The Pick - The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900

April 7, 2011

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What is now the Victoria and Albert Museum played a crucial role in the development of the Aesthetic Movement by giving William Morris' firm its first major commission: the creation of the Green Dining Room, which is now often referred to simply as the Morris Room. So there could be no better setting for what curator Stephen Calloway claims is the most elaborate exhibition ever devoted to this theme (until 17 July).

The brief is interpreted rather broadly, and takes in everything from early decoration manuals, the development of "art photography" and "the book beautiful" to responses to the influx of genuine Japanese art after 1855 (inevitably not as good as the fantasy), not to mention the fashion inspired by the claim that "on moral, hygienic and economic as well as aesthetic grounds a woman's clothes should reflect her form".

So, like the theatrical "palaces of art" the painters chose to live in, The Cult of Beauty offers a cornucopia of wonderful objects: a sideboard by Edward Burne-Jones featuring medieval women feeding parakeets; wallpaper with bats and sunflowers on red figured satin; and Christopher Dresser's faux-Japanese "moon flasks", bamboo table with blue and white crane tiles and startlingly modern tableware.

Satiric responses to the Aesthetic Movement in general and Oscar Wilde in particular are reflected in a limp-wristed teapot and a "new aesthetical roundelay" under the title of Quite Too Utterly Utter.

The exhibition also seeks to rope into its central thesis most of the major painters - the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites based around Dante Gabriel Rossetti; James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who had just arrived from Paris; and the so-called "Olympians" such as Frederick Leighton - on the grounds that all chose models "whose looks - and lifestyles - were at odds with conventional Victorian ideals of demure femininity". Yet the ways they portrayed women could hardly be more different.

Leighton's women are the most coldly "aesthetic", dazzling clothes horses or part of the interior decoration. Rossetti's are fleshy, inviting or perhaps post-coital, even when kitted out in medieval fancy dress. His disciple Frederick Sandys, much admired by the famously masochistic poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, had quite a line in women biting at their own hair.

Whistler is different again. He may have claimed that his Symphony in White, No. 1 was just an image of "a girl dressed in white standing in front of a white curtain", but although she's on a bearskin rug she is also recognisably contemporary and individual. His etchings of Venice and a Nocturne of Old Battersea Bridge looming out of the moonlight have a sober realism that makes many of the other artists look pretty stagy. But provided one can put up with all the peacock feathers, it's hard not to be uplifted by this lavish exhibition.

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