Carlos Schwabe, Spleen and Ideal, 1907.
When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid
Upon the spirit aching for the light,
And all the wide horizon’s line is hid
By a black day sadder than any night…
Charles Baudelaire, “Spleen,” Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857.
The Decadence can be seen as the diseased death-rattle of Romanticism. Romanticism represented a revolt against the 18th Century Enlightenment’s privileging of reason and rationality, instead venerating emotion, nature and, after Rousseau, the noble, unspoiled instinct of ‘natural man.’ Baudelaire laid the cornerstones of the Decadence in Les Fleurs du Mal – not simply revolting against reason, but casting a jaundiced eye on nature as well, seeing a world fundamentally poisoned. But he was no Naturalist, raking through the muck. He married Edgar Allan Poe’s fascination with the morbid to Théophile Gautier’s absolute worship of beauty, thereby setting the aesthetic climate for the rest of his century. Even as he writhed in his sick ennui, loathing humanity and his environment, he never ceased aching for the light, longing to go anywhere out of the world, and therein lies the tension that drives Symbolist art. It is Spleen and the Ideal locked in the tortured embrace of Schwabe’s painting. Its debased, syphilitic spleen was always worn like a rare jewel, and its glimmering, incense-scented ideals were always infected with the perverse.