Beauty is generally considered old-fashioned by the young and not-so-young bloods of contemporary culture, so an exhibition appealing unashamedly to the aesthetically refined will not seduce the practitioners of sensationalism, bad taste and ever more self-indulgent and feeble art. But it will appeal to a public fed up with the empty, egomaniacal posturings of today’s fashionable art world nonentities, whose every burp and slurp is faithfully reported by a cynical press. At last, you may justifiably say, here is an exhibition to delight the eyes. Assuredly, it’s another of the V&A’s great blockbusters, and as such really too large to take in at one session, but at least it’s full of real art, worth more than a sneer or a puff. Actually, it’s an exhibition (unusually for the V&A) which is nearly all pictures, many of them very good indeed.
All art movements are born out of reaction to some other prevailing orthodoxy, and the Aesthetic Movement was no exception, rebelling against the art and ideas of the Victorian establishment. No longer should art be essentially didactic, seeking to propose and inculcate a habit of good conduct through ‘improving’ narratives; now beauty could be an end in itself, and the slogan ‘art for art’s sake’ became a rallying cry in art schools and salons. For a time, a whole host of disparate artists grouped somewhat uneasily beneath its banner.
The exhibition, sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, comprises more than 250 objects and is broadly chronological, dealing with the last four decades of the 19th century, and laid out in four sections. Ignore these and concentrate on individual exhibits: there is a vast amount to see, so don’t expect to be able to look at everything with the same degree of attention. Certain motifs will stand out as you move round the show, such as the peacock feather (no nonsense about them being unlucky), the lily and the sunflower, all favourites of the Aesthetes and all lending themselves wonderfully to decorative schemes and patterns. The exhibition opens with a painted and gilded bas-relief by Burne-Jones of a peacock, a fabulous earthenware peacock charger by William de Morgan and Lord Leighton’s languorous erotic sculpture ‘The Sluggard’. All around (and a feature of the exhibition design) are handsome filigree projections dropping patterns on the walls.
The mood is perfectly caught by the poet and arch aesthete Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, in an 1862 review published in The Spectator, wrote so pertinently of Baudelaire’s ‘Fleurs du Mal’: ‘It has the languid lurid beauty of close and threatening weather — a heavy heated temperature, with dangerous hothouse scents in it; thick shadow of cloud about it, and fire of molten light.’ Rarefied and intoxicating stuff. Look what it did to Swinburne, who, after too many excesses, allowed himself to be locked up by his minder Watts-Dunton, and, deprived of alcohol and flagellation, couldn’t write another inspired line. There’s a memorable portrait of him by William Bell Scott, with wild red hair and a large head dwarfing a spindly body. Below it hangs a Whistler etching of Venus to complete the story of the wages of voluptuousness.
One of the joys of this rich exhibition is the juxtaposition of objects: nearby are original designs for William Morris wallpaper, the ‘Sussex’ chair designed by Webb and Morris, a wall case of blue and white china and Whistler’s painting ‘Purple and Rose’, featuring some of the china in the cabinet. Here I first encountered murmuring (or more stridently muttering) tapes of supposedly appropriate poetry, rather tinnily broadcast. These were more an annoyance than a pleasure, like the whining of gnats and mosquitoes. I would rather have had something more robust if there had to be a ‘soundscape’; say a few rousing choruses from Gilbert and Sullivan’s satiric opera Patience instead.
But it’s difficult to argue with the line of beauties down the left wall of this first room, including Rossetti’s ‘Bocca Baciata’ and a study with peacock feathers by Watts, culminating in the superb portrait of the young Ellen Terry pretending to inhale the fragrance of a scentless camellia, in preference to the humble scented violets in her other hand. This symbolic (and thus in important ways hardly an example of ‘art for art’s sake’) image is also by Watts and is entitled ‘Choosing’. Looking down this line of female heads, I sympathised with the artists: just look at the host of determined jaws. At right-angles on the end wall is a huge Leighton painting, a processional frieze of figures and wild beasts. Nearby is a re-creation of Rossetti’s bedroom at 16 Cheyne Walk, which can only be viewed through three squints or slit windows. Thus does the exhibition design artfully enhance the art.
There are so many beautiful paintings, it’s impossible to list them all. Whether you respond particularly to Merlin overcome by hawthorn blossom and the willowy charms of Nimue (by Burne-Jones) or Whistler’s poignant designs for wall decoration at Aubrey House, London (what a wonderful abstract painter he was), there are treasures here beyond compare. There are intense pockets of beauty to be found, such as the grouping of Whistlers: the ‘Nocturne of Old Battersea Bridge’ with the portrait of that little ray of sunshine, Thomas Carlyle, and then the three Symphonies in White, from the Tate, Washington and Birmingham, hung electrically together. Breathtaking. As regards the applied arts, equally as important in the Aesthetic home, note the only known vases by E.W. Godwin, and a marvellous ebonised mahogany sideboard also by him. The classical figure paintings of Albert Moore are prominent, and hanging high is an arresting poster design by Fred Walker for ‘A Woman in White’.
The artists who come out best are Whistler (etchings and paintings particularly), Moore (in his particular control of pattern), Tissot and Leighton (even without ‘Flaming June’). But don’t forget the jewellery, the wallpapers, embroideries, tapestries and tile work; nor the costumes and illustrated books. And try not to be too overwhelmed by it all. The hefty accompanying book (£35 hb, £24.99 pb) is well designed and informative, destined to languish unread on coffee tables up and down the country, but deserving of closer and more sustained study. ‘Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods,’ as Oscar Wilde reminds us, and even the ugly may be made beautiful through the transforming power of art. The exhibition tours to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris (12 September 2011 to 15 January 2012) and then the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (18 February 2012 to 17 June 2012). Perhaps beauty will come back into fashion (if it has ever truly been out), and our shabby modern world will be gradually redeemed.