Fetish of Silence
The need to define and preserve a world of sanctified spirit against the assault of a perceived modern materialism and “barbarism” took on new urgency after 1860 and gave impetus to the flood of Pre-Raphaelite, Nabis and Symbolist images of spiritualized women, domestic interiors, and feminine landscapes. Most of these works depicted solitary, dreamy women or pairs of women lost in private musings tied to a higher world of “feminine” feeling. A core theme in the Pre-Raphaelites, it reemerged as a major subject in Symbolist and Nabis art, especially in Redon, Gauguin, Denis, Hodler, and Segantini. At times, these artists painted groups of women but usually in allegorically stylized landscapes far from modern domestic life. (Even Gauguin, who largely abandoned Symbolist solitude for family and communal imagery after 1895, stayed within the exoticizing primitivism of an imaginary Tahitian landscape.)
What exactly is fetishism?
In Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post Human, Amanda Fernbachoffers an insightful account of conventional theories regarding fetishism and its practice, affording an alternate perspective of the social and historical frameworks that define them. Moreover, Fernbach’s conception of ‘cultural fetishism’ marks the point of departure in which we can attempt to apprehend the complex dialogue between art and life at the turn of the century. The crisis of modernism, a period consistently described as turbulent, confusing, and anxious, fostered a cultural atmosphere in which fantasy was enmeshed with reality, aesthetics were encumbered by lived experience, and conventions complicated by an ever increasing avant-garde.
Cultural fantasies of transformation [of the human form] can be understood as a particular kind of fantasy, one that is both productive and problematic, radical and conservative. These cultural fantasies of fetishism, the different forms they take and the various ways in which the transformative processes they depict can reaffirm accepted definitions of identity or reconfigure them in an entirely new fashion.
Though diverse in the motivations and the fantasies they express, [the Decadent artists] share a common definition of fetishism, one that is primarily concerned with the celebration of difference.
The concept of fetishism that circulates in feminist and post-colonial criticism is a conservative one, synonymous with ‘the reproduction of the same,’ the disavowal rather than the pursuit of otherness, and the validation of culturally hegemonic classificatory systems. This concept of fetishism, classical fetishism, springs largely from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretation, in which the fetish stands in for the mother’s missing phallus and masks her sexual difference, defined in this model as lack.
However, the cultural productions such as those offered by artists of the fin-de-siècle draw attention to the inability of classical psychoanalysis toadequately explain fetishism. While fetishism can involve a ‘reproduction of the same,’ it can also exhibit a transgressive dynamic, one that potentially offers a way out of the modern malaise, and promises utopian tools for a human existence whereby new hybrid or mutant identities may be fantasized into being. While not all trajectories of fetishistic desire are liberating, certain types of fetishism can offer an escape from traditional identities. Various types of cultural fetishism represent different possibilities for refiguring ourselves in the face of rapid cultural changes.
The cultural moment of the fin-de-siècle is defined by the diverse array of fetishistic fantasies that emerged in the art and literature of the modern era; only in embracing this ‘new’ fetishism emerging from the fringes of late nineteenth century society can we begin to classify fetishism in a non-traditional manner that does justice to its multiplicity. The concept of fetishism and its manifestations demonstrates a transformative ethos beyond the classical model; harbingers of the Decadent aesthetic, modern artists’ fetishistic cultural fantasies complicated and disrupted the conventional model.
(Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
Summarized and cited from the introduction, pp. 3-8, and chapter one, “Millennial Decadence and Decadent Fetishism,” pp. 39-49.
As political violence, class tensions, and rapid social, economic, and technological change grew in the nineteenth century, the family was increasingly perceived as a sanctuary from the confusion, harsh reality, and disturbing change of modern urban life. This is particularly clear in Dicken’s Oliver Twist with its orphan struggling to survive in a cold and brutal London before finding safety in a loving family in the unspoiled countryside. The rustic family scenes popularized in the late nineteenth-century prints of Currier and Ives offer another take on this appealing nineteenth-century theme. The family as feminine sanctuary from the harsh, masculine world was described with particular clarity by John Ruskin, then the most influential writer in all England.
Now their separate characters are briefly these. The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle, — and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise: she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest. By her office, and place, she is protected from all danger and temptation. The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial: — to him, therefore, the failure, the offense, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued, often misled, and always hardened. But he guards the woman from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offense. This is the true nature of home — it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in. But so far as it is a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by Household Gods, before those faces none may come but those whom they can receive with love, — so far as it is this, and roof and fire are types only of a nobler shade and light, — shade as of the rock in a weary land, and light as of the Pharos in the stormy sea; — so far it vindicates the name, and fulfills the praise, of home.
And wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her. The stars only may be over her head; the glowworm in the night-cold grass may be the only fire at her foot: but home is yet wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her, better than ceiled with cedar, or painted with vermilion, shedding its quiet light far, for those who else were homeless.
This, then, I believe to be, — will you not admit it to be — the woman’s true place and power? But do you not see that, to fulfill this, she must — as far as one can use such terms of a human creature — be incapable of error? So far as she rules, all must be right, or nothing is. She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise — wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side: wise, not with the narrowness of insolent and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an infinitely variable, because infinitely applicable, modesty of service — the true changefulness of woman.