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Review: The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900
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For Victorianists who have been obsessing for years over certain aesthetically-inclined artistic figures in late-Victorian Britain, The Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A is a dream come true. Crammed into two large sectioned rooms with stunning works by such artists as Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler, Moore, and Leighton, the exhibition offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes. If you are a lover of all things Aesthetic and own an apron imprinted with a Morris pattern, you will be depressed at the exit. If you are indifferent, you are in danger of losing your indifference. The works will serenade you. You will never look at your dreadfully plain cotton socks the same way again.

Such is the power of beauty – or perhaps the clever arrangement of the exhibit. After being teased by peacock feathers and sunflowers at the entrance by Jeckyll’s Pair of Andirons (c. 1876) and Burne-Jones’ A Peacock (1886), one sees – in the section “The Search for a New Beauty” – an endless row on the left wall of those hypnotic “portraits” of women by various Aesthetic artists. Make a 180 degree turn and you will encounter a Pre-Raphaelite section on Rossetti and his circle. Everything is calculated to draw you in. One glance at G. F. Watts’ portrayal of Ellen Terry in Choosing (1864) and a peep into Rossetti’s reconstructed bedroom and one is inducted into the mysteries of Aestheticism and is as helpless as Merlin beguiled. The same sort of strategic arrangement can be found in the House Beautiful section. After one’s appetite is whetted by a few building plans, one is confronted by a circular installation which, via projecters, effectively showcases Whistler’s famous Peacock Room. The ease with which the viewer moves from section to section is aided by thematic signposts and the roughly chronological framework of the exhibition. Eventually, you will come face to face with The Climax (1894) from Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome illustrations, and you will realize that the queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach has less to do with the image than it does with the knowledge that the exit is nearby.

Complementing the effective arrangement of works is the comprehensiveness of the selection. The exhibition features a mind-boggling array of paintings and sculptural pieces, as well as a menagerie of ceramics, chairs, dresses, and teapots – some from the V&A’s own impressive collection, with others on loan from galleries and private collections from inside and outside the United Kingdom. Obvious pieces like Whistler’s Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl (1862) and Godwin’s side table (c. 1867-8) can be found under the same roof as a few lesser-publicized ones like Moore’s A Musician (c. 1865-6) and Solomon’s Love at the Waters of Oblivion (1891). The sheer amount on display is no surprise; Aesthetic principles influenced the production of many artistic pieces in the late-Victorian period, and one of the aims of the exhibition is to show Aestheticism’s ubiquity to the general public. An advantage of such a large show is that individual objects are better contextualized and showcased in the presence of many others; obvious examples include Dresser’s almost Cubist-looking teapot with ebony handle (c. 1879) – the brilliance of which can only be fully realized when placed alongside other Aesthetic kitchenware – as well as the stunning kimono (1860-90) from the V&A collection, which, when seen after Nesfield’s screen (1867) and Tissot’s Young Women Looking at Japanese Articles (1869) becomes more than just a visually-pleasing article of clothing.

But large exhibitions can be dangerous. A danger is including everything in the known universe in order to create the exhibition that saves the world. At times The Cult of Beauty feels like The Cult of Desperate Beauty. How many of Whistler’s symphonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and etchings does it take to banish the thought of taking out your old pair of plaid pants and wearing them again? Not many, but the exhibition assumes that you are quite too utterly determined to wear that monstrosity to your next MLA talk, and must do everything in its power to prevent this imagined tragedy from happening.* (Interestingly, Whistler’s infamous Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) – the painting which sparked the Whistler vs. Ruskin fiasco – is nowhere to be seen.) And too many works can lead to a scramble to place the odd ones somewhere, anywhere. Such misfortune falls upon George Francis Miles’ Pause in the Match (1883) and G. F. Watts’ Blanche, Lady Lindsay, Playing the Violin (1876-7) – works belonging in a smaller, more intimate exhibition – which are placed beside a too hastily-written plaque which discusses synaesthesia and Pater’s notion of all art aspiring towards the condition of music. One would expect Rossetti’s Veronica Veronese (1872) and Burne-Jones’ The Golden Stairs (1880) – found elsewhere in the exhibition – to be placed here instead.

These are, of course, minor quibbles. The exhibition masterfully brings together all the major threads of the Aesthetic Movement – the craze for things Japanese, its satiric bent, its decadent ending, etc. One cannot help but marvel at the creative achievements of Aesthetic artists in the second half of the nineteenth century and, upon exiting the exhibition, one may feel a twinge of sadness that art will soon lose its innocence while revealing a new kind of beauty. But not to worry. The adjoining gift shop is well-stocked for nostalgic purposes, with enough peacock feathers and fleshly portraits to enliven your spirits and transform that unsightly green-carpeted office of yours into a heavenly bower of beauty and delight for the next academic year. Verdict: 4.5 out of 5. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK. 2 April – 17 July 2011

*no offense to lovers of plaid pants. I’m sure the newer versions could look mighty snazzy if tucked into Goth boots.

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