Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A


As you walk into the entrance lobby of the dimly-lit galleries in which the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Cult of Beauty exhibition is housed you are immediately faced with an arrangement of objects which serve to conjure the spirit of the Aesthetic Movement of the mid to late 19th century which is its subject. There is a glazed dish with a peacock design made by William de Morgan, an employee of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts firm who had branched out on his own and opened his own ceramics workshops in the 1870s. The peacock’s feathers fan out to fill the left hand of the plate, following the curve of its edge, and seem to glimmer with an almost metallic sheen. There is a lengthwise photograph of a bowl of lilies by Frederick Hollyer, and a pair of andirons for the fire designed by Thomas Jeckyll in the form of sunflowers. All of these had symbolic import for the artists and followers of the Aesthetic Movement, Peacock feathers embodied a self-justificatory glorying in display and the favouring of jewelled colours. They stood for art for art’s sake, as Whistler put it. There was also something of the Byzantine mosaic quality to the feathers, which seemed designed to catch the light of the dying sun, or the decadant fade of empire towards the fin de siecle. If the peacock represented empty splendour, the lily symbolised the eternal soul, its white flowers suggested an unblemished purity, and was, for those who sported it, an indication of heightened sensitivity and attunement to spiritual rather than material values. It was the Aesthetic accessory par excellence, and was carried with a mixture of earnestness, irony and defiance in the face of Victorian convention. Its long, sinuous stem and pallid petals, which seem to droop under their own weight, also served as an analogue of the Aesthete’s ideal figure: tall, willowy and prone to draping itself decorously over the nearest piece of exquisite furniture. It was an absolute gift for the satirists and caricaturists of the day. If the lily suggested moonlight and nighttime, then the sunflower was its opposite. The flower of the summer day, it burned with bright, Apollonian light, the illumination of creation and artistic inspiration. Its yellow became one of the key colours in the Aesthetic palette. Whilst it was incorporated into various designs and paintings and was regularly carried about by Oscar Wilde, it was the lily which became the dominant symbol of Aestheticism. It was cool and distanced and a touch aloof.

There is also a bronze statue in this opening arrangement, The Sluggard by Frederick Leighton. It stands as the perfect representation of the Aesthetic figure – languid, listless and stretched into an artful disposition of limb and torso. Its modesty is minimally preserved by a miniscule fig-leaf, and is a bold indication the Aesthetic Movement looked back to the Classical world in embracing male as well as female beauty. This sometimes manifested itself in the expression of homosexual desire, and such open display of sensuality was to attract strong opprobrium and lead to a disastrous end for several of the movement’s figures, both prominent and lesser known. The intermixing of fine and applied art objects in this introductory display, the prelude to the exhibition proper, with materials ranging from bronze and wood to ceramics and iron, also indicates the wide reach of the Aesthetic Movement. More than merely visual art, it was a lifestyle, an interior design look, a fashion, a literary style and, perhaps above all, an elegantly struck pose.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The exhibition’s trail through the later decades of the nineteenth century England begins with a series of paintings which depict the search for a new ideal of feminine beauty. Some of the principal figures of the Aesthetic Movement are introduced, divided into separate groups. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler, and Frederick (later Lord) Leighton and George Frederic Watts. Broadly speaking, they can be said to represent the Romantic and Classical divisions of Aestheticism, although such distinctions are largely academic. Watts and Leighton remained firmly ensconced within the Royal Academy establishment, at the heart of the recognised art world (as indicated by Leighton’s ennoblement). Those gathered around Rossetti’s circle, and later launching themselves beyond his orbit, tended on the other hand to stand in opposition to the Academy’s dictates, whether through necessity or design. Leighton and Watts were the leading figures of a group sometimes known as the Olympians, partly due to the colossal scale of their works, which frequently extended to the monumental size of the pictures themselves. Leigton’s Pavonia, a portrait of a dark-haired figure glancing back over her shoulder, her hair haloed with a fan of peacock feathers, has been used for the V&A’s exhibition poster. It’s very effective as such, Pavonia seeming to turn to look directly at the viewer, who finds themselves standing in for some imaginary interlocutor. The name Pavonia is a paradoxical feminine version of the Latin word pavonius, which means peacock. Leighton’s classicism tended to veer towards exotica, as can be seen in his frieze-like painting The Syracusan Bride, in which a parade of female supplicants of varying ethnicity make their way along a path leading to a temple. This wedding party includes women leading tamed lions, tigers and leopards. Such classical fantasies also provided an excuse to expose a good deal of flesh, the temporal and geographical distance and air of literariness lending such displays an air of semi-respectability. Whilst Rosetti and his circle generated a significant amount of moral outrage over their supposed debasement of noble artistic values, the likes of Leighton and Alma-Tadema didn’t raise an eyebrow with their bathing scenes and sleeping beauties.

Frederick Sandys - Gentle Spring
Frederick Sandys’ Gentle Spring typifies the Aesthtic’s presentation of the female subject as symbolic figure. His English variant of Botticelli’s Primavera is a pagan embodiment of the turning season, a verdant Goddess surrounded by blossoming life, a rainbow promise arcing above her head, flowers bursting into colourful life in her footsteps. Female figures are often bordered or laurelled with flowers in Aesthetic paintings, usually with traditional folk or literary import intended. Fruits of similarly symbolic weight also hang pendant, or are clutched or laid on tables, half-eaten. Sandys’ picture of Vivien (complete with fruit, flower and peacock feather array), the sorceress sometimes identified with the Lady of the Lake, also indicates the importance of Arthurian mythology to the movement, and of a dream of medieval life in general. This is particularly apparent in the work of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, although Rossetti, who had gone through his medieval period with the Pre-Raphaelites, tended now to look elsewhere for inspiration. Sandys was a follower of Rossetti’s who had produced an amusing satirical representation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood called A Nightmare in 1857. In this pastiche of John Everett Millais’ Sir Isumbras at the Ford, the armoured Millais rides a rather baleful and ragged mule identified as the critic John Ruskin (a champion of the PRB at a time when others were deriding it), with Rossetti sitting on his knee in a dress, and a tiny William Holman Hunt clinging on to Millais behind. William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel’s brother, describes in his writings about the artistic milieu of the time how Sandys fell out with Rossetti. He felt that Sandys was cleaving rather too closely to his subject matter and style. Such borrowing was literally the case with his picture Medea of 1868 which, like Vivien, used his gypsy lover Keomi Gray as a model, and in which he borrowed the red bead necklace which Rossetti had used in his famous portrait Monna Vanna two years earlier. Sandys understandably took exception to such a view, bordering as it did on accusations of plagiarism.

Rossetti’s Monna Vanna (1866), not included here, is one of his third length portraits of women (or Goddesses) from mythology or Medieval and Classical literature. They are much more solid and physically present than the pale, ethereal and wispily evanescent women of his Pre-Raphaelite years. Those figures were largely modelled on Elizabeth (or Lizzie) Siddall, his partner and latterly his wife, who died in 1862 after years of debilitating illness and opium addiction. She stood in for the tragic, doomed heroine, the favoured female subject (or, more accurately, object) of the Pre-Raphaelites. There was a definite sense of continuity between Pre-Raphaelite painting and the Aesthetics, but there was also a shift in emphasis. Only Rossetti, of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, can really be said to have become a significant (and indeed leading) part of the Aesthetic Movement, and his work distinctly altered in its nature. The Pre-Raphaelites placed great emphasis on realism, both in terms of the representation of the world, in the accuracy of every detail, and in fidelity to historical setting. This is one of the factors which initially attracted such vociferous criticism, particularly when it came to their representation of religious subject matter. They also allowed for a degree of social and moral commentary, particularly when it concerned that abiding Victorian preoccupation, the fallen woman. The Aesthetic Movement tended to turn away from such outward concerns and occupied itself solely with the creation of dreamworlds and sensual surface appearances. The Aesthetic generally favoured interiors, as opposed to the finely observed landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelites, in which every blade of grass was scrupulously reproduced. This retreat indoors was an indication of an increasingly inward-looking nature. There was still an interest in fallen women, but now they were brought back into the studio to pose as models, and not for morally uplifting or instructive tableaux. They often ended up staying.

Bocca Bacciata - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti’s Bocca Bacciata (1859), which is included here and painted while Lizzie was still alive, is a portrait of Fanny Cornforth, one of the women whom he picked up off the street. She was what he referred to as a ‘stunner’, a word which he frequently used to describe anyone or anything whose beauty hit him with a dazing blow. Fanny as Bocca is a picture of ruddy health, sturdy and full of face, with the rosy apple by her side echoing the bloom of her cheek. She is bedecked in fine jewellery, the flowers of her necklace reproducing the corona of marigolds arrayed behind her head. The marigolds in this case stand in (in reduced form) for sunflowers. The dark, ivy-coloured green of her bodice jacket and the yellowish tinge to the flesh show two of the signature colours of the Aesthetic Movement, often used in combination. Gilbert and Sullivan would later satirize the preoccupation with these colours in their opera Patience as greenery yallery (also a punning take off of the Grosvenor Gallery, the centre for Aesthetic art exhibitions). Fanny also features in Rossetti’s Fair Rosamund, her cheek now in suggestively full flush. The bottle-glass windows behind her again provide a murky green background. The poet Algernon Swinburne, friend and sometime housemate of Rossetti, remarked of Fanny, in the context of Bocca Bacciata, that she was ‘more stunning than can be decently expressed’. Although, given his reputation for uninhibited speech, it was likely that he felt free to express his feelings in all their ripe indecency. Her free flowing hair in both the portraits betrays another of Rossetti’s obsessions. Elizabeth Gaskell commented that ‘it did not signify what we were talking about or how agreeable I was, if a particular kind of reddish brown, crepe-wavy hair came in, he was away in a moment…He is not mad as a March hare, but hair-mad’. Fanny was given free run of the house, coming and going as she pleased whilst ostensibly holding the position of housekeeper. Many of Rossetti’s friends blamed her for the regular disappearance of household items and money, but he didn’t seem unduly concerned. The muse must, after all, claim her due, the wages of inspiration.

Algernon Swinburne by William Bell Scott
Turning right, we come across objects relating to the early years of the arts and crafts movement, and the close-knit group of Rossetti, William Morris, Jane Burden (who became Jane, or ‘Janey’ Morris), Edward Burne-Jones and Algernon Swinburne. Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones had cheerfully collaborated on the ill-starred (because ill-prepared) creation of a mural for the Oxford Union, an endeavour which might have failed artistically but which brought them all closer together. They were joined there by Swinburne, an Oxford undergraduate at the time and already a rebelliously inclined poet who, like Morris, was somewhat in awe of Rossetti (as much as a poet as an artist). A dramatic portrait of Swinburne by William Bell Scott depicts him standing before a Romantic seascape, a small compact figure with a wild mane of red hair, which somehow looks too big for his head, sculpted by the wind. It’s one of the pictures which provides the inspiration for Elizabeth Hand’s novel Mortal Love, which brings one of Rossetti’s ‘Goddesses’ to life, both in the fin de siecle period and in the modern day. The cover features a detail from Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata (The Garlanded), one of his portraits of Alexa Wilding (another woman Rossetti invited in from the streets), who in this case is playing a highly ornate harp watched over by two angels. Swinburne appears as a character, and Hand gives squeaking, high pitched voice to his eloquent profanity. It is a marvellous meditation on the destructive potential of pursuing artistic inspiration, of being consumed by the burning, mesmeric gaze of the muse, and serves as the ideal reflection on the Aesthetic and Decadant period and its subsequent influence (not least on the kind of literary fantasy which Hand writes).

The Red House - Philip Webb
The desire to create objects which combined functionality with beauty and which were produced in a craftsmanlike fashion was a reaction to a perceived ugliness manifested in the mass-produced products of the industrial revolution. The entire Aesthetic Movement, with its emphasis on refinement and highly cultivated taste, can be seen as a recoiling from the influence of industrialised production and the uniformity which it fostered. Its favouring of fey fragility and anti-athleticism countered the brute force and thunderous noise of the factories which powered the industrial revolution. They were retreating from the birth of the modern world into a golden age fantasy of their own dreaming. The extension of the artistic outlook to the decoration of the home is exemplified by The Red House in Bexleyheath, now an oasis amongst barren acres of dull suburbia (I should know, I grew up nearby). It was built for William and Jane Morris by Philip Webb, who also created some of the interior furnishings, alongside Rossetti and Burne-Jones, who painted wooden panels and helped design hangings and stained glass. It became a regular meeting place in what was something of an Edenic period for the group. It is represented here by two of Webb’s bronze candlesticks and a wooden bureau decorated with murals by Rossetti, and there are also examples of Burne-Jones’ stained glass near at hand.

The Aesthetic Movement always tended to be dominated by forceful and charismatic personalities, from Rossetti and Morris to Whistler and Wilde. Rossetti’s brother William Michael was a much more restrained personality, his unostentatious christened names seeming to predestine him for a more prosaic and steady life than the impulsive and temperamental Dante Gabriel. He maintained a 49 year career with the Inland Revenue, reaching distinguished high office, something which allowed him to support the less stable fortunes of his artistic friends and acquaintances when needed. Although he was one of the original seven members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he never produced any significant artistic work. But he was a sensitive and perceptive editor, critic and biographer, and has left us with some insightful first hand literary portraits of the artists he knew so well, written with a generosity which nevertheless allows for a certain amount of reading between the lines. Of Morris, he notes that ‘he was turbulent, restless, noisy (with a deep and rather gruff voice), brusque in his movements, addicted to stumbling over doorsteps, breaking down solid-looking chairs the moment he took his seat in them, and doing scores of things inconsistent with the nerves of the nervous’. As for Algernon Swinburne, William discreetly observes that ‘no man has a more vigorous command of the powers of invective, to which his ingenuity of mind, and consummate mastery of literary resource, lend a lash of the most cutting and immedicable keenness’. He remarks of Burne-Jones, on the other hand, that ‘his manner was very gentle, and utterly alien from any vaunting self-assertion. He was never in strong health, yet to call him an invalid might be going too far’.

Weeping for a Wombat
William shared a house with his brother for a while, along with Swinburne and the poet George Meredith. The Tudor House on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, alongside the Thames embankment, was one of a series of exemplary Aesthetic houses, although from all reports it was often in something of a state. William comments on his brother’s notorious habit of accumulating a menagerie of strange and diverse pets which roamed his garden. Amongst those he enumerates are ‘a barn-owl named Jessie…dormice, hedgehogs, two successive wombats, a Canadian marmot or woodchuck, armadillos, kangaroos, wallabies, a deer…a mole…Virginian owls, Chinese horned owls…a raven, chameleons, green lizards and Japanese salamanders’. He passes over the Brahmin bull, which even Rossetti swiftly realised was an impractical proposition. Naturally, he also acquired a peacock or two, which were a particular pest for the neighbours. Apparently, they caused such resentment that a clause was added to future tenancy agreements to the effect that peacocks were not allowed on the premises. Rossetti wasn’t the most attentive pet owner, and most of his creatures were sadly short-lived. He was particularly devastated by the death of his wombats, creatures for which he seems to have had a particular fondness. They appear in many sketches, and on the frontspiece for the edition of his sister Christina’s lengthy poem Goblin Market which he illustrated (an exquisite page of which is on display here). He drew a rather touching ‘Self-Portrait of the Artist weeping at the Wombat’s Tomb’, in which the wee beasty lies on its back, paws curled up on its round belly. A noble classical tomb in the background reads 6th November 1869.

Morris was initially keen to follow in Rossetti’s footsteps, but like any emulating protégé, he soon found his own means of expression, which was directed towards design and writing rather than painting. He was, in fact, best known during his own lifetime as a poet. The shop with ‘The Firm’ of Morris, Marshall and Faulkner and Co. set up in Oxford Street to display their wares – chairs, tiles, cabinets, porcelain, stained-glass and tapestries – did much to inspire the idea of the beautifully decorated home. This was furthered by the opening of Liberty’s home furnishings and costume store in 1883 (unsurprisingly, it is one of the sponsors of the exhibition), which offered relatively affordable style (partly due to the fact that many of its goods were machine-made). The handmade ideal was always destined to be impractical, particularly if Morris’ desire that his goods were to be affordable by the ordinary worker was ever to be realised (it wasn’t). Once his business grew, he too adopted elements of machine production. Some degree of compromise was inevitable if this was to be a lasting proposition, and he could use the machinery of the industrial age on a human scale, and for noble ends.

Veronica Veronese - Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The perfection of interior design was indicative of a general turn inward. Aesthetic painting largely avoided landscape, with portraits, historical, mythological or real, tending to be located inside. When it did venture outside, space was often filled with dense thickets and tangles of branch and vine, which gave the feeling of enclosure. The heavy green draperies of Rossetti’s Veronica Veronese and the dark wood of the furnishings give the room a shadowed, self-enclosed feel, the outside world completely blocked out. Veronica is left to sit idly caressing the strings of the violin on the wall, lost in some inner reverie. Nature, when it appears, is confined to vases or cages, as with the nasturtiums and canary here. As Whistler put it one of the more direct of his carefully sculpted epigrams, ‘nature is usually wrong’. It had to be extracted and re-arranged in order to form the perfect compostion. The yellows of the marigold and canaryoffset the predominantly tones of the curtains and the velvet green dress which Veronica wears. Whilst the model here is Alexa Wilding, the dress belonged to Jane Morris, whom Rossetti would later paint in countless guises, and with whom he would share an intimate and passionate friendship. Rossetti’s own room at Tudor House, Cheyne Walk is partially reproduced here, glimpsed through vertical peep-show slots to lend an authentic sense of voyeurism. Blue china plates are arrayed on shelves above the fireplace. Rossetti and Whistler vied with each other in their obsessive collection of blue china, and the craze spread to become one of the defining and most widely taken up elements of the Aesthetic repertoire. Oscar Wilde, whilst at Oxford, also amassed a fair few examples, and admitted ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china’. An offhand and amusing quip, but also an insightful one. The Aesthete defined him or herself through their objects, until the objects began to control them. There’s a certain irony in the fact that Aesthetes sought to distance themselves from the commercialism of burgeoning mass-production, but accumulated fashionable objects with an enthusiasm which anticipated the consumer age whose seeds were being sown around them.

At home with Rossetti - Cheyne Walk interior. Painting by Henry Treffry Dunton
Rather more ominously, there are a couple of phials secreted amongst the blue china and brass plates, placed within easy reach. These might perhaps have contained the opiate drug chloral, to which Rossetti increasingly became addicted, and which, in combination with the whisky with which he washed it down, helped to wreck his health and lead to his early death. There is a chaise longue or sofa, upholstered in green velvet on one side of the fireplace across which to drape oneself (characters in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray are always flinging themselves onto sofas upon entering a room). On the other side is a rectilinear Chinese chair with a moon design, a lute casually laid against it. It is illustrative of the pervasive influence of the Far East on Aesthetic taste. There are also heavy tapestried drapes to add an additional layer of medieval ambience to the diverse assemblage, and to shut out any external light or sound which might intrude on this artificially created tableau. This is the living space as artistic installation and by extension, life as art.

the Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love - Simeon Solomon
Rossetti and his circle were dealt a glancing blow by a well-publicized attack published in the Contemporary Review in 1871, pseudonymously penned by the poet Robert Buchanan. He accused Swinburne and Rossetti in particular of perpetrating what he called a ‘fleshly school’ of poetry and art, which displayed ‘morbid deviation from healthy forms of life’ and lacked what he deemed the necessary qualities of virility and tenderness which characterised ennobling art. These were the first signs of the negative and even actively hostile attentions which the Aesthetic Movement would increasingly attract; the accusations that it revelled in deviant, immoral sensuality. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris and Swinburne began to go their own ways. Morris even seemed to be in partial agreement with Buchanan, although for different reasons. He later opined, in an 1888 essay ‘The Revival of Handicraft’, that the Aesthetic Movement had retreated from any social engagement and indulgently lost itself in a passive contemplation of beauty, whether in its art or in the mirror. Another victim of stern Victorian censure was Simeon Solomon, the young Jewish artist shoes franky homoerotic illustrations and paintings aroused the displeasure of the critical and moral establishment, and who was arrested in 1873 and imprisoned for homosexual practises. Shamefully, his friends, including Rossetti and (in particular) Swinburne, who had encouraged him in the free expression of his sexuality, shunned him after his arrest, not wishing to be seen with someone who could damage their own artistic careers with the taint of association. His fate was a precursor of the Wilde’s martyrdom towards the end of the century, which also saw him shunned by many of his ‘friends’, and which effectively brought the Aesthetic Movement to an end. But Solomon didn’t share Wilde’s elegant and relatively swift decline, cushioned in a haze of absinthe and advocaat in the Hotel D’Alsace in Paris. He died alone and broken in the workhouse in 1905 (five years after Wilde’s exquisitely timed passing at the end of the century whose later years he had done so much to define) after years of poverty and alcoholism. His line drawing The Bride, Bridegroom and Sad Love (1885), included here, contains all the tenderness Buchanan might wish for, but not in a form of which he would approve.

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