'The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900'

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'The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900'

Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2 April-17 July 2011

Musee d'Orsay, Paris, 12 September 2011-15 January 2012

de Young Museum, San Francisco, 18 February-17 June 2012

At the time of writing, 'The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900' was still showing in London, and it is on the basis of seeing that version of the show that I write. I understand that there will be significant variation in its content at the other venues, in Paris and San Francisco, but I am confident that in all three incarnations it will be one of the essential exhibitions of its time, compulsory viewing for anyone interested in 19th-century visual culture, and well worth travelling long distances to see. The accompanying book, too, is a desirable addition to any library.

There is, however, an omission from the account given of the Aesthetic Movement in both exhibition and book, so glaring that it cannot be an oversight but must surely represent a deliberate curatorial and editorial decision. If it does this then I think that it is a mistake. The Symbolist Movement in Britain, the 'vast scope, productivity, and duration' of which Wolfgang Kemp asserted as long ago as 1983, and the history and significance of which were trumpeted in a landmark exhibition at the Tate Gallery during 1997-8, seems to have been airbrushed from history, like Trotsky from Stalinist accounts of the Russian Revolution.

More than a third of the artists in that exhibition, 'The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910', turn up again in 'The Cult of Beauty', some of them even represented by the same work. Bearing in mind how many artists from continental Europe were included in that earlier show, and that the current one features a lot of applied arts, ephemera and photography, the extent becomes clear to which the line-ups of British personnel from the core fine-art disciplines of painting and sculpture in the two exhibitions correspond to one another. It is important that this be explained. I believe that if we fail to recognise not just the real distinction between the two movements, but also the extent to which they overlap, and the contexts that they provide for one another, we risk perpetuating the serious misunderstanding and underestimate of Aestheticism that pertained throughout the 20th century.

At the V&A, 'The Cult of Beauty' opened with a sort of visual fanfare, an iteration of themes that lent coherence to the huge and very various body of work that followed. This was clever, because the real fons et origo of Aestheticism is at first sight quite unobtrusive. In the true opening section of the exhibition, flanked by other modest-sized 'stunners' from the hands of Watts, Leighton, Sandys et al, there hung a smaller than life-size head-and-shoulders painting of a woman. This was Rossetti's Bocca Baciata ('Kissed Lips', 1859) and it is one of the key paintings of the 19th century. In the catalogue to the Symbolist exhibition (where also it had pride of place) Barbara Bryant described it as encapsulating 'the first moment of Aestheticism', while in the same book Andrew Wilton insisted that it was 'really where the story of Symbolism in Britain begins'. Both of them were right. Rossetti was a member of the avant-garde group centred on the Hogarth Club, where Bocca Baciata was first exhibited. To the extent that these artists reacted against the ugliness and spurious moralism of Victorian artistic and literary culture, and opposed it by the manufacture and appreciation of beautiful things, their work can be dubbed Aesthetic'. Where, however, their revolt was directed more against the culture's literalness and materialism, and their weapons were less tangible--were ideas--it might be called 'Symbolist'. Bocca Baciata embodies this bifurcation. In its physical manifestation--to the extent that it is an object--the painting is Aesthetic'. …