The Cult of Beauty, The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London from 2 April to 17 July 2011. See www.VisitMuseums.com for further details. By Larissa Woolf, VisitMuseums.com Arts Editorial Contributor
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is currently putting on a fantastic exhibition until 17 July 2011 on the Aesthetic Movement in Britain. This innovative show has bravely taken on a subject theme that is both wide and challenging as it embraces all areas of the art, literary, cultural and design world in late Victorian England. As you enter through its doors into this iconic cultural era you will be amazed by sublime Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the likes of grand masters such as Rossetti, Millais and Edward Burne Jones as well as iconic pieces of furniture, objets d’art and ceramics designed by craftsmen such as William de Morgan and Lawrence Alma Tadema, to name but a few of the grand masters on display.
The Aesthetic movement was characterised not only by the desire to create a new form of art based on the revolutionary ideal of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ but was a movement that was savagely reacting to the materialism, ugliness and rigidity of Victorian England. Artists were searching for a new kind of art free from the stiff cultural ideas and moral codes of the time and instead focused on what was beautiful and sensual. They aimed to create visual and tactile delights, art that didn’t have a moral or religious message and that had as one of its principal ideals the stimulation of one sense by another. The exhibition opens dramatically with ‘The Sluggard’- a stunning , life size statue by Leighton of an athlete waking up from sleep. The fact that this was not marble but painted to imitate bronze would have been a shock for many contemporary Victorians. We are introduced to the three key motifs of the Movement: the peacock, representing pure beauty and resurrection; sunflowers, symbol of masculine beauty and the lily; a new flower for the Victorian garden, representing purity. We learn that furniture became works of art as well as functional objects, such as the beautiful and evocative Edward Burne Jones sideboard, entitled ‘Ladies and Animals’. Ceramic tiles, chairs, stained glass panels and the wallpaper designs of William Morris, known throughout the world for his floral and vibrant patterns, are showcased. The craze for blue and white china and amassing as large a collection as possible paved the way for fierce competition between artists like Rossetti and Whistler. Moreover Japanese inspired motifs infiltrated all aspects of artistic life and shows its influence in many of the paintings, drawings and decorative objects.
Without doubt one of the most impressive sections of the exhibition is the array of Pre-Raphaelite portraits that adorn one of the first rooms of the show – the curators clearly set out to impress us and it works! Walking alongside these iconic and whimsical beauties is truly awe inspiring, amongst them Frederick Leighton’s Pavonia (1858-9), her sultry, decadent beauty reaching out to mock or inspire us; her face framed by a stunning, colourful array of peacock feathers. One moves from grand master painting to another – Rossetti’s ‘Veronica Veronese’ for example is tremendous. She sits in a rich green velvet dress with full lips, her trademark rich auburn hair, long neck and voluptuous curves in a passionate reverie, gently plucking her violin and contemplating life. These painters were truly creating new types of beauty, a new art, an aesthetic ideal.
Admittedly the exhibition is perhaps too adventurous, presenting us with a wealth of information that seems at times a little overwhelming as it tries to give us such an in depth critique of all the intricacies of the Aesthetic movement and its various champions and critics. We hear about the intense rivalry between John Ruskin and Whistler and the former’s virulent attack on Whistler’s pictures at the first Grosvenor show and his scorn for the concept of ‘Art for Art’s’ sake. Yet as you walk through and admire all the showcases you would be hard pressed not to find objects and paintings that correspond to your own personal interest. Jewellery by Edward Burne Jones , a purse by Jane Morris are juxtaposed with furniture designed by Godwin, Cameron’s black and white photos, Elgin’s marbles, and grand Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces such as Whistler’s ‘Symphony in White, Rosettti’s ‘Day Dream’ and Leighton’s ‘The Bath of Psyche. For me I was particularly transfixed by the two fans that were on display, one a black gruesome fan with bats encircling each other. The other fan, entitled ‘Fan of Lady X,’ in ink, watercolour, gouache on sandalwood was particularly unusual as a historical piece of social life, acting as a modern day autograph book with 39 artists’ autographs and portraits etched at the top of each baton. A social movement with strong links between the artists and its patrons we come across delightful portraits of aristocrats such as Frederic Leighton’s ‘Countess Bromlow’ and Millais’ realistic portrait of Kate Perugini, Dickens’ daughter as well as a video installation of the Peacock room, the most celebrated interior in the Aesthetic style. Not to forget a commentary on Oscar Wilde and the important role he had as the most famous aesthete of his time, his super subtle sensibility and passionate response to poetry and decoration so at odds with Victorianism.
My advice is to go the Victoria and Albert Museum as soon as you can.. And if you are a Pre-Raphaelite art lover, like me, allow plenty of time!
The Cult of Beauty, The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London from 2 April to 17 July 2011. See www.VisitMuseums.com for further details.