The Aesthetic Movement
By Lionel Lambourne
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
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
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. …