Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Aesthetic Movement, 1860-1900

Visiting recently the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, I was intrigued by the exhibition titled "The Cult of Beauty, The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900". This exhibition showed the clear and revolutionary ideal which emerged from the cacophony of styles and theories that bedevilled the world of art and design in the middle years of the 19th century in Britain, i.e. the desire to escape the ugliness and materialism of the era and find a new beauty.

The artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement sought nothing less than the creation of a new kind of art, freed from outworn cultural ideas and moral codes. This gave birth to the idea emphasising "Art for Art's Sake"; art that existed only in order to be beautiful - pictures that did not tell stories or points of morals; sculptures that simply offered visual and tactile delight and dared to hint at sensual pleasures. 
The same daring spirit motivated innovation in design. Avant-garde designers, adopting the new Aesthetic sensibility, transformed the banal and pretentious furnishings of the Victorian middle-class home. Their aim was to make tables,chairs and cabinets worthy of the name 'Art Furniture', to create ceramics, textiles, wallpapers and other manufactures exquisite enough for the houses of Aesthetes.

The Cult of Beauty united romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his followers; the fresh from Paris and full of dangerous French ideas and the Olympians. They usually chose women whose looks and lifestyles were at odds with conventional Victorian ideals of demure femininity, these painters created new types of beauty. 
In the 1870s besides the fact that it had become a movement that transformed art and design in Victorian Britain, and despite the increased knowledge of Aesthetic ideas and taste, many observers still saw the movement as the preserve of self-regarding and possibly immoral cliques. However, later in the decade the movement began to make  more positive progress.

Aesthetic painting became the fashionable enthusiasm of a circle that was grand, wealthy and intellectual. As well as commissioning paintings and portraits, its followers were keen to redecorate their homes in the Aesthetic manner and even to wear Aesthetic dress. This movement serenely passed from its early phase as the recherché enthusiasm of the few to become the artistic and lifestyle choice of the many. 
Previous accounts of Aestheticism have suggested that satire and parody overwhelmed the credibility of the movement: painting and poetry lost momentum, artistic furnishings were scaled down for the suburbs, the pursuit of beauty faltered. But a contrary view can be advanced, for in the later 1880s and even well in to the 1890s many of the great figures were still active. The next, rising generation of artists sought to continue many of the Aesthetic ideals, albeit in a daringly modern way. 

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