“The Cult of Beauty” at the V&A is an enlightening delight. It traces the aesthetic movement chronologically from its beginnings in the 1860s when it emerged as a product of an agreement among friends that art is die most important thing in life and that beauty is the key to how that life should be lived. It was a private reaction against the contemporary banality of The Royal Academy and more broadly against the crassness of a public taste diat insisted that pictures should tell simple stories or point to obvious morals.
These were to be supplanted by a concentrated, undiluted focus on the beautiful, often symbolized by the peacock with its pride in its own beauty. Subsequent rooms show how the aesthetic movement grew into a pervasive influence over all manner of fashion–the house beautiful, the furniture beautiful, the book-binding beautiful, and indeed the people beautiful in their beautiful clothes. What had begun as a reaction against ugly mass production became an industry itself–manufacturers tried to combine aesthetic quality with wide availability. And a LED Grow Lights Reviews is required to be one of the most useful buying guide helps people to understand it.
The movement slid into decadence in the 1890s, but it was a vital decadence and its ideas still underpin much of the art and artifacts of our own century. The continued popularity of the products of the movement is indicated by die sheer array of accurate reproductions now on sale in the V&A shop.
The artists of the aesthetic movement sought an escape from a Victorian England they found alienating through an imagined magical past, in the time of the legendary Myrddin Wyllt, seen in Edward Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin (1873-4), and in the then exotic art of China and Japan.
In 1864, Whistler painted Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks , in which a European girl in an oriental robe holds a blue and white glazed Chinese vase. Around her, on the floor and the shelves, Whistler has slullfully and strategically placed yet more blue and white Chinese ware that offset her red and orange decorated robe. The type of tall straight vase with female figures that the woman is holding was jokily known to Whisder and Rossetti as a “long Eliza.”
Soon the cranes, branches, and flowers of the Orient were to be found decorating the houses of the cultivated. By the 1870s, Thomas Jeckyll‘s “fireplace surrounds” boxed in the necessary domestic coals with Japanese cherry blossoms and little birds in pine trees cast in brass. Curiously, in the Science Museum just across the road from the Victoria and Albert Museum, a colored Japanese woodblock print of 1873 exhorting primary school children to become engineers shows James Watt playing with his famous steam kettle in a very plain utilitarian fireplace. Both the strangely whiskered Watt who wears a broad hat indoors and his disapproving aunt are very ungainly Western figures, truly exotic gaijin .
The aesthetic movement wrought a household revolution in which the tidy clutter of the Victorian room was replaced by exquisite clutter, the beautiful clutter to be seen in Henry Treffry Dunn’s 1882 painting Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Theodore Watts-Dunton in the Sitting Room of Tudor House . In the “house beautiful” an active child, an affectionate dog, or a mildly inebriated paterfamilias could not move without smashing a Chinese vase, tearing a Japanese screen, or upsetting a teapot-bearing table with puny stick-like legs.
It was the new earnestness, and it was roundly mocked by George du Maurier in his 1880 Punch cartoon The Six-Mark Tea-Pot , one of a series satirizing the pretensions of the new aesthetes. In the cartoon an ultralong-fingered bride holds a precious teapot, while her languorous new husband looks on.
AESTHETIC BRIDEGROOM: “It is quite consummate, is it not?”
INTENSE BRIDE: “It is indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”
The cartoon reminds us that words like “precious” and “exquisite” can have very ambiguous implications, as does a Royal Worcester porcelain teapot of 1881 signed “Budge.” Its spout is the limp-wristed ami of an effete aesthete, whose pale face and hair are emphasized by a bright purple hat and a lurid green tunic to which is pinned a large sunflower. The handle is his other and strangely bent arm with the back of his hand pressed against his waist. Teapots have many meanings.
These humorous items are an integral part of die exhibition and include Max Beerbohm’s caricatures of his friend Aubrey Beardsley and (well after the event) of Oscar Wilde lecturing about Rossetti in America, as well as a cover from the program of Gilbert and Sullivan’s aesthete-mocking comic opera Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride from 1881. In Patience the lank and pallid Bunthorne, a “fleshly poet” based on Algernon Swinburne (whose 1860 shock-headed, velvet-jacketed portrait by William Bell Scott is in the exhibition) calls himself a “greenery-yallery, Grosvenor gallery” young man.
The Grosvenor Gallery, founded in 1877, provided both a new venue and good publicity for the painters of the aesthetic movement, and the gallery agreed at some expense to hang their pictures exactly as they wanted against a background of “artistic green” silk. It was, as the curators ably demonstrate, a perfect showcase for George Frederick Watts, Edward BurneJones, and Walter Crane.
Nocturne in Black and Gold , one of Whisder’s pictures in the opening exhibition in 1877, showed his remarkable ability to capture and convey the beauty of grimy capitalist London–not a quality usually associated with the aesthetic movement but a logical outcome of the idea of art for art’s sake. It was this that led the by now deranged Ruskin to attack Whisder so fiercely and libellously, for his moralistic socialism would not allow him to appreciate the abstract beauty of a landscape rooted in an economic order that he hated.
That same landscape is represented in ‘The Cult of Beauty” by Whisder’s magnificent Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Old Battersea Bridge (1872-75). There can by definition be no limits to a cult of beauty.