Nicholas Kalmakoff, Astarte, 1926 [top].
Umberto Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers, 1915 [middle left].
Hugo Ball, “Karawane” and Magical Bishop costume, 1916 [middle right].
Otto Dix, The Match Seller, 1920 [bottom].
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1920.
"An inventor of fantasies is a poor creature, heaven knows, when all the world is at war."
Arthur Machen, “Out of the Earth,” 1915.
By the time Nicholas Kalmakoff painted his Astarte in 1926, his cloud-trotting goddess in hieratic Byzantine pose with her aureoled griffons must’ve seemed patently ridiculous.
By the beginning of the 20th century, nascent Modernism with its uncompromising formal innovations and pushes toward abstraction had already trumped Symbolism’s mystical dalliances and questionable morals as the most shocking thing in art.
Then the Great War happened. A world that had been slowly languishing of ennui was abruptly, brutally murdered. The world marched off to war in gallant, romantic posture, and was shoved into the gangrenous muck of trenches, deafened by heavy artillery, forced to crawl out into razorwire no-man’s-land prowled by tanks where it was eviscerated by machine-gun fire, and what little of it survived with poorly amputated limbs, quivering and muttering nonsense out of a Hugo Ball poem, dragged itself into the streets of ruined cities with ruined economies and ruined spirits. Nerve gas and shell shock made Biblical harlots and esoteric symbols seem suddenly painfully irrelevant. The European avant-garde reflected the new visual culture of maimed victims and death machines. The appalling technological tyranny of Futurism reveled in the kinetic thrill of the prodigious bloodbath. The desperate irrationalism of Dada gurgled and yowled in inchoate defiance of a world made too inhuman and grim to contemplate. The New Objectivity spat out cynical, jaundiced descriptions of the horrific, ugly aftermath of the War.
The Decadence had been correct in feeling that it was living in the twilight years, in its premonitions of civilization’s doom. The world that made possible all its erotic, exotic flights of fancy did indeed die with the Great War. A movement founded around an atmosphere of impending end has built-in obsolescence, and is rendered inoperable and irrelevant when that end comes. Anyone, like Kalmakoff or Alastair, who continued in the precious, dreamy style seemed to be a delusional, insultingly escapist anachronism. To a degree, the Decadence is still overlooked in art history. It’s seen as chained to figurative painting, lost in the frivolous mists of Salomes, Sphinxes, skulls and passé sex, and simply not relevant to our more serious 20th-21st Century concerns.
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