“Art for art’s sake” is now popularly associated with MGM, who have adopted it as their slogan. It has, however, resonated with an array of political and cultural groups throughout history; and none more so than the aesthetes of the nineteenth century. Described as their “bohemian creed”, this was the philosophy which underpinned the work of William Morris, Rossetti, Whistler and their set.
The V & A museum was a highly appropriate venue for the “Cult of Beauty” exhibition. Just streets away from the site of the Grosvenor Gallery and the Chelsea homes of its artists, the museum was founded in 1852. As such it was in a prime position to observe the movement when it took hold in 1860. Their permanent collection features a number of works which belong to that era, but this exhibition brought works from around the world to glorify their pursuit of beauty.
For the aesthetes, beauty was an end in itself. This countered more traditional views that art should have a didactic or edifying quality. Theirs was a broad definition of beauty. They chose models who defied contemporary ideas about what made a woman attractive, whose looks were generally wilder than their demure Victorian peers. Nonetheless, they did return to the conventional motifs of sunflowers, lilies and peacocks. The interior of the famous Peacock Room was projected onto a round screen, which gave an effective impression of its opulence.
This was a controversial venture, which led to a serious rift between Leyland and Whistler, the latter of whom changed Leyland’s design such that it was unrecognisable from the original. This incident has even been credited with having provoked Leyland’s psychological decline.
The interactions between this volatile set was often as intriguing as the work they created. Many of the paintings featured the wives, lovers and muses of the artists. This gave the exhibition an air of romance and seduction, but also a distinctly personal quality. William Morris married his wife Jane Burden after discovering her. The surviving painting “La Belle Iseult” was displayed, and showed Jane posing in a scene from Tristram and Isolde.
A love of mythology infiltrated much of the work shown. The aesthetic artists were highly educated intellectuals, who demonstrated their knowledge of Greek and Roman culture through representing “Victorians in togas”. This was especially reflected in Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s work. He was lauded for his knowledge of Pompeian culture. Giuseppe Fiorelli had revived such enthusiasm by excavating the site in 1860. These discoveries were current affairs at the time of the aesthetic movement, so they were fixed in the consciousness of these culturally aware artists.
They were even more preoccupied with the “Japonesque” and vied with each other to have the biggest collection of the fashionable blue and white china pieces from Japan. Such items appeared in a number of the paintings exhibited, and the models were posed with Japanese fans to show how cosmopolitan they were. This was particularly obvious in the paintings of the Ionides family, wealthy patrons of the aesthetic movement.
The final room of the exhibition contained works from the end of the period, approaching the dawn of the 20th century. The most striking of these was the cast of Eros in the centre of the room. This is identical to the statue in Piccadilly Circus, which commemorates the Victorian philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. It was a rare opportunity to look at it in such close detail. This was a powerful and memorable end to an exhibition which revealed so much about a fascinating group of individuals and their influential art movement.