimpressionists believed that impressionism was too
uncontrolled and unorganized; the fleeting and immutable could be better
captured in a manner with greater psychological depth. Postimpressionists
placed greater emphasis on linear form, perspective, and spatial relationships
than their impressionist predecessors. On the surface, however, the paintings
of Postimpressionist artists would seem dramatically dissimilar so that when
exhibited together, the work of Cezanne, Seurat, and Van Gogh might appear to
have been accomplished at three different times.
Paul Cezanne sought to bring order
and control to the Postimpressionist movement by carefully arranging his
subjects and juxtaposing objects unlikely to be gathered together in a
presentation, such as the combination of fabric and fruit″>Still Life with Bowl of
(1883–1887). The painting also highlights one of Cezanne’s most significant
techniques. Cezanne was a meticulous painter of line. He considered each stroke
to be a plane of color. Cezanne cleaned his brush between each stroke so that
every stroke of color would be unique. In his painting, the most common shape
is certainly the circle. Cezanne combined colors and spherical strokes to
create a layered effect for each object.
Georges Seurat (1859–1891) also
employed a painstaking process in his work. Seurat believed that art could be
defined in a system of rules. He favored balance and unity in his work.
Although he employed the soft textures of the impressionists, Seurat’s work
defined form and spatial relationships. To create paintings such″>Bathers at Asnieres (1883), Seurat first created
silhouettes and then arranged the depth of each shape. Seurat favored
repetition of shape and color in carefully contrived patterns. Seurat painted
in petit points, also referred to as pointillism, giving the surface of his
paintings an impressionistic veneer.
and Fascism
After the war, a prospering United
States was a sharp contrast to an economically disabled Europe, but it would
not be long until the roaring twenties would tumble to an abrupt halt. The
stock market crash of 1929 plunged the United States and its somewhat
economically dependent European neighbors into a lasting depression. Both sides
of the Atlantic became immersed in sentiments of despondence and hopelessness.
The once-rising middle class all but disappeared, which created a spacious
divide between the poor and the small but conspicuous upper class. Social
tension grew steadily throughout the depression era and resulted in two of the
most significant political developments of the century.
At the time, the socialist Soviet
Union captured international attention because it seemed immune from the
economic disaster that its neighbors were experiencing. The insular nature of
the Soviet economy did not lend much room for codependency on neighboring
economies. Many of the poor among the European nations and the United States
began questioning the wisdom of a capitalist economy and wondered if socialist
ideals may have prevented such a disaster, but many among the struggling middle
class were eager to blame an economy that depends on “big business”
for its vitality. The two sides were neatly split into the far-left ideals of
communism and the far-right principles of fascism.
Though they may seem worlds apart,
communism and fascism have one vital element in common: the status of the
individual as being part of the whole. But in almost every other way, fascism
and communism seem firmly opposed. In the communist definition, the
individual’s rights and identity are governed by the class to which he or she
belongs, but in the fascist definition, the individual is characterized by his
or her national identity. While communism spread throughout Europe and loomed
ominously for a while in the United States, it eventually faded as an
international threat. Fascism, although not as prevalent a political threat,
became a primary agent in establishing the conditions for the second great
conflict of the 20th century.
German fascist leader Adolf Hitler
used Germany’s depressed economy as a persuasive vehicle for promoting a
particularly racially skewed version of fascism. Hitler’s assertion that the
Aryan race was somehow superior seemed an inconceivable argument to modern
thinking, but given an economically dejected racial majority, pinning Germany’s
problems on a minority whose expulsion promised an economic turn was a clear
act of national desperation. After the 1932 elections, Hitler took office and
established a policy of Aryan dominance. It was not until Hitler’s conquests
extended into neighboring nations that the German fascist movement would spark
World War II.
the Western world churned in self-doubt and disorder, a movement that had
originated in the 19th century gained momentum quickly. Even while women were
gradually given the practical political recognitions they sought, they were
facing a void of sincere social equality. Gradually, women were taking their
seats among artistic contemporaries as viable candidates for leadership of an
artistic genre. Nineteenth-century figures Rosa Bonheur and impressionist Mary
Cassat rallied with their male contemporaries to form a unique visual
aesthetic, and writers such as Kate Chopin sought to reveal the female
condition as it was influenced by social mores. Leaders in the suffrage
movement (early feminism) rallied for political and social equality in the
streets, in universities, and even in Congress. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The
Solitude of Self, given before a Congressional Judiciary Committee in 1892, is
perhaps one of the best-known speeches of the suffrage movement. In her call to
legalize the equal treatment of women, Stanton illuminates the plight of women
at the turn of the century as being governed by an order of men and male
standards. She writes that if women must be responsible for themselves in times
of solitude, then they are entitled to the same rights in every other
situation. Her parting words, “Who, I ask you, can take, dare take, on himself
the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?†speaks
volumes of the goals of the suffrage movement. Her work, believed to be a
precursor to the Civil Rights Movement, had a profound effect on the social
changes of the mid-20th century.
Perhaps early 20th century writers
made some of the most assertive contributions to the movement. This week’s
audio and reading, The Outside by Susan Glaspell (at the top of the lecture),
reflects a common sentiment among feminist writers of this period. In the
opening scene, we meet the Captain and Bradford, both seasoned New England
sailors and lifesavers whose views on women are not exactly favorable. Bradford
and the Captain’s attitudes are offset by the more prevalent roles of Allie
Mayo and Mrs. Patrick, widows whose reclusive behaviors intimidate and mystify
the men in the play. Bradford, the Captain, and Tony (the third male character)
exist to juxtapose the women. This is a very common strategy for Glaspell’s
plays. In the beginning, the characters seem to be sharply divided and somewhat
superficial, but gradually the characters are unraveled and we learn that they
are not as straightforwardly stereotypical as we originally were led to
believe. The male roles exist to present the women as though they were simply
“not in their right minds” and to set up a false expectation for the
audience when they are finally fully introduced to the characters. The men give
a critical backstory and the stereotypical point of view so that we are somewhat
surprised by the richly layered female characters.
One of the most prominent feminist
writers of the 20th century, however, is Virginia Woolf. Her 1929 book, A Room
of One’s Own, is considered one of the most influential works in the feminist
literary canon and became her thesis (of sorts), calling women to “authorâ€
their own identities. Borrowing from Samuel Coleridge, Woolf believed that the
most fertile mind is that which is androgynous and without care for the
presumed feminine or masculine orientation of any given topic. Her extensive
theory manifests in her 1928 novel Orlando, a fantasy in which the central
character incarnates throughout a period of several centuries, alternating
between male and female identities to emerge as a modern (1928) and enlightened
woman. This week’s reading, A Society (1921), examines the social and
intellectual constraints placed upon the early 20th-century woman and the
effects of a sudden immersion in a decidedly male world.

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