Fin de Siècle: Read all About It!

by Mel Cooper

Philip Hook, The Ultimate Trophy: How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World Prestel, UK £17.99

Rainer Metzger, Munich, its Golden Age of Art and Culture, 1890 to 1920, Thames & Hudson, UK £24.95

They are household words now, but Impressionism, the Blue Rider, the Viennese Secession, and Expressionism once represented a series of violent revolutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that forever changed the way we see light and form. The rebellion was worldwide, but France and Germany/Austria were the most influential hotbeds of then-young Turks wielding paint and chisel in their war against complacency. Two books just published in London revive the excitement.

Philip Hook concentrates on Impressionism as part of an overall shift in the philosophy of what art can be. “It wasn’t an isolated event: looked at in the European context, it was simply the most significant and sustained of the rebellions… Across the continent official, academic art had grown stale and moribund.” Hook, (who is also a writer of thrillers, and knows how to keep us turning pages) has a “day job” as Senior Director of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art department. He has also worked for years as an international dealer. With an insider’s knowledge of both art history and the marketplace for art, Hook gives a vivid and accessible account of Impressionism’s erratic beginnings and the history of its ultimate acceptance around the world. impressionism__SL500_AA240_The book also gets our attention with a compelling discussion of the essence of Impressionist work: “…flooded with light and with a capacity to lift the spirits”. Full of anecdotes about the artists and the art speculators, this is a lively read. My only quibble is that most of the illustrations are in black and white, and I wonder at the grammar of the subtitle: How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World.

My recommendation for the Germanic side of the story is Rainer Metzger’s Munich, its Golden Age of Art and Culture 1890-1920. It details the city’s fascinating contribution to the history of Modernism when Munich was a magnet for avant-garde artists that rivalled Vienna and Berlin as the capital of a new German culture. This book has 466 well-chosen images (387 in color!), and the combination of text and visuals really gives immediacy to the culture of the time and place. munich__SL500_AA240_Metzger explains Munich’s sovereignty for those who “preferred the expansion of the mind to that of the purse…,” i.e. Munich to its arch-rival, Berlin, or the even more bourgeois Vienna. In fact, Metzger’s central thesis is that “Munich’s golden age at the turn of the century was characterized by its efforts to counter the attractions of Berlin.” The translation by David H Wilson is colloquial and easy to read. Each chapter is an essay on a theme, and the copious, and relevant, illustrations add depth and perspective to the story being told.

The book is a perfect example of how Thames and Hudson’s memorable, beautifully-produced coffee table books have been combining real substance with gorgeous images for decades (they are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year). If you are interested in the fin-de-siècle culture of 1900, its upheavals, and still-pervasive influence, and even if you think you’ve seen it all, Metzger and Hook are for you.

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