Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A


The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a new medium, photography, and this too was enthusiastically adopted by the Aesthetic movement, whose eclecticism readily absorbed anything which could be of use in creating their ideal world of beauty. The element of narcissism in Aestheticism also naturally responded to the allure of seeing itself reflected in the contrived mirror of the photographic portrait. The aesthetic photographic portrait was a popular and fashionable way of adopting the style for one immortalised moment. A temporary costume, a thoughtfully arranged pose and an appropriate backdrop served to put on the attitude; a bit of fancy dressing for fun, aping those for whom such details were the outward signs of a philosophy of life. Some of these are shown here, taken by such portrait photographers as David Wilkie Wynfield and Julia Margaret Cameron. Wynfield’s picture of the architect William Swinden Barber with a flower and a vaguely Eastern headdress, looking for all the world like a 1960s hippie, a Decadent Donovan. The part-time poseurs were exposed as bit part extras in comparison with the master of the self-publicising photographic portrait, however – Oscar Wilde. The series of twenty photos of Oscar taken by Napoleon Sarony in New York in January 1882 define the male Aesthetic look: the long hair, velvet smoking jacket, casual, lounging posture, and distanced gaze.

Wilde became a celebrated aesthete long before he produced artistic work of any great significance, although the construction of his persona could in itself be considered a sustained work of art, and a very successful one at that. He was also very generous and energetic in praising and promoting the art and artists which he admired, and the outlook of the Aesthetic Movement in general. His lecture tour of America and Canada in 1882 was a heroic odyssey in which he spread the gospel of beauty well beyond the usual metropolitan centres, venturing to the heartlands of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Omaha, and to the Southern states of Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray amounted to a manifesto for Aestheticism, whilst also, with its central conceit of the artistic portrait which absorbs the repugnance of the protagonist’s moral corruption, containing a warning about the dangers of self-absorption and disconnection from humanity in the pursuit of beauty and sensation. All of which suggests that Wilde was possessed of a healthy degree of self-awareness and an ability to face the inherent fatuity of the dazzling demi-monde in which he shone with such stellar fusion. The novel begins with a series of epigrammatic declarations, which brook no refutation and which articulate the Aesthetic creed: ‘the artist is the creator of beautiful things’; ‘those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For them there is hope’. He dismisses the ‘fleshly school’ attacks by stating that ‘no artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything’. He shows solidarity with Whistler’s combinatory ideal by positing that ‘from the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician’, and, perhaps considering himself and the importance of his personality to his art, ‘from the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type’. Finally, after noting that ‘the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely’, he concludes that ‘all art is quite useless’.

Sarah Bernhardt
Wilde achieved his greatest artistic success in the theatre in the 90s, with comedies of serious intent such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance. The theatre enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity in this period, and undoubtedly the hugest star of the stage was Sarah Bernhardt, who rose to an almost mythical ascendancy, at first in Paris and then throughout the Western world. She was the Garbo or Dietrich of her day. The divine Sarah was another embodiment of Aestheticism, pale and thin, a lover of both men and women, and a mistress of the extravagant gesture. She was photographed lying supine in an open coffin, sipping from a skull, and used to surround herself with lilies. Wilde cast an armful of lilies at her feet as a gesture of supplication when she arrived in England in 1879. The French decadent writer Jean Lorrain summoned up her dangerous allure (drawn from a certain degree of personal experience) in his poem Le Sang des Dieux (The Blood of the Gods): ‘When she roamed abroad like a young goddess,/Irritating Paris with her loud laugh,/Golden chains flashed from her eyes/And her bare feet trampled the bruised bodies of her lovers.’ Wilde simply called her ‘that serpent of old Nile’. Bernhardt often played male roles on stage (she played Hamlet in a French translation), or parts such as the lead in Dame aux Camellias, which projected an exaggerated femininity. In modern terms, her persona would be considered camp. She was keen to play Salome in Wilde’s play, and the two discussed the production, whose stage design was to have been influenced by the jewelled mythological fantasies of Gustave Moreau. The play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, however, and never reached the stage. Bernhardt influenced many writers and artists of the fin de siecle period, notably Alfonse Mucha, who designed a number of posters for her theatrical appearances and helped to consolidate her image. These became signature works of art nouveau, which was in many ways a development from the Decadent and Aesthetic movements. A striking theatrical poster on display here, designed by Fred Walker, advertises an 1871 stage adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel of Victorian gothic The Woman In White. Its dramatic composition is similar to Whistler’s ‘symphonies’ in its use of tonal variation within a limited palette, but uses the bolder outlines of a print. Its depiction of a figure approaching the dark threshold of the night is reminiscent both of GF Watts’ Love and Death and William Blake’s Los Entering the Grave, the frontspiece to his visionary epic Jerusalem.

A George du Maurier Punch satire
Aesthetic figures like Wilde and Bernhardt were characters of such self-created exaggeration, whose every gesture and utterance were part of a sustained performance, that they became easy targets for satire. George du Maurier’s cartoons in Punch were particularly popular and effective, and exhibited a keen insight into the spirit of Aestheticism. This was unsurprising, given that du Maurier had lived with Whistler whilst he was a young art student in Paris. Du Maurier’s satirical portraits centred around two characters whom he invented; the poet Maudle and the painter Jellaby Postlethwaite. Variants on Wilde regularly made an appearance, too, which didn’t bother him, since the caricatures were never vicious. Being the regular subject of satire was a compliment in its own way. It was a testament to how widely recognised he had become. He was wise to the mechanics of maintaining celebrity and realised that any publicity was good publicity (although the universal applicability of such an equation would later prove to be disastrously unfounded). In 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan produced their comic opera Patience, a satire of the Aesthetic movement based around two sparring Aesthetes, Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor. Wilde asked if he might reserve a box for the opening night, and wrote ‘I am looking forward to being greatly amused’. Elsewhere in the exhibition we find Alfred Concanen’s cartoon of a swooning Aesthete on the cover of the sheet music to a comedy song entitled ‘Quite Too Utterly Utter’. Perhaps most amusingly, however, there is an 1881 Royal Worcester teapot in the form of a fey Aesthete, his crooked arm forming the handle, and gesturing, limp-wristed arm the spout. It’s interesting to note how far back the limp-wristed stereotype goes. No doubt it predates this period, reaching back to the courts of Louis and Charles and probably further.

Aubrey Beardsley - The Climax
The latter stages of the exhibition include a particular focus on literature and the arts of book illustration and design. The central figure here is Aubrey Beardsley, another artist who owed his success to the patronage and promotion of Wilde. He was also someone who was quite capable of producing his own unflattering, pre-emptive caricatures of himself as an enervated, swooning and painfully thin figure (he was never in good health and died young from the tuberculosis which had afflicted him from an early age). He described his 18 year old self in 1890 as possessing ‘a vile constitution, a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop’. This element of self-loathing perhaps fed into the grotesque nature of many of his creations. His illustrations for the published version of Salome were not to Wilde’s taste, but they have come to define and possibly even eclipse the play itself. The Toilet of Salome, included here, has Beardsley’s characteristic bold, flowing outlines with areas blocked in black, along with stippled lines lightly evoking lace or frills. There is a small collection of books stacked below Salome’s dressing table whose titles can be traced along the spines (if you look closely) and which offer a decadent’s reading list of literary inspiration; de Sade, Manon Lescault, Nana by Zola and the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the satirical second century tale of a boy transformed into an ass, which also includes a telling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche – undoubtedly of relevance to Wilde’s play. The Climax is perhaps Beardsley’s best-known illustration, an intensely expressionist depiction of the culmination of the play. Salome seems to hover in ecstatic flight above the ground, the sinuous tendrils of her hair echoing the unfurling shoot coiling into life beneath her bent knees (the germinating seed of her morbid seduction). The baptist’s disembodied head sheds an almost continuous ribbon of blood, which resembles a stalk upon which it rests like a flower or seed head. Salome is held within a circling, bubbling, cloudlike envelope, and stares with mad intensity into the eyes of the severed head which she is about to kiss. It rivals Munch’s The Scream in terms of a composition in which everything is an emanation of the disturbed psychological state of the central figure.

Aubrey Beardsley - The Abbe
The Abbe is an illustration for Beardsley’s own Romantic novel Under the Hill, published in volumes 1 and 2 of the Savoy Magazine, and is a work of baroque fecundity. The diminutive face and miniscule hand of the eighteenth century dandy at its centre are wholly engulfed not just by the stippled, choking bowed cravatte, tightly furled and many layered muff and voluminous, op-art lined cloak but also by the thick, exotic, long-stemmed flowers which rise above him on either side and the dark woodlands which press against him from behind. He holds a foil, which looks more like a decorative pin, between fragile thumb and forefinger, and the insectile head of some strange stringed instrument peers from behind his shoulder, its body invisible, strapped to his back. A narrow break in the treeline allows the man moon to tentatively emerge and illuminate a fairy which is more moth than human in form. Perhaps that pin foil will be necessary after all. Beardsley’s illustration to Siegfried, first published in The Studio magazine in 1893, is an intricate weave of lines of fantastic complexity, whose curlicued arabesques form both the river winding towards the distant mountains, the profusion of twining trees and flowering undergrowth, and the figure of Siegfried himself, resting in languorous repose above the dragon which he has just slain. The whole composition looks as if it has grown out from several pen point planted on the paper’s seedbed surface. It’s influence on future fantasy artwork and magazine illustration is profound.

The infamous Yellow Book (1894), with its Beardsley cover, is one of several such journals which served to propogate the fervid fin de siecle growth of decadent art and literature. Of these, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon’s The Dial is also included here, with a cover illustration by Ricketts himself. The Yellow Book caused an outburst of heated fulmination in the Westminster Gazette, which called, in a rather Father Ted-ish way, for parliamentary action ‘to make this sort of thing illegal’. It and other magazines gave access to and displayed the influence of the literature of the French decadents, and their intoxicating essence pervaded the Aesthetic Movement in the 90s. As Lord Henry opines in The Picture of Dorian Gray when faced with the prospect of progress and ‘development’, ‘decay fascinates me more’. This chimed perfectly with the fin de siecle sense of the sunset of an era; of some things dying and other waiting to be born. The magazines also created a thriving market for short stories, and as Elaine Showalter points out in the collection Daughters of Decadence (with inevitable Beardsley cover) which she edited, over a third of the contributors were women. These were writers such as: George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (whose The Yellow Wallpaper is a classic of psychological horror), and Charlotte Mew, whose A White Night Showalter describes as ‘a feminist counterpart of Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness’. Other book illustrators represented here include Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, well known for their pictures for children’s books. Crane produced the illustrations for Wilde’s The Happy Prince. There are also books which are works of art in themselves, bookmaking being one of the fine crafts ennobled by Morris. Aubrey Beardsley’s Morte D’Arthur was certainly influenced by the publications of Morris’ Kelsmscott Press, and even though he disapproved of the mechanical means of its reproduction, it is a thing of exquisite beauty.

Rossetti - Daydream
The final gallery takes us into the last, late evening blooming of the Aesthetic Movement, now fully into its decadent phase, which it embraced with self-immolating fervour. Here we encounter one final Rossetti Goddess in his portrait of Jane Morris as ‘Monna Primvera’ in The Day Dream (1880). Janey is depicted as the sad-eyed spirit of Spring, sitting amongst the branches of a tree in her iridescent green dress, the buds bursting into leaf around her. She seems rather heavyset in this picture, her neck stretching out of proportion to her face, her fingers crooked and distended. She certainly seems too massive for the thin branches on which she sits. These seem almost to be emerging from her body at several points, leaving the impression that she is some sort of dryad, a wood spirit which is growing with and out of the tree, becoming more (or less) than human, the green of her eyes shading into the fresh green of the new leaves in the upper canopy. Lord Leighton’s Garden of the Hesperides also seems to depict a sort of ecstatic union with the non-human world, with its classical figures happily reclining in the coils of the serpent which binds them to the apple tree, clearly feeling no urgency to free themselves. It is a painting which reminds me of the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe first enters the louche, hothouse atmosphere of the Sternwood house and observes ‘a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying’. No decadent Aesthete, Marlowe.

Time for tea
The final room has the visitor circulating around the cast for a sculpture which has been seen by a far greater number of people than any other work in the exhibition: Alfred Gilbert’s Eros. Made as a memorial for Lord Shaftesbury, this created a stir of controversy when its form was revealed, the naked figure with its flaccid bow having evidently just loosed its arrows of love considered to amount to an advertisement and signpost for the prostitutes who gathered to ply their trade in the area. Its permanence and recognition as one of the major London landmarks is in its own way a testament to the lingering appeal of Aestheticism, a lasting memorial to the spirit of the movement as much to the philanthropy of Lord Shaftesbury. The turn of the century and the bright dawn of the brief, practically-minded Edwardian era saw the dissipation of the Aesthetic dream, which was so much associated with an eschatological end of Empire glow, an embracing of the impending end of things. As Dorian Gray says in Wilde’s novel, ‘I wish it were fin du globe…life is a great disappointment’. Wilde’s trial and imprisonment marked a reassertion of establishment power and values. The Empire didn’t crumble, and as it geared up for conflict once more, it became less inclined to tolerate ‘unmanly’ qualities which be of no use in keeping the Boers or Germans at bay. One final sculpture from the early twentieth century serves to sum up its decline into ineffectual mannerism. Charles Ricketts had collaborated with Wilde on potential set designs for Salome, illustrated his collection of children’s stories A House of Pomegranites, produced and illustrated his own magazine The Dial, and set up the Vale press in 1896. But his 1905 sculpture Silence (intended as a memorial to Oscar Wilde) is little more than a trinket; an enervated angel, hand held to its mouth in a camp gesture, half-regretful, half-amused at some minor mishap or misdeed. Jacob Epstein’s Paris Pere Lachaise tomb, with its move towards art deco and modernism, is a far more fitting monument. Ricketts’ statuette is more Frank Spencer or Charles Hawtrey than divine messenger, hapless rather than heavenly. It as an appropriate figure to usher us out of this lush end of the century dreamworld and back into the contemporary wasteland (literally in terms of the roadworks currently engulfing Exhibition Road), in which people retreat into digital dreamworlds. Fortunately, it is but a short walk through the sculpture galleries (Buddhist and nineteenth century European, as I recall, possibly incorrectly) to the museum’s gorgeous William Morris tea rooms, a glorious setting for a more than decent cuppa, and a tasty scone.

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