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.