Past Events

DRN WIP Workshop: The ‘Tendril’ and the ‘Root’: Rethinking the Fin-de-Siècle’s Artistic Landscape

DRN Events – Emily Cox

  • 8 March 2022
  • 4:00 – 5:00 pm
  • Online

This is an event for DRN members only. You can find out more about the network here.

The DRN’s WIP Workshop series is an opportunity for members of the network to present papers on their research relating to British art histories. We are keen to encourage collaboration within our research community and hope that these WIP workshops will help researchers develop their work whilst simultaneously making all our members productively aware of new issues, ideas, directions and methodologies developing within the field of British art history.

Emily Cox’s paper investigates the motifs of the “tendril” and the “root” in the fin de siècle as both historically-situated phenomena and as historiographic shorthands which demand revision. A quintessentially cosmopolitan form, the tendril spiralled across Europe in the 1890s. From Edward Burne-Jones’s painted Briar Rose series (1885–1890), to Victor Horta’s gesamtkunstwerk Tassel House (1893–95), and Émile Gallé’s carved Flore de Lorraine Table (1893), the tendril has become a metaphor for connectivity as it twists and climbs between national spaces and diverse media. This pervasiveness is inseparable from one prevailing view of art nouveau, which saw the movement as a kind of parasitic ivy spreading across Europe and strangling the last sap of vitality from a dying civilization. But the tendril was also construed as the solution to Europe’s demise, a kind of ‘imperial modernism,’ as Debora Silverman has described it. The whiplash curve of Belgian art nouveau and the barbed-wire curlings of Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose series each call up the materials and techniques of colonial violence.

Against the ivy-like, horizontal climb of the tendril, there was the idea of the “root,” which implied lineage, depth, and national tradition. It could be depicted as visual or literary motif – as in Burne-Jones’s Tree of Life (1888), William Morris’s Wood Beyond the World (1894), or Alfred Roller’s cover illustration for the first issue of Ver Sacrum (1898) – and summoned at once ideas of the primordial and the mythic, reflecting insidious fabrications of national pasts that justified future ambitions predicated on national superiority. In material representation – namely, in the carefully selected materials used for woodworked objects, as in Gallé’s Fôret Lorraine bureau (1900) or Elena Polenova’s Abramtsevo furniture – a truth to regionally-specific materials presages a certain strand of modernism that might today be embraced by new materialist studies, but it also reflects what was a burgeoning logic of nineteenth-century ecofascism.

This paper argues that the motifs of the “tendril” and the “root,” which might be taken to illustrate key historiographic divisions in the fin-de-siècle artistic landscape – Art Nouveau vs Arts & Crafts, international vs national, decadent vs modern, European vs British – actually collapse these boundaries. In so doing, they force us to reconsider several persistent checkpoints that inhibit fin-de-siècle studies: media, style, and nationality.

About the speaker

  • Headshot of Emily Cox

    Emily Cox is a fourth year PhD candidate in the History of Art department at Yale University specializing in nineteenth-century European art. Her dissertation project, ‘1889–1900: Form in the Fin de Siècle’, reimagines the relationship between politics and aesthetics during that period by arguing for the fin de siècle as a fundamentally transnational and interdisciplinary landscape.