[Exhibition Review] The Cult of Beauty


'Choosing', George Frederic Watts, 1864. National Portrait Gallery, London

It would be difficult to find someone who hadn’t heard of William Morris, James McNeill Whistler or Oscar Wilde, considering the level to which each name has penetrated the cultural social consciousness. However, it may prove more difficult to find a way to link such initially diverse figures. How many would realise that all three figures were leading proponents of the Aesthetic Movement in the late nineteenth century?

In response, the V&A have assembled their newest temporary exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. Running from 2 April until 17 July, the exhibition examines the work of a movement which spanned fine art, textiles, furniture, jewellery, poetry and even photography, among others, in its forty year span.

The 1860s saw the rise of the so-called “Cult of Beauty”. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and James McNeill Whistler began exploring ideas surrounding female beauty. The traditional image of the corseted, prim Victorian woman was jettisoned in favour of a return to the flowing robes of Classical imagery. James McNeill Whistler was the first to explore the idea of “Art for Art’s Sake”, which was his defence against an attack by the influential critic, John Ruskin. Whistler extended his interest into architecture and interior design into the layout of galleries, and staged his own exhibitions to regain control of the viewing experience. Indeed, the idea of beauty was continued beyond simply that of the female, and the artists set about designing their own furniture and decorating their homes in a style that matched the opulence of their paintings.

Unsurprisingly, the fashionable and the wealthy caught onto the trend, and began to decorate their homes according to the styles and fashions favoured by the artists. Portraits were commissioned, women rejected corsets in favour of the more liberated Aesthetic style of dress, and manuals were published to help this new circle in choosing furnishings and decor. Much of the furniture and textiles was inspired by Japanese design, or even art from ancient Egypt.

By the 1880s, the Aesthetic Movement had become a figure of fun, with satire poking a stick at it from a distance. Oscar Wilde invented himself as the first celebrity style guru, and cartoons making fun of the Movement appear in Punch. It’s difficult to think of Wilde being a forerunner to the likes of Gok Wan and Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, but the parallels aren’t hard to see when you know where to look. By this point, the beginnings of Art Nouveau are self evident, particularly in the illustration work of Aubrey Beardsley.

The V&A have divided the exhibition into four major chronological periods, with each period subdivided into areas. It boasts a vast array of paintings, photographs, jewellery and home furnishings, and as ever, I’m bowled over by the sheer volume of things on display. When the news is full of dark and terrible things, the exhibition provides an opportunity to immerse yourself in a world of truly beautiful things that nourish the soul. Perhaps things can simply be gorgeous for the sake of it, and we should remember a time when art meant more than simply putting your bed on display.

Full price tickets cost £12, while senior citizens pay £9. Full-time students, 12-17 year olds and ES40 holders all pay £7. Art Fund members pay half price. For more details, see the V&A website.


8 Responses to “[Exhibition Review] The Cult of Beauty”

  1. Utterly decadent. Too too devine. Sex for sex sake. Nods to the fashionably feminist. Nincompoopiana at its most extreme. Will we ever be able to live it down?

  2. My comments were directed at the interpretation given to the exhibits as generally reported and as outlined in the book of the same title. Art for Arts sake is a pretty ditty but completely irrelevant when applied to the decorative arts which have function and may also be beautiful. Your point on Wilde, who we all admire as aa amusing literary figure but are not aware of as a designer, is well and justly made. Surely all Burne Jones pictorial art has narrative and cannot be art for art’s sake?

    • Oh I quite agree that Burne-Jones, like many of the Pre-Raphaelites, engages with narrative and his work is heavy with symbolism, thereby distancing his work from the concept of Art for Art’s Sake.

      However, I think in this case, Whistler’s treaty on Art for Art’s Sake was directed more at his own work – his Nocturnes, for example, or his Symphony in White series, have no real narrative to them, and are either explorations in the effects of light or colour. Perhaps his lack of symbolism is what Ruskin so abhorred, thus leading to Whistler’s treaty as a defence.

      As a result, the idea of art as being pretty just for the sake of being pretty are possibly more applicable to the furniture design, architecture and textiles produced during this period than to the actual art itself.

  3. So the works of Burne Jones and several other pictorial artists dont belong in this exhibition. Whistler’s do, as they are art for arts sake, having no narrative or purpose other than beauty.
    Furniture architecture and textiles – all the decorative arts – have function as a primary cause of their existence and logically cannot be ‘art for arts sake’. Once constructed or made, they may be decorated, altho’ to quote Dresser ‘this cannot be said to be absolutely necessary’. This division between these two quite distinct branches of art was lost on Ruskin hence the confusion of his followers – this continues to this day and is perpetuated in this exhibition which should have corrected his flawed interpretation not enshrined it for yet another generation.

  4. Im not sure Cynthia is right about Art for Arts Sake being pertinent to pictorial or fine art only. Surely the Department of Word and Image at the V&A would not hi-jack the exhibition for its own ends – even if they appeal to humour and base nature?
    Surely Ruskin is right in all his utterances – who for example admires Constable or Pugin since Ruskin belittled them?
    I worry that the French will think that when it came to decadence, dandyism, art for arts sake, feminism and sex they were, and remain, well ahead of the British and have nothing to learn from this exhibition.

  5. Would so love to see that one! Nice write up.

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