Fin-De-Siècle Dichotomies


Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 3.59.31 PM agazines are identity and image forming, as a person can be defined by what they read. I’m interested in how this notion played out for fin-de-siècle illustrated periodical consumers. In addition to a magazine’s ability to partly define an individual, consumers could also gain an understanding of themselves through the illustrations in terms of the depicted expectations of different social classes. A magazine’s aesthetic worked to determine its audience, as the materiality and images attracted specific types of consumers.
The Yellow Book’s high quality paper and amount of white space, for example, appealed to an audience who saw themselves as avant-garde and invested in art. Individuals could thus construct their self-image based on what they consumed.


Different modes of production also shifted images’ meaning. As James Mussell writes,

“When we recognize the visual components of print, we return texts to history.”

In considering the impact of the visual in magazines, it is interesting to note the shift in their role, which can be grasped by looking at the altered use of the word “illustrate.” Originally, the word’s primary meaning referred to elucidating through verbal examples.

The meaning of the term shifted in the 1840s, where it came to be largely understood in a visual context. Text had long been deemed the worthier form, where images were merely seen as explaining or decorating the text. Grasping society’s shift in becoming visually literate, however, Catherine Gore wrote,

“all the world is now constructed by symbols.”


The two pages shown here from The Strand demonstrate how text and images in periodicals could each frame and thereby enrich one another, rather than one form holding dominance. An underlying struggle for increased autonomy between the two forms, however, persisted throughout the fin-de-siècle. This struggle represents larger tensions of the period and the pattern of perpetuating binaries. Such tensions existed between little and mass magazines, upper and lower classes and women and men. Individuals, too, would define themselves against others in terms of their chosen reading material. As modernism ultimately defined itself against Victorianism, magazines, in several ways, represent a microcosm of modernity.

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  Kelly Duval