Bohemians of the past. Artistic conflicts in fin de siècle-Europe

Bohemians of the past. Artistic conflicts in fin de siècle-Europe

By Philip Warkander

Fashion is riddled by contradictions, defined by the constant tension between surface and content, reaching into the future by continuously reinventing its past. This paradox was especially present during the turn of the last century, when rural and pre-industrial life swiftly (but in no way easily) gave way to a more modern existence, defined through urbanity, fashion and new media.

At the core of this turmoil was the invention of mass production, marking a significant break in Western history, signaling societal transformations on all levels. Particularly, this new industrial ability affected attitudes towards art, crafts and design. However, everyone did not share the enthusiasm. In Britain, the Arts and Crafts-movement developed as a kind of counteraction of aesthetics while in Austria, the groundbreaking and highly influential Vienna Secession was founded in 1897 by a group of artists, including among others Gustav Klimt, Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann. The styles of the different artists were individual and varied, but together they built an exhibition hall in Vienna called the Wiener Secessionsgebäude, home to the group’s first exhibition in 1898. This was a richly adorned building crowned by a golden dome of laurel leaves, with the group’s motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” boldly placed above the entrance (To every age its art, to art its freedom).

In the past, a person’s specialized knowledge had been central in the production of garments, furniture and paintings, but in this modern world, machines were taking the place of people. What use did society have for paintings after the invention of photography? Why have craftsmen produce chairs when factories were much more efficient and cheaper? These kinds of questions led to turbulence and conflict, and as an effect, two new categories of people emanated: the bourgeoisie and the bohemians, or translated into more contemporary terms, the mainstream middle-class and the creative avant-garde. The artists of the Vienna Secession were, as bohemians of the late nineteenth century, a kind of subculture, operating against dominant culture, resisting modern society’s narrow view of art as a form of capitalist commodity and design as something to necessarily be produced en masse. In her book Bohemians – the Glamorous Outcasts, fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson has stated: “the bohemian personifies the ambivalent role of art in industrial society; and Bohemia is a cultural Myth about art in modernity, a myth that seeks to reconcile Art to industrial capitalism, to create for it a role in consumer society. The bohemian is above all an idea, the personification of a myth.”

In this society of emerging commodification, the bohemian defined his existence in terms of resistance; instead of working he walked the streets and lingered in cafés and restaurants, without money but with artistic freedom to create avant-garde works of art. These artworks were the result of individual preferences and personal experiences, and thus the lines were not only drawn between mass-production and craftsmanship but also between society and artist. Since then, the tension between the mainstream and the subcultural has been defined as a struggle between conformity and rebellion, making the matter of monetary success a highly volatile territory. When struggling artists no longer struggle, they cease to fulfill the criteria of what constitutes the bohemian artist persona, instead becoming part of the establishment.

The image of the broody and desolate artist is therefore dependent on the notion of him as not yet having reached his goal, living on the margins of society, far ahead of his time, misunderstood for this very reason. His societal isolation becomes interlinked with the concept of his creative genius, which is what gives him his strong romantic allure (while also adding to a misogynist understanding of men as artists and women as their muses). However, counter cultures have always had a strong influence on mainstream society, and many ideas that were initially considered revolutionary have since become part of mainstream perception and knowledge. Mainstream and subcultural discourses are in this way inherently interlinked and engaged in a constant dialogue, one never existing without the other.

It is in this context that the Vienna Secession should be understood, as an attempt to question conventional forms of art and architecture by introducing a new kind of aesthetics, signaling a distinct break with the dominant aesthetic conventions of this time. In the decades preceding the Secession movement, one of the most popular trends had been to sample and reproduce historical styles, thus expressing a romanticizing view of past eras but in updated and often mass-produced versions. The works of the Vienna Secession can therefore be seen as a subversive critique of this mainstream trend; instead of respecting the past and incorporating its shapes into a mass-produced present they wished to ignore it. In its place, the artists found inspiration in the organic shapes of nature, and would incorporate into their designs stylized version of flowers, insects and birds, to decorate buildings, furniture, clothes and art works. Through aesthetics they questioned the effects of the industrial revolution and instead emphasized their opinion that man’s place was in nature, rather than in a factory.

The style became known as Jugendstil or Art Noveau depending on geographical location, and quickly gained influence, spreading through Europe, especially in Austria, Belgium, Germany and France. At its core was a fascination with symbolism, and many of its naturalistic signature trademarks were decorations symbolizing existential matters of birth, life, decay and death. Protesting the ongoing industrialization process of Western society, the movement emphasized the locally produced and handcrafted, deliberately incorporating into the design shapes difficult to mass-produce. The result was beautiful but slightly terrifying, as the references to nature were not merely ornamental but a statement of nature’s powerful force in contrast to the mechanics of industrial modernity.

When the style was introduced, it was considered controversial and new, but the sense of novelty faded quickly and already before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it was considered tired and outdated. The war signified another significant paradigm shift in Western history, but this time the Vienna Secession movement was not found at the forefront but represented instead an art form of the past. At this time, the specificities of modernity were not to be feared but embraced, and in the place of animal-like ornaments and organically flowing shapes came art deco, seemingly encompassing all central aspects of modern life with its geometric shapes and easily reproduced designs. The exhibition building in Vienna, once a hotly debated project and deliberately placed in the outskirts of town due to its controversial appearance, had by now become an architectural icon, advertised as one of the city’s tourist attractions.

Also the prominent figures of the Vienna movement, once considered the rebels of art, architecture and design, had gradually become some of the most established and prominent people of their time and trade. A far cry from the image of the bohemian antihero, their politics of aesthetics had become the kind of powerful institution new generations wished to question and attack. The richly decorated surfaces, once representing a new beginning and a break with the past, had become the very sign of the antiquated, the detailed symbols of life and death in the shapes of animals and plants being replaced with strict, stripped down decors for a new era, far detached from the organic staircases and flowing gowns of yesteryears.

Philip Warkander recently completed his PhD in Fashion Studies at Stockholm University. For the past five years, he has taught Fashion Theory at the University as well as at Beckmans College of Design, in addition to regularly teaching Gender Studies at Södertörn University College. He also works as a freelance writer and consultant.