A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

L is for Leisure

Today some left-wing writers dream of a future of ‘fully-automated luxury communism’ in which robots, machines, and AI have destroyed the need for work or employment and people are able to devote their time to leisure. This idea has a much longer history. Leisure was also at centre of nineteenth-century socialist predictions of (or hopes for) the future. In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, published in 1887, U.S citizens were all educated up to the age of 21, worked until the age of 45, and then were able to devote the rest of their life to leisure. William Morris’s 1890 work News from Nowhere presented a utopian socialist society in which pleasure was taken in work and a leisurely life predominated.

This should not surprise us, since leisure – and its abundance or lack – was central to nineteenth-century thinking about the present. In Albert Rodiba’s 1890 La Vie Electrique we are offered an image of the twentieth century that features the ‘physical decay of the over-refined’. Drawing on longer running concerns about the softening of elite bodies stretching back to eighteenth-century authors, Rodiba portrayed an infantilised and bed-ridden elite whose interest was in books rather than physical exertion. Larger, egg-like, heads are supported by thin, weak, bodies. The physiognomic process at work was pictured in Rodiba’s view of future learning in which a boy’s educational transition into adulthood and old age is presented in profile.

Rodiba’s illustrations would resonate with the analyses of Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) was a barbed critique of an American upper class whose unproductive leisure and consumption illustrated their social superiority. They also resonated with late nineteenth-century fears about ‘degeneration’, the titular term of an 1892 work by Max Nordau in which he argued that the ‘mystic, symbolic, and decadent’ culture of the fin-de-siècle had produced an epidemic of hysteria and neurasthenia. Whilst many futurological writers and artists envisaged a future with more leisure, it was clear that there were anxieties about the effects of too much leisure on life and health.

The Physical Decay of the Overrefined’ in Albert Rodiba, La Vie Electrique (Paris, 1890).