Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon, and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle

David Sweetman, Author Simon & Schuster $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-684-81179-6
Unlike comparable studies--Carl E. Schorske's Fin-de-Siecle Vienna or Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy, for example--Sweetman's colorful new book (following his bios of Gaugin, Van Gogh and Mary Renault) gives life to the period by focusing on the specific men of the subtitle, and especially Toulouse-Lautrec, who, Sweetman shows, was much more involved in the leftist politics of his time than is generally acknowledged. The doomed artist, born to a well-to-do family whose lineage can be traced to the medieval courts of Toulouse, emerges here as not only a charming poster maker and illustrator, but also as a serious, politically savvy artist intent on illuminating the shadowy corridors and hidden crannies of the Parisian demimonde, a project influenced by his close contact with the radical and revolutionary thinkers, artists and literati of the age. The ""most committed"" anarchist in Paris may well have been the ""dandy"" publisher, Felix Feneon, who wished to associate himself with Baudelaire's flaneurs, those who ""set out to savour the pleasure of modern life that the poet had extolled."" Feneon, for example, provided a platform for the unappreciated and the outrageous, including Andre Gide, Alfred Jarry, Proust and Picasso. Wilde and his 1895 trial for ""gross indecencies"" receive a familiar once-over, but we also see how Lautrec stood by Wilde longer and more steadfastly than many others. The trial itself, moreover, is understood by Sweetman as a convenient focal point for cultural anxieties of the time, anxieties that, as Marjorie Garber has elsewhere argued, often accompany social change and find their most prominent expression in sexuality and the gendered body. Though not explosive in terms of revelatory material, Sweetman's study paints a fascinating and nicely detailed picture of the Parisian landscape, as well as of some of its most important people and places. It further suggests the many ways in which the fin de siecle laid the foundation for the coming of the moderns and literary and artistic modernism. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 01/03/2000
Release date: 01/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
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