Monday, 18 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A

The Grosvenor Gallery, 1877

The exhibition moves towards the apogee of the Aesthetic Movements influence (and notoriety) in the 1870s and 80s as we pass into the area signposted with Whistler and the critic Walter Pater’s assertion of Art For Art’s Sake. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 was a major step forward, and a bold declaration of intent. It was to become the focal point for the display of Aesthetic painting and sculpture. The opening itself was a significant event which caused much excitement and signalled the movement’s increasing fashionability. Whistler had decorated the ceiling with a design depicting the moon cycling through its phases across a blue background. The walls were painted in the signature Aesthetic tones of green and gold, and were hung with drapes of green damask. Oscar Wilde was there, resplendent in a coat which had been specially designed for the occasion. Based on a dream he’d had in which a man resembled a cello, it was cut and shaped so that Oscar himself, when viewed from certain angles, became an ambulatory instrument. It was a gesture worthy of later Surrealist exhibitions, and he certainly carried it off with a great deal more élan than Dali’s botched diving suit stunt. His review of the opening was his first published work, although he was as much a part of the exhibition as an observer. It was largely positive, singling out Burne-Jones and GF Watts for particular praise, although Wilde, like others, was at a loss as to what to make of Whistler’s Nocturne In Black And Gold: The Falling Rocket, one of his semi-abstract colour arrangements. He covered his temporary uncertainty (he later came to admire such works) with a quip, remarking ‘it is worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute’. The painting was to sustain much more serious and damaging attacks than Wilde’s airily amusing dismissal, which Whistler took in good part.

Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold
The Grosvenor was partly set up in opposition to the Royal Academy, and was much concerned with giving paintings adequate space to stand out as individual works, and setting them within a sympathetic environment. Whistler viewed exhibitions as ‘installations’ in which all elements, including the gallery setting and décor, combined to create a singular overall effect. The V&A honours this by bathing the walls of its exhibition in projected green and purple light against which outlined peacock feather and lily designs float. Whistler began to give his own paintings titles which synaesthetically suggested a musical quality. There were Nocturnes, Variations and Symphonies, and these ‘compositions’ were regarded in terms of the expressive qualities of their limited colour palettes as much as their subject matter, which almost became incidental. Paintings such as Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl, on display here, are tonally restrained, using pallid, cool and understated colours – whites, greys and pinks, and few if any primaries. His Nocturne in Black and Gold, mentioned above, was one of number of semi-abstract riverscapes, and prompted the pre-eminent critic John Ruskin to ask, on the occasion of the Grosvenor’s opening in 1877, why Whistler felt free to ask for money ‘for flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public’. There may have been a certain amount of public politicking behind such a remark. Ruskin was still a man of the Royal Academy, and felt obliged to uphold its values particularly in the face of such an arrogantly self-assertive man as Whistler. There was no particular artistic reason why he should have displayed such hostility towards Whistler’s paintings. He had, after all, championed Turner, who produced work which matched Whistler’s Nocturnes in terms of vaporous formlessness. Whistler, who was highly self-critical but unlikely to accept adverse opinion from anyone other than himself, and who, as an immaculate dandy, may have objected to Ruskin’s referring to him as ‘a coxcomb’, sued for libel. As his friend in rivalry Oscar Wilde was to discover in a later decade, bringing grievances and feuds into the establishment arena of the Courts was a grave mistake for someone who went so extravagantly against the grain. He won the case, but was granted a derisory award of a farthing in damages, and was left to pay ruinous fees for the case.

The Arab Hall in Leighton House
Whistler also extended his concern with the composition of the perfect gallery installation to the design of his own house, which he worked out with Edward William Godwin. All aspects of living were to be arranged aesthetically. Appropriately, his near-neighbour in Tite Street, Chelsea, where his White House was built, was Oscar Wilde. They weren’t to enjoy each other’s proximity for long, however, since Whistler’s extravagant spending (a necessary adjunct to his through-composed existence) combined with the financial fall-out from the court case left him bankrupt by 1879, and he had to escape to Europe. Perhaps it was a good thing that Wilde and Whistler became geographically distant. Two such carefully constructed mirror-image personae living so near to each other day in and day out might finally have resulted in some matter/anti-matter explosion, albeit a radiantly beautiful and radiantly witty one. From now on, this was Wilde’s manor, and society London was his to charm into submission. Other artists also took to guiding the design of their homes and the furnishings which filled them. Godwin designed vases, the one included here decorated with the outlines of cranes, and there is also a Japanese-style chair designed by Alma-Tadema on display. But it was Lord Leighton who took the Aesthetic house to new heights of feverish extravagance enabled by the wealth accruing from the immense success of his art and his prominent position as head of the Royal Academy. Leighton House, to the south of Holland Park, is a dream palace to match any of his own classical or oriental fantasias. Its most celebrated room is the Arab Hall, with its central pool and fountain and walls lined not only by his own collection of Arabic tiles, but also with a mosaic frieze by Walter Crane.

Burne-Jones - The Beguiling of Merlin
Burne-Jones came into his own with the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, achieving huge success and widespread recognition after having retreated from public view for some years, hurt by the criticism associated with the ‘fleshly school’ attack. Huge is certainly the word, as his and other artists’ canvasses seemed to expand exponentially. His The Beguiling of Merlin demonstrates something of Whistler’s concern with creating on a limited and subdued palette, in this instance bluish greys. Nimue pauses in her reading of a book which looks reamed by dampness, as if it has been left out in the forest, and looks down upon the resentfully entranced Merlin. Her hair is constrained within an odd serpentine weave of a headpiece which gives her the look of a medieval Medusa. The twisting interlace of the tangled tree branches echo the strands of her hair and arch over to coil around Merlin’s prone body, trapping him within their blossoming and shooting embrace. The figures have the distanced look of all Burne-Jones’ subjects, male or female; pallid, hollow-eyed, half lost in some opiated reverie. The French decadent writer Octave Mirbeau suggested that the shadows under their eyes were the result of masturbation, which probably reveals more about his own very French preoccupations. A later painting, The Golden Stairs (1880), familiar from the Tate Britain, from which it is on loan, offers a fashion parade of angels, all descending a winding stair, holding a variety of instruments. It looks like a backstage scene after the successful performance of some Heavenly symphony. Burne-Jones tries to vary the expressions of the figures in this group composition, but his attempts to give some of the angels a more animated, vivacious look seem strained. Notably, the angel playing the medieval fiddle who breaks the otherwise unbroken line of figures and faces more directly outwards at the viewer wears the more familiar look of wistful, self-contained sadness.

GF Watts - Love and Death
GF Watts was another painter who came fully into his own at this time, earning his own exhibition at the Grosvenor in 1881 and becoming one of the pre-eminent and well-regarded artists of the age. He, along with Burne-Jones, was also much admired by the French, an interesting observation given the general consensus that anything interesting happening in late nineteenth century art occurred across the Channel. JK Huysman’s character Des Esseintes, the very model of the French decadent aesthete who is the central (indeed, pretty much only) protagonist of that handbook of decadent taste A Rebours (Against Nature), expresses his own admiration for the ‘weirdly coloured pictures by Watts, speckled with gamboges and indigo, and looking as if they had been sketched by an ailing Gustave Moreau, painted in by an anaemic Michelangelo, and retouched by a romantic Raphael…the strange, mysterious amalgam of these three masters was informed by the personality, at once coarse and refined, of a dreamy, scholarly Englishman afflicted with a predilection for hideous hues’. Watts maintained a steady fidelity to classical models and Academy traditions, and was also a notable portraitist. His painting of Algernon Swinburne sets him against a background of Rembrandt-like gloom in his dark jacket, which serves to make his red hair and beard and flushed, warm-toned face stand out all the more. He looks a great deal more sober and respectable here than the wild youth of William Bell Scott’s portrait. The allegorical strand of his work came to the fore at this time, and like Burne-Jones, he tended to paint on a grand scale in terms of the physical size of his pictures. His Love and Death (exhibited at the 1877 Grosvenor opening) depicts a naked youth standing amongst blooming flowers seeking to hold back the robed figure of death, who ascends stone steps with her back to us, treading over cut, withered blossoms towards a dark entrance above. Choosing, an earlier picture from 1864, is like a more chaste version of one of Rossetti’s sensuous, late portraits. Here, a young woman smells a red camellia, a bunch of violets tightly clutched in her other hand. She wears a green dress whose ruffled sleeves blend in with the dark foliage, her red lips the same colour as the flowers, which she seems almost to be kissing as much as smelling (camellias have no scent). Unlike Rossetti’s women, who look straight out at the viewer from the canvas, she is viewed in profile, her eyes half-closed and downcast. The model was the actress Ellen Terry, whom Watts had married in the year of the painting’s composition. She was 16 years old at the time, he 47. Always possessed of a strongly moralising turn of mind, which tended to turn everything into an universal struggle in which the opposing archetypes were clearly demarcated. He believed he was saving her from ‘the temptations and abominations of the stage’. She soon realised that these were what she craved more than anything. The marriage was, unsurprisingly, a brief affair, and they parted in the following year.

Albert Moore - Reading Aloud
More dreamy women are found in the paintings of Albert Moore. His Reading Aloud (1883-4) is an exemplary Aesthetic painting, an artful arrangement of vases, fabrics, carpets, bedside furniture and books – the complete Aesthetic collection. His women have rather more colour in their cheeks than Burne-Jones’, although they are draped around the bed with a similar listless languor. The Art For Art’s Sake galleries focus on the applied arts as much as they do the fine arts, demonstrating the extent to which Aestheticism sought to extend its reach beyond the galleries and into the daily settings and styles of life. There are some gorgeous clothes here. The women’s dresses are notably looser in line than the suffocatingly constricted fashions of the day. This was a move towards the ‘rational’ dress associated (negatively or positively according to your outlook) with the bohemian and artistic life in much the same way as it would be down the years. Some of these fashions seem to hark back to the empire line dresses of the early 19th century, with the material cinched below the bust and flowing freely beneath. For the gents, there’s an elegant silk smoking jacket with tassel and braid ‘frogging’, and accompanying embroidered velvet smoking cap. A small blue silk purse designed and made by Jane Morris in 1870 offers a hint of the real Janey behind the passively posed photographs an cautiously penned letters. The celebrity status which the major Aesthetic artists, writers and designers enjoyed in the 80s and 90s is intriguingly embodied in an autograph fan, on the bamboo spokes of which signatures and brief messages have been written. An ideally Aesthetic object upon which to accumulate such names. It shows the extent to which it was the artists as much as the art who fascinated the public (a fascination fed by the increasing popularity and circulation of newspapers). This idea of the artist as celebrity has a particularly modern ring to it. Another fan included here is painted in dark, night tones and decorated with a moon around which bats flitter. It would be a perfect accessory for the modern day Goth, ideal as a sun shade.

Whistler and Godwin's White House in Tite Street
There are plans and designs for ideal Aesthetic homes, the descendants of Philip Webb’s Red House, which reflected the particular fantasies and personal fancies of the individuals who dreamed them. Whistler worked very closely with Edward William Godwin on the design of his ‘White House’ in Tite Street, neat, watercoloured plans of the front elevation of which are on display here. Its clean and simple elegance of line and proportion and lack of obfuscatory ornamention failed to meet with the favour of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and Godwin was obliged to make its exterior more decorous in order for it to be realised in more than ideal form. Godwin shared Whistler’s desire to create a unified environment in which every element contributed to an overall effect. He collaborated with him on the exhibition stall for the William Watt furnishing company at the Paris Exposition of 1878, an installation (for this was more than a mere sales display) which was given the title Decorative Harmony in Yellow and Gold. Godwin also designed furniture, and was one of the chief progenitors of the Japanese style, which favoured straight lines and rectilinear angles and planes. The wood was generally black, and lacquered or inlaid designs were incorporated around the edges or on the panels. Japanese style was hugely influential, and this influence can be seen reflected in furniture (including screens), book illustration, ceramics and pottery, and clothing (there is kimono included amongst the costumes on display). This preoccupation prompts some strikingly modern designs, as well as some incongruous juxtapositions of Eastern and Western concerns. Lewis Foreman Day’s clock (1879) has intersecting planes of black wood in which is embedded a dark clock face with golden hands. Phases of the moon and hovering classical figures are etched in white against the black background. The whole things looks as if it is intended to complement a similarly designed desk or cabinet. Christopher Dresser’s nickel-plated silver teapot and claret jug from 1879 are designed with utilitarian simplicity, and their angular, flat planes look remarkably modernist. They could almost have been produced at the Bauhaus some 40 years later

Whistler - Harmony in Blue and Gold:Peacock Room
Japanese style certainly influenced the most famous Aesthetic interior, Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876), or as he preferred to call it, Harmony in Blue and Gold. This was designed, in his absence, for the Liverpool ship owner Frederick Leyland, a man of considerable wealth. Whistler covered every available space with peacock designs in blue and gold (using a forest of gold leaf) to create a sumptuously gilded and glittering setting for one of his own paintings, La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine (1863-4). This is a work which is itself an exemplar of Japanese influence, with its screens, patterned carpet, blue vase, decorative fans and the female figure draped in a loose kimono-like robe, leaning slightly backwards to create the sinuous curvature of representations of women in Japanese woodblock prints. The whole room was bought, after Leyland’s death, by Charles Lang Freer in 1904, taken to pieces and shipped over to America, where it graced his Detroit Mansion. After Freer’s death in 1919, it was deconstructed once more and put together again in the Freer Gallery in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, where it remains to this day. It is projected here onto the walls of a circular wooden enclosure which has been knocked up for the occasion, and which aims to give a super-cinerama surround screen experience. Unfortunately, the image is far from sharp, and the effect is more akin to looking at a CCTV recording of the room (offering more voyeurism, paralleling the peep show view of Rossetti’s room. The main result of this installation is to place an ugly silo of hardboard in the middle of the gallery; an act of sacrilege in the eyes of an Aesthete. Whistler was also let loose to paint his unrestrained interior designs on the walls and ceilings of the house which Oscar Wilde shared with Constance Lloyd after their marriage in 1884. This time, the peacock feathers were a less opulent white, and were included in the drawing room ceiling décor.

Walter Crane - Solidarity of Labour
Patterned wallpaper and hangings were also an essential component of the Aesthetic home. William Morris is well known as the pre-eminent designer in this area; so much so, indeed, that he put his socialist principles temporarily to one side in order to design the wallpaper for Queen Victoria’s residence in Balmoral. But there is also a lovely wallpaper design on display here by Walter Crane, made for Jeffrey and Co. in 1874. This was intended for a nursery, and features swans, drawn in a heavily outlined style familiar from his fairytale illustrations. The swan, with its white feathers, effortless glide and long sinuous neck is an ideal subject for Aesthetic design. Crane, like Morris, developed strong socialist beliefs towards the end of the century, and created some of the most famous works of art associated with the movement at this period, including his Solidarity of Labour prints. For Crane and Morris, the diversity of media and methods associated with the Aesthetic movement, its refusal to make qualitative distinctions between the ‘fine arts’ of painting and sculpture and the applied or decorative arts was a recognition of the artistry of craftsmanlike labour. Those involved in the manufacturing industries were, in their own way, artists; and artists, conversely, were to an extent artisanal labourers. The vital element of inspiration could be found in the work of the best of both. The rise of mass factory production disrupted this equation, turning labour into a deadening experience devoid of any creativity, which was one reason why Morris, Crane and others associated with the Arts and Crafts movement were so vehemently opposed to it.

Walter Crane - At Home
The Aesthetic portrait was also a fashionable prospect at this time, and many patrons and associates are captured in paint, carefully posed in artfully arranged interiors. Amongst these, we find Crane’s portrait of his wife, standing by the fireplace in front of which their tabby cat sits in tranquil, easeful repose. Many of the elements of the Aesthetic movement are here displayed: The blue and white ceramic tiles bordering the fireplace; the patterned, handwoven carpet; the medieval tapestry; the peacock feather which Crane’s wife absently holds in her hand; and her relaxed, languorous stance. And, for that matter, the cat itself, for cats, rather than dogs, are definitely the Aesthetic pet of choice (Rossetti’s more impractical zoological eccentricities notwithstanding). Crane’s painting has a greater simplicity then the portraits amongst which it hangs. Its interior is light and airy, as opposed to the dark, enclosed interiors within which most of the other important Aesthetic personages and patrons are portrayed. It is less like a shadowed retreat from the world, more like a home which remains open to it.


Lynn said...

Dear Jez - I'm sorry to bother you so late after the event, but I wondered whether I might possibly borrow the image of the Grosvenor Gallery which you've used at the top of this blog post for my own (blog)? (as I cannot discover who owns it, save for the Bridgeman Lby, whom I wd rather not benefit).
I enjoyed your post on the Cult of Beauty (altho' deprecated yr lack of attention to the frames in the exh., on which I wrote a piece in the cat).
My blog is also on frames (I am one of those v.rare beasts, a frame historian). You can find it at , although it is not required that you read any of it.
If I could use your image of the Gallery, I would be really grateful; I do hope that you look kindly on me. With best wishes,
Lynn (

Jez Winship said...

Please do. Can't remember where it came from, to be honest.
I'm afraid my knowledge of frames is pitifully lacking. Your site is excellent, however, and is already filling in this shameful hole in my knowledge. I saw some good Pre-Raphaelite ones up in Manchester and Birmingham recently (including Holman Hunt's Work, with its arched golden frame, inspiring quotes appended), but I must try to get along to the Tate exhibition which you highlight. And from now on, I will look at the frames as well as the paintings they contain.