Friday, 29 April 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A

I’m noticing a fad in today’s art for the Victorian revived, and in turn all that the Victorians enthusiastically and valiantly brought back to life. It seems that then the V&A hit the nail on the head by collating and exhibiting the work of the Victorian Aesthetic Movement of 1860-1900 in perfect time.

What this exhibition led me to consider is: why is it now that everyone interested in Aestheticism? When for some time its been considered something along the lines of a blue cheese. Why, on a boiling day in the Easter holidays, was I struggling to find space between the crowds of heads to see the art between the gaps?

How more stark a comparison could you make between the Frederic Leighton’s Peacock Princess ‘Pavonia’ (exhibited here) and Damien Hirst’s ‘Let’s Eat Outdoors Today’ – a scene of rotting meat resting over a cold BBQ, surrounded by hundreds of flies, only separated to the audience by a glass (exhibited at Modern British Sculpture). Contemporary art is failing quite consistently to entertain a wide range of people who might otherwise be interested in art. It has lost many with its bizarre and sometimes simply crude ideas. The art of the ugly is taking over - some works are intentionally ugly in rebellion, some don’t mean to be. Either way, for the traditionalists among the population, and of course the Victorians were traditionalists on many measures, art required, and still requires beauty.

This was the very thesis of the Aesthetic movement – to create beautiful things whose sole function was to be beautiful. And this is where I see contemporary art going – back towards an emphasis on the heart-warming nature of aesthetics. It seems to me that contemporary art (as we know it) is slowly imploding on itself. To many it has come to the end of the road – they are disinterested. To most creation is an act of love and joy, rather than anger, because it is anger, which destroys. It is obvious that these Victorian artists made out of love for their objects when viewing the copious paintings, drawings, prints, furniture, fashion designs, interior designs and architecture exhibited..

Secondly, everyone admires the beautiful. Though it’s fair to say, you could describe Aestheticism as a cluttered attic – full of beautiful things but often overbearing at first glance. It is true then that Aestheticism’s idea of beauty was not always conventional. Models, such as the face of the Pre-Raphaelites - Elizabeth Siddal - weren’t the voluptuous, fair image of feminine beauty. And who could fail to notice the monobrow on the face of a Leighton protagonist, in the otherwise stunning The Syracusan Bride Leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana? Which I shall add, is alone worthy of the ticket price for the meaty sized, meaty figured and meaty execution of the painting.

So, you’re thinking, the jist of it is that these artists (painters, poets and designers) were…shallow. Their art was led by chasing attractive girls and cataloguing the beauty and pleasure these goddesses of art then impart Well something like that. But, in their defence, isn’t beauty what we are all looking for? Isn’t that why we want art in the first place – to decorate our homes, to have things to be seen and to be admired? Art to please the hoards and even more so the hoarders, needs to be beautiful. Hense the movement produced all sorts of beautiful things could also fill the home.

Aside from the ideals of the movement, why should this exhibition be praised? It was positively prim, curated to ravish each piece in a setting of consumable beauty. With peacock’s feather - a repeated motif within the art – created into emblems, then arranged and projected into the walls at any point of uncrammed ‘attic space’. Then there was the skewed text stencilled to surfaces like headings; art deco structures built in; and luxurious coloured walls such as the greenery-yallery of Grosvenor Gallery, as Gilbert and Sullivan once called it. There was poetry spoken over a tannoy, and beautifully produced booklets to document it all – the utter density of it.

What can I say? Beauty is captivating. And I was captivated just as much by the ideas possessing the artists about beauty, as by the works describing such beauty. Perhaps then, the success of this exhibition is due to the enthusiasm its visitors have had to share the beauty they had seen…

The Cult of Beauty: Aestheticism 1860-1900 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 17 July, so you still have plenty of time to view it during and after this third term.