Friday 6 May 2011

Dreamers of Decadence & Idols of Perversity

The Idol of Perversity : Jean Delville

Dreamers of Decadence. Symbolist Painters of the 1890's : Philippe Jullian

cover image : Jean Delville

In Dreamers of Decadence (originally published in French in 1969 as Esthètes et Magiciens ), Jullian created a rare gem; an art history book that is a work of art in itself and in the process retrieved fin de siecle  Symbolist and Decadent art and literature from the limbo of obscurity it had been cast into. Jullian's style of delivery is lyrical and compelling as well as informative and it is not only the subject matter but the book itself that is inspirational. In it's poetic deliverance weaving through its chimeric and byzantine chapters , Jullian  in a way invites his readers to assume the role of  Jean Des Esseintes, the central character of J K Huysman's decadent novel, A Rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature) and to wallow in a veritable temple of aestheticism and sensuous delights.

A Rebours / Against the Grain : J K Huysmans

cover image : Odilon Redon

Dreamers of Decadence also unashamedly draws from an earlier book on the subject of the accursed poets and authors, The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz. Though rich in information,The Romantic Agony is a heavier more academic read and lacks the lyrical compulsion of Jullian's Dreamers and is also far starker in visual appeal.

The Romantic Agony: Mario Praz

 Whilst the artwork in Dreamers of Decadence is presented well enough to affect and engross the viewer, it is not perfect, many images are reproduced small and in greyscale, and although for the time it reclaimed many great artists from anonymity, many others of the movement are omitted or given what I would personally consider short-thrift. This is addressed somewhat in Jullian's companion volume 'The Symbolists' which reproduces many great works larger and in better quality. The Symbolists in its text, however perhaps lacks some of the mystical spark that makes Dreamers such a different and special book.

The Symbolists : Philippe Jullian

cover image : Lucien Levy Dhurmer

For more information on the life and work of Philippe Jullian -

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Symbolism : Michael Gibson

cover image : Odilon Redon


The geographic limitation and visualisation in colour of Jullian's Dreamers are further addressed in the book Symbolism by Michael Gibson. Another excellent tome on the subject of the idealist and reactionary romantic art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though Gibson's prose is is devoid of Jullian's evocative lyricism, Symbolism is an interesting and lively read and manages to avoid the trap of many art-history books of being a dry, overly-academic read . It is also visually gorgeous. An online version of Gibson's Symbolism appears on the following impressive website,

Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin de Siecle Culture: Bram Dijkstra

cover image : Ella Ferris Pell

And so finally we come to Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity, which with its Delville inspired title and chapter headings that speak evocatively of  such subject matter as Poison Flowers and the Cold Caresses of the Sphinx, and of Women of Moonlight and Wax and Virgin Whores of Babylon, we may expect to traverse a Jullianesque path and indeed he was clearly of inspiration as 5 of Jullian's books are listed in the vouminous bibliography ; yet whilst this book is intriguing, often and intentionally uncomfortably so, it is not intended as a celebration of the decadent arts so much as a psychological analysis of the culture and mindset of the times that produced such work. As such its delivery is much heavier than Jullian's and at times it adopts an air of almost preachy morality. That said it is a thought-provoking read and its jewel in the crown is its delivery of many beguiling and less familiar artists and artworks, alas as it presents these compelling works in greyscale and at often too small proportions it is also the thorn in that crown. 


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