Bohemianism, Dandyism and the Religion of Beauty


Well-to-do people on an outing Smolyan, Bulgaria (1934)

A modern, industrial city is sociologically and anthropologically a unique and a very complex place. Its lifestyles, networks and changes are unseen in much of the earlier human history. With its big space, big population and huge degree of autonomy, it has seemingly allowed more individual differentiation than villages which tend to be less tolerant of the nails that stick out of the norm and gladly give it the hammer to put it back in its place. However, with time, the city began to have its own uniformism and its own conformism. The bourgeois life and the suburbia life became the norm and very soon, the city itself started demanding this kind of lifestyle of its citizens. The promise of a standard education, standard job, standard house with standard design, children and marriage by certain age came to define the norms or at least the goals of a city life. Modern cities over time have become places of alienated individuals who know what happens in Amazonia but barely know what is going on right in their neighbourhood. The children are given to institutions, the elderly are given to institutions and in general life becomes institutionalised and anorganic. During the 19th and early/mid 20th century, certain social and cultural trends appeared that had as their goal to exist the life that was served, two of them being the related lifestyles of bohemianism and dandysm. Today, we shall look at what were those and what we, in our modern lives that are even more complex than theirs, can learn from them, if we seek something more than the standard, prescribed existence.

The Bohemian

Art is a barren route, of which glory is the oasis.” - "The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter: Scenes de la Vie de Boheme", Henri Murger Bohemia is the name of region that is in today's Czechia and the name Bohemian has its roots in the name of this region. Roma people at the time, left the region of Bohemia and wandered around Europe, living nomadic, "free" lives. The lifestyle that included escaping the conventional life, challenging the norms and often living on a "day to day basis", was then naturally named after these nomads. The Bohemian groups or societies included journalists, intellectuals, writers, musicians, actors, artists and others who sought a way out of the newly industrialised life. Running away from the Victorian values, Protestant work ethics and expansion of the capitalism, they often sought to live a life that valued other things - frugality and idleness. Some Bohemians, voluntarily chose to live the life of an impoverished artist, finding various, creative means to make an income from time to time, some of them came from wealthier backgrounds but decided to live a life of different values. One could say that lots of "time and effort" came into, at least, some Bohemians' careless look, the romantic flowy hair, the "artistic mess", dirty coffee cups and unfinished cigarettes on a desk.

Marie Spartalli Stillman, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879), British

The Bohemians slowly started to consume the cafés and eventually the whole city quarters - Montmantre and Montparnasse in Paris, Greenwich Village in New York became known for the spots in which the intellectuals and artists gathered. The ideas, art and thoughts that formed there eventually left the cafés and some of them made a major influence on the culture. Bloomsbury Group, Beat Generation and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are some of the famous groups that could be considered part of the sentiment. The group that gathered around New York's Pfaff's beer cellar and whose members were Walt Whitman, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Adah Isaacs Menken and others also shaped much of what later became cultural heritage of both their respective places and the humanity as a whole.

The Dandy

"Count Robert de Montesquiou - Fézensac", Giovanni Boldini (1842 - 1931), Italian

"Dandyism is first and foremost a burning desire to create an original look, on the edge of society's conventional limits. It is sott of tcult of oneself, which can do without the pursuit of that happiness one finds in others, in women, for example: a cult that can even do without what we call illusions. It is the pleasure to be had in causing others to marvel, and the satisfaction to be had in never marveling at anything oneself." - "The Perfect Dandy", Charles Baudelaire And while Bohemians were largely focused on the spiritual and intellectual life in which appearance was only the follow-up, the Dandies defied the newly established values of productivity and functionality over aesthetic with an extreme focus on the aesthetic. They were the extravagant, the flamboyant the maximalist in the face of Victorian work ethics and Puritanism. The love of Beauty became a lifestyle itself, to live with elegance and Beauty a statement and a message. They were often purposefully provocative and just as elitist and snobbish as their Bohemian counterparts. The disdain for the common sentiments first began in the Regency Britain, with George "Beau" Brummel and during the Restoration period it has penetrated France, its Charles Baudelaire and Jules-Amédée Barbey-d'Aurevilly being its representatives. To Britain, it returned once again from France and took a new form in the appearances of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. In Italy, Gabriele D'Annunzio was the representative of the lifestyle. Dandy did not live just to create or see art, for the Dandy, life had to become art itself. Life was to be worked on, to be transformed into a triumphant work of art. Dandies were often of aristocratic background who through their style opposed to the newly established bourgeois society. Dandies of course, were close to the Bohemians, as they often shared their views and ideas. Many of the Dandies lived a bohemian life and many Bohemians dressed as Dandies. They often visited the same cafés and were part of the same groups. They both loved inactivity, idleness, worshiped beauty and extraordinary over the common and sought the sublime.

The Religion of Beauty

Princess Zinaida Yusupova in her study

"I am the Empire at the end of decadent days,

Watching the pale tall Barbarians advance

While composing acrostics, in my indolence,

In a gilded style where the sun’s languor plays.


The lonely soul aches with a vast ennui.

They say bloody battles are being fought down there.

O lacking power, so feeble, such tardy prayer,

O lacking the will to embellish reality!


O lacking the will and power to die a little!

Ah! All is drunk! Bathyllus, life yet laughed away?

Ah! All is eaten and drunk! No more to say!


Only, a slightly foolish poem that burns well,

Only, a slightly errant slave who neglects you,

Only, a kind of vague ennui that afflicts you!" - so sings the poem named "Langour" of the French poet Paul Verlaine, embodying the widely shared sentiments of the Aesthetes at the time - the sentiment that the Beauty was being lost, that it is experiencing a decay in the face of industrialism, its uniformity, gloom and ugliness. The solid bourgeois virtues, for them, were so powerful, so potent at eating away the Beauty that they even compared the decay with the decay of the Roman Empire. These devotees of Beauty, confronted with the gloom of the industrial world and metropolis, the new, urgent, quick needs and consumerism that had no time to consider aesthetic, the Victorian and Protestant Puritanism that saw any kind of sensory pleasure as something deserving of shame, the value of functionality of new materials over their beauty, decided to exit the cycle and make themselves different. The Romantic sentiments appeared once again in which art existed for art's sake and to redeem Beauty became the main mission of it. The art no longer had to be full of morality or subtle symbolism, and even if it did, the Beauty should always be the means through which it expands itself. The religion of Beauty, often followed by the Bohemians and Dandies mentioned above, became a way to defy the ugliness, the grayness, the pure functionality, the alienation and the superficiality of the world of the early capitalism.

The Modernity

Minnie Ashley (1883-1946), actress, sculptor and philanthropist

It could be said that the high priests of Beauty were right about one thing - the Beauty did see a decay over the decades that followed. The values of functionality, of productivity and efficiency kept expanding - life dedicated to anything else but those became almost something to be ashamed of - the one who refused to live by these values is a "leech", a useless element because contribution to society or humanity is seen through purely materialistic, monetary lens. There is no time for Beauty, for the detail in an age whose mantra's is "Time is money". There is no time to dedicate to draw on a plate or cups when one can simply buy plastic ones or just plain ones, at the end of the day, you drink from one or the other just the same. Even the seemingly counterculture trends such as Minimalism and others, still define their values on the spectrum of consumption and the lack of thereof. Minimalism in its own, unique way, worships functionality and usefulness over Beauty and in that embodies a secular version of the Victorian Puritanism - sensory pleasure, anything that is not "useful" is deemed unnecessary. Beauty, for the postmodern era, did not become only a "sinful" sensory pleasure, it also became something to be destroyed. In the spirit of our egalitarian values, everything became beautiful and nothing is anymore ugly. Naturally, when everything is beautiful, then nothing is beautiful. Things in our sensory world are known by its opposites and there is no recognition of Beauty without the recognition of ugliness. The Aesthetes, the Bohemians and Dandies were elitist, snobbish and often discriminatory, showing in a way the typical archetype of the "artistic" or "intellectual" prick. The postmodern artist, seeks to convince you of the latest cultural commandments of the new bourgeoisie. The modern urban areas continued the trend that these Aesthetes observed - the alienation, the uniformity and the superficiality of its expectations continued. The communities and societies like the ones mentioned dare not exist as people are coddled with more distractions, more comforts that are difficult to part with. And while it may be difficult for any of us to part with that which we had been fed our whole lives, maybe we can take a look at something different, at life that is not as anti-human as the one presented to us now.

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