Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, armchair, c. 1884-6. © V&A Images
This Saturday sees the opening of “The Cult of Beauty” at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the most comprehensive exhibition devoted to Aesthetic Movement yet to be staged in Britain. Spanning roughly the period from the 1860s to 1900, Aestheticism was much more than simply an artistic movement: it was a lifestyle, a state of mind, and a strikingly modern means of personal expression. What began among a small group of friends who rejected what they saw as the ugliness, mechanisation and stifling conventionality of mid-Victorian society became a design movement that touched every aspect of life, from fine art to furnishings, from fashion to bookbinding.
Aestheticism’s breadth and complexity can make it hard to pin down, but William Morris’ famous statement – “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful” – neatly sums up both the aims and the totalising ambitions of the movement, of which Morris was one of the most influential figures. Others whose lives and careers were linked to Aestheticism include members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, James McNeill Whistler, and Oscar Wilde. Aesthetes believed in art for art’s sake and the pursuit of beauty as an end in itself, not as a moralising or edifying force – something that shocked the artistic establishment of the day. They were committed, too, to the belief that every object should be a thing of beauty wherever possible, elevating decorative art to the status of fine art and breaking down the traditional boundaries between art forms. The V&A itself is to a large extent a product of this philosophy, meaning that there could hardly be a more appropriate venue for the exhibition. In fact, if you’ve ever enjoyed a meal in the museum’s gorgeous Green Dining Room, a Morris creation, you’ve already experienced one of the greatest surviving Aesthetic interiors.
Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, 1873-78 © LaingArtGallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
The Cult of Beauty gathers together over 250 objects from public and private collections, including masterpieces of portraiture, rare surviving examples of Aesthetic dress and jewellery, sculpture, books and architectural designs. Visitors are led on a roughly chronological journey from Aestheticism’s beginnings in bohemian London’s sitting-rooms, through its explosion in popularity and subsequent mockery in the national press, to its eventual evolution into the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. Among the obvious highlights – including a 360-degree recreation of Whistler’s breathtaking Peacock Room, portraits by Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley – are some less well-known but equally fascinating gems: Christopher Dresser’s almost Deco-like teapots look 60 years ahead of their time; the intriguing ‘Fan of Lady X’ was decorated by twenty of the leading artistic figures of the day, but the identity of its original owner remains a mystery.
Frederic, Lord Leighton, Pavonia, 1858-59. © Private Collection c/o Christie’s
In keeping with the all-encompassing nature of Aestheticism itself, the visiting experience is an immersive one. No plain white walls and stark gallery lighting here: backdrops are painted in the key colours of the Aesthetic palette – a rich peacock blue and the ‘greenery-yallery’ mocked by Gilbert & Sullivan and favoured by Aesthetic artists at their original exhibitions. Shimmering projections of key Aesthetic motifs, the peacock feather and the lily, complement the exhibits and add to the intensity of the atmosphere. It’s a hard balance to strike between overwhelming and enhancing the displays, but the curators have pulled it off to a marvel. The one element that doesn’t quite work is the looped recordings of poetry: not audible enough to really allow you to appreciate the language, they end up being merely offputting.
Though Aestheticism is perhaps less widely understood today than many 19th-century artistic movements (though this exhibition is sure to change that), our modern attitudes towards the relationship between life, art and design owe it a huge debt. It was the Aesthetic Movement that confirmed the modern notion of the artist as celebrity and as public property; that cemented the idea that what you wore could express not your occupation or social rank but rather your sense of self and personality; that developed, in a way which has fascinating parallels with the modern vintage movement, a taste for drawing on the styles and tastes of previous eras – Classical Greece, the Middle Ages – in an eclectic attempt to return to a more refined and enduringly beautiful past.
“The Cult of Beauty” runs from 2 April to 17 July before moving on to Paris and San Francisco.