Manuel Orazi, Messe Noir, 1903.
“The tail-ends of the centuries all resemble each other. They are always periods of vacillation and unrest. Magic flourishes when materialism is rife.”
Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là-Bas, 1891.
The fin de siècle preoccupation with magic and the occult was so peculiarly pervasive and profound it makes one wonder if there actually is some mystical magnetism that concentrates at the end of centuries. It is, of course, also a social phenomenon, a strange by-product of societies that think of themselves as ‘in decay’ (in yet another parallel, late Rome was obsessed with divination and fascinated by witchcraft.) The latter 19th Century was a time of curious contradiction – even as popular rhetoric trumpeted on about progress, empire and industry, new ideas and new technology, there was also a distinct feeling that the West was living its languid twilight years. This unique intersection of a material reality of prosperity with an atmosphere of spiritual decline bred the occult mania, largely born of a disgust with the common-sense ugliness of modernity and a perverse nostalgia for a fantastical pre-modern past that never was. The mania’s most popular manifestation was Spiritualism, and séances were held in bourgeois parlors and artistic salons alike. It was unusual if an Idea painter or poet didn’t confer with the Spirits.
Supposedly rooted in Medieval witchcraft, but in actuality based on the historical fantasy of Jules Michelet and Huysmans, various versions of the Black Mass became quite fashionable, I’d surmise largely due to their erotic elements and nude ‘altars’ – wonderfully, wryly depicted in Orazi’s précieux piece of Art Nouveau. Witches and Sabbats were go-to themes for paintings, and it was basically compulsory for all the eccentric Decadents to indulge in some sort of Satanic dalliance – Jean Lorrain threw a launch-party for Là-Bas in drag surrounded by people in demonic costume while the outrageous Count Eric Stenbock slept under a pentagram with his familiar, a toad named Fatima. Gautier identifies such preoccupations as indeed a hallmark of a Decadent style: “contrary to Classical style, it admits of backgrounds where the specters of superstition, the haggard phantoms of dreams, the terrors of night…move together confusedly.”
Quasi-historian Eliphas Levi’s books kickstarted an earnest revival of ceremonial High Magic, a hodgepodge of alchemy, Egyptian Hermeticism and Christian mysticism that grew intertwined with the world of arts and letters. Yeats, Crowley and Machen belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and self-styled magus Joséphin Péladan founded the Salon Rose + Croix, which functioned both as a magical order and as an exhibition space for Symbolist painting. In this way, Symbolist art itself became a species of magical practice, the artist a magician penetrating into higher (or lower) spheres.