It is called the Belle Époque, a phrase which brings to mind stylish graphic advertising posters, the baroque Art Nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha, the Beaux Arts architectural monuments of Paris, Chicago, and Newport. These images seem static, backward-looking. Despite their popularity on the poster market, they cannot capture (how could they?) the full expression of what cultural historians also call the fin de siècle. The term is French for “end of the century,” but it describes a period of radical change in global culture in ways that will be with us for another hundred years or more..
In other words, there was a lot happening in the 1890s. As one description of the period puts it, “change became the nature of things, and people believed that further improvement was not only possible but inevitable.” So much of this change manifested in the arts. In France, for example, Impressionism began receiving its due in art world circles, leading to two Impressionist works on display at the 1900 World’s Fair, which also saw the opening of the Eiffel Tower. In 1895, Paul Verlaine published Arthur Rimbaud’s complete works, posthumously, and Symbolist poetry broke Victorian literary traditions irrevocably.
In English, popular genre fiction exploded, as the Gothic novel reached its apotheosis in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the rise of detective fiction began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. These works paralleled a rising interest in the occult and the early stirrings of New Age spirituality. Meanwhile, Russian Modernism took shape in the radical work of Vladimir Mayakovsky; the Argentine Tango began to express its “worldview of conflicting national dislocations”; Meiji era Japan began rapidly industrializing and importing “jazz, cinema… automobiles, airplanes, and avant-gardes, from futurism to surrealism,” writes Christopher Bush, even as the West devoured all things Japanese; African art began to transform the work of painters like Picasso….
The revolutions of fin de siècle Vienna were so world-changing as to warrant a major study of the period titled Fin-De-Siècle Vienna. Even in the still quite-provincial U.S., where robber barons built Beaux Arts palaces, modernist revolutions gestated in the Arts & Crafts movement. The world was changing too quickly for some, not quickly enough for others. For millions more, life went on more or less as it had a half-century earlier. It would be decades before many people around the world experienced either the material improvements or the radical cultural dislocations of the era.
You can see the faces, smiling, scowling, going about their business, of a few thousand city-dwellers around the world from the period in a montage of film footage above. Most of the passersby captured on film could not have known they lived in a time of unprecedented change — the all-important fin de siècle of cultural history. How could they? But they did live in a time of unprecedented anxiety about change, a time in which many keenly felt “the discrepancy between material advance and spiritual dejection,” notes Harvard University Press. “For most people the period was far from elegant.”
Only time will tell what critical historians of the future make of our era. But even as we experience incredible levels of anxiety about change, perhaps few of us are truly aware of just how radical the changes of our time will turn out to be a century or so from now.