Understanding decadence

'Decadence', runs until 31 May at the Malta Society of Arts in Valletta

Photo: Sean Mallia
Photo: Sean Mallia

By Hannah Dowling

‘ALL art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’ – Preface from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

Oscar Wilde’s infamous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray holds itself as amongst the most important literary works which define what it truly means to be decadent, although defining decadence itself has proven to be rather troublesome. Essentially, there is no one standard definition as to what decadence is. With this regard, Decadence, Now., which is organised by City of Art Malta and curated by Andrew Borg Wirth, precisely aims to encompass it’s multifaceted nature, without narrowing it down to a singular definition, nor a singular viewpoint.

As indicated by Wilde in the aforementioned quote from his novel, an understanding of decadence is individualistic, and therefore, it is up to the viewer to choose upon which level they aim to engage with the art. In this respect, the Malta Society of Arts in Valletta is intelligently transformed into a space which directly immerses the viewer into the decadent era – it’s principles, characteristics, and defining aura. Each room of the exhibit deals with a particular theme, thus providing a different facet to the kaleidoscopic understanding of decadence. By tackling decadence from a holistic aspect, this exhibition brings to light a true understanding of what this era was all about – death, desire, drama, dance, and drunkenness. These themes are explored through an array of carefully curated objects which have been loaned from Malta and Europe. These intriguing historical objects, ranging from Giuseppe Cali’s Woman Carried by the Sea (c. 1900) to Félicien Rops La Buveuse d’absinthe (The Absinthe Drinker) (1865), as well as original publications, clothing, and accessories dating to the period, cement the viewer directly within the various aspects of the fin-de-siécle period. Such artifacts also include a first edition hardbound version of Salome by Oscar Wilde with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. However, despite this array of impressive artifacts from all over Europe, this exhibition is by no means solely a historical remembrance of what decadence was.

The title of the exhibition itself, Decadence, Now. insinuates that this exhibition also reflects a contemporary understanding of what decadence still is. As a result, the exhibited artifacts breathe fresh air into the reactionary installations created by four reactionary artists: Michael Zerafa, Maria Theuma, Luke Azzopardi and Andrew Borg Wirth, all of whom come from diverse artistic backgrounds. There is a seamless fusion between then and now, as envisioned through the eyes of these local creatives, who effectively translate the decadent period through a contemporary lens. Such installations further highlight Wilde’s comment that ‘it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’ Perhaps, this is taken literally in Zerafa’s Head on a Plate (2023), which allows the spectator to step inside a mirrored cube and understand the notion of the head as the ultimate vessel of decadence. This individualism is further explored through the cult of the self in Luke Azzopardi’s Heat You Can’t Beat I and II (2023), which draws inspiration from the fan as an accessory, of which its identity transforms depending on who holds it. The notion of perception is further explored in Andrew Borg Wirth’s Thirty (2023), whereby he explores the state of altered or heightened perception through substance.

Essentially, Wilde’s words ring an air of truth in the context of decadence as an art of individualistic perception. Such perception is ultimately the key towards the prime understanding of decadence, which was the idea of art pour l’art – art for art’s sake. This is aptly explored in Maria Theuma’s For Its Sake (2023), which deals with the notion that there was no overtly incomprehensible and philosophical understanding to decadence. It just was, and in true decadent fashion, this exhibition just is. Decadence, Now. does not aim to define decadence, but rather, it encapsulates its multifaceted perspective. Through the historical artifacts of the exhibition and the respective contemporary installations, as well as the series of musical performances which form part of the exhibition programme, the team behind City of Art Malta successfully created a space which deals with the main understanding of decadence. They created a space which allows the audience to ‘go beneath the surface’ and ‘read the symbol’, or simply remain on the surface and enjoy art, for art’s sake, in such a way that effectively transposes Wilde’s words to the present day.

Decadence, Now runs from 11 to 31 May at the Malta Society of Arts in Valletta. This project is supported by Arts Council Malta’s Programme Support Grant, the Embassy of Austria, the Embassy of France, the Embassy of Germany, the Embassy of Italy, the Embassy of Spain, Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Heritage Malta, Valletta Cultural Agency, Camilleri Paris Mode, MAPFRE Middlesea, MAVENRY, Department of Art & Art History (University of Malta), Department of English (University of Malta), MAPFRE Middlesea, SA Consult, Von Peach, 66 St Paul’s Valletta,Transcripta Translation Services, Intervisions, Casa Rocca Piccola, Artemisia Fine Arts’s; Antiques, Express Trailers, The National Archives of Malta and is under the patronage of Valeria Limentani and Jordi Goetstouwers of Virgata Group.