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Awakening the Sleeping Beauty

The vital and multifaceted endeavours of the aesthetic movement are brought to light as never before

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, 1873-78

“I’m sure I had a poster of that when I was a student” was a comment overheard at the opening of “The Cult of Beauty: the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (until 17 July). In the later 1960s, these androgynous nudes and luscious limbs beneath folds of flaming silk were sexier than Playboy and fed the same soul-hunger that was satisfied by Pink Floyd. In the 1960s, as in the 1860s, they were a declaration of a lifestyle choice well defined by Angela Carter in 1967, describing a young girl going to a party dressed in a Mexican cotton wedding dress, her grandmother’s button boots, her mother’s fox fur and her old school beret “dug out of the loft because she saw Faye Dunaway in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.” W.S. Gilbert’s pinpointing of mix-and-don’t-match aesthetic dress in his 1882 opera, “Patience”, made the same point. Were these “eclectic fragments, robbed of their symbolic content”, as Carter suggested, or did they represent a real revolt against the Vietnam war and Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man”?

The same question, transposed backwards, needs to be asked about the aesthetic movement. Was “art for art’s sake”, as formulated by Walter Pater, as apolitical as it appears? The aesthetic movement was subversive and hugely influential—surely something political was happening here. “The Cult of Beauty”, curated by Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr, brings together a wonderful collection of objects, for a theme extending from painting to china collecting that only a multidisciplinary museum such as the V&A can effortlessly span. It demands a visit whether in London, Paris or San Francisco. The accompanying book is in the familiar V&A format, with 26 writers contributing to the publication. No contribution is without value, but the result is restless and the coverage of the subject uneven, making the book (like some of its predecessors) rather less than the sum of its parts.

The aesthetic movement’s “Palace of Art” may look like a hiding place from crudely politicised art history, but to exclude the possibility of well informed intellectual questioning is to undersell it, and, by implication, the whole subject area of decorative arts at the same time, even if the V&A’s visitor numbers are unlikely to reflect the lack. In Art for Art’s Sake (Yale 2007), Elizabeth Prettejohn (who contributes two excellent essays to The Cult of Beauty) laid down important new lines of inquiry, each an implied criticism of recent art historical method and a balancing revaluation of aestheticism. Two further books published in synchrony with the exhibition suggest how the Sleeping Beauty has scarcely been awakened from her slumbers.

Charlotte Gere’s Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement is the fulfilment of a long-gestated project in collaboration with the late Jeremy Maas. The primary matter is images and interpretations of artists’ “show” studios, one of the unique developments of the 1870s, but this brings with it a compelling tour d’horizon of the whole movement, which is described at one point, in an apt previewing of the next big V&A show, as “Victorian post-modernism”. Aestheticism is shown as an economic and social phenomenon, as diverse as the individuals involved, and yet utterly different from almost everything that had gone before. From her work on The Souls and other English networks of the 19th century, Gere knows all the people involved as if they were members of her own family. Her understanding of Victorian social conventions makes her analysis of the distinctions of gender and class convincing and not oversimplified. An artist’s wife would welcome reformed aesthetic dress as easier than a crinoline for the performance of household tasks in what could be a thankless life as “the angel in the house”.

The victims of George Du Maurier’s and Gilbert’s anti-aesthetic satires had the last laugh when wallpaper dados and Japanese fans became signifiers of arrival in the middle class, just as uncarpeted floors, uncurtained windows and designer chairs signify the same thing today. The Wildean brown velvet knickerbocker suit on show at the V&A, even more than the women’s clothes, represents the bravery of aesthetic dress, but the new generation of artists in the 1890s dressed more conventionally, and their successors have done so ever since.

In fact, aestheticism looks less like an episode of retreat to the inner world than a window opened on a possible future that closed again until the 1960s generation briefly glimpsed it through the briars encircling the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Whatever the unrealised potential of aestheticism to show us a better world may have been in the late-19th or 20th centuries, we have retained little of it into the 21st, apart from a more liberal attitude to sexuality, at least in the more civilised parts of the developed world. Art itself is expected to take up a political position, but we do not expect it to effect any substantial change, and would no doubt be worried about future corporate sponsorship if it did. With this in mind, Morna O’Neill’s Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Painting, and Politics, 1875-1890 comes as a refreshing surprise. Crane was a long-lived, wide-ranging figure, active in painting, decorative design, illustration, art education and socialist politics.

The fact that Crane became a socialist, inspired by William Morris, in 1884, makes a political interpretation necessary, but even if not all aesthetes felt the same way, the interpretation of his allegorical paintings suggests that simplistic readings of “art for art’s sake” are misleading. Rather than evading politics, aestheticism came to it by a subtler route than realist painters, a point that O’Neill makes in comparing Crane’s The Fate of Persephone, 1878, with Luke Fildes’ Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874. “Persephone breaks out of the Hermetic world of Aestheticism,” she writes, quoting the Magazine of Art where the painting was seen as “more modern, more entirely of the 19th century, than is a factory or a Positivist.” Unless we understand why this seemed so in 1878, we must surely be missing a great deal about aestheticism’s political message. Crane also helps us to see why “decorative” painting, allied to the crafts, was such an important category and the revolutionary implications of reforming homes and cities by lifting the burden of materialism.

In a series of chapters based on different symbolic motifs in Crane’s paintings, graphics and wallpapers, O’Neill shows an acute feel for Crane, for the period, and for the value of later critical voices in shedding light on it. Soul-hunger afflicts us still, but in the world of art history, head and heart are often kept separate. Here is an example of bringing them together that unlocks the past and reopens the window on the future.

The writer is professor in Architecture and Cultural History, University of Greenwich

The Cult of Beauty: the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, Stephen Calloway and Lynn Federle Orr, eds, V&A Publishing, 288 pp, £40 (hb)

Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement, Charlotte Gere, V&A Publishing, 240 pp, £30 (hb)

Walter Crane: The Arts and Crafts, Paintings and Politics, 1875-1890, Morna O’Neill, Yale University Press, 320 pp, £35 (hb)

Frederic, Lord Leighton, Pavonia, 1858-59
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