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Review: Sex and Sensibility, BBC 4

Set against political scandal, mass immigration and growing cultural hysteria, this three-part BBC d

New Statesman
Photo: Getty Images

Despite, being a dazzling time full of progress and change, as the turning of a new century loomed, drug abuse, sexual deviance and syphilis were rife. Europe in the late 1800s was a hot bed of radical ideas and “there were also more ominous undercurrents”. Indeed, as Smith points out Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, at art nouveau’s height.

The first episode, broadcast last Thursday, explores the rise and fall of this flamboyant decorative style from it’s emergence in the Bohemian underbelly of Paris onto the streets of the city, giving us an insight into both the flourishing aesthetic of art nouveau and the lives of some of the city’s most glamorous and controversial fin de siècle figures.

Smith looks at the iconic, sensual images of actress Sarah Bernhardt, the exclusive architecture of the famous Maxim’s restaurant, Paris’s art nouveau metro stations as well as the exquisitely gaudy beauty of jewellery designed by Renee Lalique. But Smith’s exploration of this decadent world is  not just a flick through the picture books, as he reveals how some of art nouveau's stars risked their reputation to give meaning and purpose to work they thought would affect social change.

In Episode two Smith shifts his exploration to Britain wherein the “sensuality of exotic foreign influences met the genius of British craftsmanship”. Our art nouveau heritage is excavated revealing the “meteoric”, “dazzling”, “controversial” yet brief career of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley whose illustrations and association with Oscar Wilde scandalised the British public of the day. Smith also looks at the work of William Morris and Charles Rene McKintosh as well as lesser-known talents such as Margaret Macdonald.

Episode three, airing on Thurdsay 5th April, will see Smith journeying to Vienna to take a look at the master of art nouveau, Gustav Klimt.

The series uncovers glimpses into the world of art nouveau. Through visits to their private houses, previously unseen collections of their work and interviews with their enthusiasts, Smith talks engagingly and intriguingly about this fashion fad that disappeared almost as fast as it emerged. Whether you are a fan of the art nouveau style or not, the scandalous lives of its fin de siècle’s participants more than makes up for its over-the-top and whimsical aesthetics.