The Aesthetics and Their Artful Fits and Fashions

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The Aesthetic Movement

By Lionel Lambourne

Phaidon Press 240 pp., $59.95 "The Aesthetic Movement," wrote James Laver in his 1930 book about the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, "is one of the most curious and complicated phenomena of English social history." Lionel Lambourne, in his close-packed book "The Aesthetic Movement" (a movement that flourished in the 1870s and '80s), has taken up the challenge of this complexity. The difficult thing is to strike the right balance between the deservedly satirized absurdities indulged by some of the "movement's" camp followers and the perfect seriousness at its root. Perhaps it was not really a movement at all, but more of a confluence of individuals who looked, to outsiders (not always sympathetic), as if they had certain fads and foibles, tastes and fashions in common. The latter part of the 19th century was a web of interwoven proclivities. The "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," which chronologically precedes the aesthetic period, was a comparatively close association of painters with a shared aim. The Arts and Crafts movement brought together working idealists. The Aesthetic Movement was as much a period as it was a style, and it manifested itself not only in paintings and poetry but also in such fashionable things as clothes, house decoration, even "collectibles." Mr. Lambourne might have emphasized a little more the distinctly urban character of aestheticism. They liked flowers (well, sunflowers, lilies, and maybe poppies), and they liked birds (well, peacocks), but one feels that they saw nature as something for bumpkins and possibly for children, or for children's books, at any rate. Artificiality (or at least artifice) walking hand in hand with a delight in the theatrical was the aesthetic credo. It is summed up in the cliche, "art for art's sake." Oscar Wilde said that he felt "an irresistible desire to wander and go to Japan, where I will pass my youth, sitting under an almond tree, drinking amber tea out of a blue cup, and looking at a landscape without perspective." It is hard to take his sentiments at face value. Was he being funny, deliberately preposterous? Why was it that the deadly serious had to be presented through the clever defensiveness of wit all the time? What Lambourne's story most successfully conveys is the fragility of aestheticism, and the sensitive, ironic awareness of this felt by its more notable figures like Whistler and Wilde. Both of them were caught up in famous trials. Both were exceptional wits and skilled self-promoters. Both could laugh at themselves when it was advantageous. When Whistler was satirized in a play (during the run-up to the trial in which he sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel for accusing him of being a "coxcomb" and "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face"), he actually cooperated with the production. …