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#149 The Cult of Beauty at the V&A Museum

July 14, 2011

'The Beguiling of Merlin' by Edward Burne-Jones. The colours don't do it justice here - it's a sort of ghostly, luminous purple. (Not the white bits, obviously.)

For me, the V&A’s exhibitions make much more sense than those at the Tate Britain, or the National Gallery, because the V&A has a remit to display decorative art as well as good old-fashioned fine art. The fixtures and fittings – the posters, the kettles, the wardrobes and wallpaper – often seem to have more to say to me and Mrs Brown than the paintings and sculptures do. They’re more human, for a start. Fine art often exists as a riposte to this kind of domestic normality; but in this exhibition, it’s the furniture that’s aspiring to be as beautiful as the art.

For the Aesthetes, that loose group of mid-to-late 19th-century artists and designers, all this makes perfect sense, because they saw no reason why a chair or a dresser shouldn’t be every bit as beautiful as any work of art. This V&A exhibition does them proud, and gathers a lot of their most iconic work together in a way you’ll not see elsewhere. (No Flaming June by Frederic Leighton, though, but since every other kid had it on their wall at university, it’s not like you need to see it again.)

This is art as a reaction to the stuffy, sensible, modest and ‘improving’ taste of the High Victorians. Forget dressing in black, church on Sunday, accountancy and respectability. Think absinthe, debauchery, and an earnest belief in the power of Art; and blame the Pre-Raphaelites who kicked the whole thing off a decade or two earlier. The Aesthetes were all about intoxication (of colour, of love, of form, of sex) and excess. Most of all, it’s about the pleasure of beauty, of art designed to be admired for its own sake. The best of the exhibits, like Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, have their own potency. But some, as the exhibition points out, don’t add up to much more than exercises in form and colour. Women sit down and hold things, and their clothes are more interesting than their faces. This is the curse of the Aesthete’s ‘beauty above all’ philosophy: if they aimed to make wallpaper into art, sometimes they succeeded in making art too much like wallpaper. It’s not surprising that the initially shocking styles were soon co-opted into the mainstream of Victorian art, and by the 1880s, Liberty would run you up a bespoke ‘aesthetic’ flowing dress or outrageous velvet suit for your trendy bourgeois salon party.

There’s a re-evaluation of the ‘Decadent’ stage at the end, too, in which we’re requested to see such famous works as Alfred Gilbert’s Icarus and Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs not as the fag-end of a spiritually empty movement, but as convincing technical and aesthetic triumphs. It’s not hard to concur. The centrepiece is a version of Picadilly Circus’s Eros statue – it’s joyfully surreal to stand at eye-level with it. From this angle, it’s full of movement and glory, rather than being sometime that appears to be trying to keep its balance on its tiptoes (always difficult when you’re aiming an arrow.)

This is The Cult of Beauty’s last couple of days, so if you’re going to go, go right now – but be prepared to queue.

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