Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Just over a hundred years ago, Symbolist artists and poets griped that industrial society had produced a passionless populace dedicated to material gain. The Symbolists’ spawn, the Decadents and Aesthetes—Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley among them—shaped aristocratic decay into the rain cloud hovering over the Victorian parade. For these troubled artists, life was a grim charade, and even their grandest efforts at posing, artifice, and evil provided little respite from the human condition. Today, the Decadent modus operandi sounds like the anthem of a goth adolescence, wherein rats and garbage are preferable to suburbs and sun. But earnest is sexy again: the more tortured, the better. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent Gustave Moreau show, brimming with nubile lyre-toting sirens and sultry Salomes, probably made some New Yorkers fear the French artist’s saccharine brush strokes would tarnish the detachment they’ve spent their lives perfecting. This weekend, the William Morris Society sponsors the multivenue conference The Arts of the British 1890s, featuring Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson, as the keynote speaker (at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, at the Freer Gallery of Art). Surely Beardsley, whose erotically charged prints undermined Victorian mores (his The Slippers of Cinderella is pictured), will smile up from hell when academic papers on fin de siþcle sexuality, immorality, and other titillating topics are presented from 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, at Georgetown University. The conference concludes when Linda Gertner Zatlin lectures on Beardsley’s work and late-19th-century Japonisme at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 12, at the National Gallery of Art. At the Freer Gallery of Art’s Meyer Auditorium, 12th & Jefferson Drive SW, (202) 357-2700; Georgetown University’s Bunn Intercultural Center Auditorium, 37th & O Streets NW, (202) 687-7435; and the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium, 4th & Constitution Avenue NW, (202) 737-4215. All events are free. (Jessica Dawson)