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Art & Decadence: Interview with Otto Urban

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Czech art historian and visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute Chicago, Otto Urban, studied art history and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague, and, in 2000, earned his PhD in the same field. He is currently teaching at SAIC, focusing on Central European Symbolism, specifically the question of Decadence. He has curated a number of exhibitions, and his book In Morbid Colors: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Bohemian Lands, 1880-1914 recently won the Book of the Year 2006 award in the Czech Republic. His articles about Decadence and Symbolism have been published in magazines in the Czech Republic and abroad, and his texts have been included in a number of anthologies and publications.

Q: What is decadence in art?

Otto Urban: It is essential to define clearly what is and what is not decadent in the visual arts. However, the answer is not unambiguous, because until now the use of the term “decadence” in visual art was unclear and equivocal, as well as being more than once ideologically influenced.

Q: Who created this phenomenon of decadence?

OU: The first to define decadence in visual art was Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel Against the Grain (1884). The author describes decadent visual art through its content as a flight into a “distant dream,” as a picture of the innermost self “destroyed by hysteria,” for which the decadent tragic vision of the life of a painter, printmaker or sculptor finds its themes in “horrors, corruption, complicated nightmares and cruel visions.” Later, art studies began to show a marginal interest in decadence as an intellectual and artistic opinion and adopted a critical attitude toward it. The avant-garde perceived decadence as the culmination of one stage in an artistic development they had rejected, not excluding its decadent manifestation. The concept of exalted decadent individualism stood in opposition to collectivist ideas. For the avant-garde, decadence to some measure meant Mannerist, thus eclectic and repetitive in form.

Q: I got to see your show in Prague, In Morbid Colors. What was the purpose of that exhibition?

OU: There have been relatively few attempts to expand the concept of decadence in the history of the visual arts. In Morbid Colors was an attempt to define the concept of decadence in the visual arts, in the period 1880-1914, not only theoretically but above all by introducing the content of this concept through works of art, and thus showing that the decadence manifestation was not a question merely of a few individuals and that it cannot be narrowed down to a neglected motif or aspect of form. Rather, Decadence can be considered an artistic current permeating the whole period at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Q: How does Decadence relate to other art movements?

OU: Decadence is often mentioned in connection with Symbolism; however, for many later Symbolists, both in the visual arts and in literature, the starting point was Naturalism. An inclination from Naturalism towards more imaginative form of portrayal took place in the 1880s in (for example) the work of Edvard Munch or Felicien Rops. (Joris-Karl Huysmans, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Emile Verhaeren all emerged from Naturalism.) It was important, in describing the concept of decadence in the visual arts, to formulate its relationship to Symbolism and to Naturalism.

Is Decadence a subset of one or the other, is it their interpenetration, or does it represent a self-sufficient and independent orientation and attitude? Unlike Decadence, Symbolism and Naturalism are concepts commonly employed in the history of art. There is a dual use of these two concepts: on the one hand, as the name of an artistic trend in the last third of the 19th century, on the other as more generally understood term when emphasizing the specific method of portrayal. For an example, the symbolism of Renaissance painting (Erwin Panofsky) or the naturalism of the sculpture from the High Middle Ages (Max Dvorak). But in this respect, the concept is used more like the adjectives “Symbolist,” or “Naturalist.”

Q: Is there a specific style to identify something as Decadent?

OU: Decadence originates through a subjective linking of extremes regarding the content of Naturalism and Symbolism, through a linking of the pathology of the body and the spirit of art. According to this thesis, Decadence originates through a subjective combination of the extremes of Naturalism and Symbolism as regards content, through the merging of apparent antithesis of the morbidity of the body and exaltation of the soul. The formal expression of a work of art is subordinated to subjective requirements, thus making the Decadent form heterogeneous and—sometimes quite deliberately—beyond the rules of the canon of the time. It is opened to the most varied experiments and, even consciously, inspired by the past. It is therefore difficult to classify a distinctive Decadent work, not only into the mainstream, but sometimes even into the work of one artist.

Q: What are some contemporary themes of Decadence?

OU: The portrayal of the horror and madness of the modern world became a key theme of Decadence. Decadence no longer had utopian visions of change, but only a grimace of ridicule and longing for isolation. The modern world was a world of the average, of leveling, a world without great deeds, but a growing number of horrors and tragedies.

Q: Why is Decadence important today?

OU: The meaning of Decadence for the visual arts can be summarized in a few points: there was much that Decadence introduced for the first time, above all themes that had been taboo (sexuality, Satanism, Anarchism); the emphasis on the subjectivity of visual expression influenced the imagination of the art of the 20th century; by putting an emphasis on art criticism as the factor bringing the exclusive nature of these forms to life and differentiating their conceptual nature, Decadence contributed to a more subjective view of art and creation; through vigorously refuting the national aloofness of earlier artistic concepts, Decadence shared in the creation of space for the later ascension of an internationally oriented avant-garde; and lastly, Decadence also required the creator to be independent of the surrounding society, thus making it one of the first manifestations of an alternative subculture. Decadence in the visual arts represented the dynamic duality of order and chaos, the painful moment of the birth of a new life and a new structure.

Corresponding with his work on the Decadent movement, Dr. Urban has planned an exhibition featuring the work of current students in order to demonstrate and reveal the place of Decadence in Chicago today. The show opens Friday, May 11, at 7:00 p.m. at Elegant Mr. Gallery (1355 North Milwaukee).

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