The Cult of Beauty

By Michael Raffety

3-12-12

“Art for art’s sake” is a phrase we take for granted, especially after Abstract Expressionism changed the dialogue of art and moved the artistic center of the world from France to postwar America. But that phrase originated in England in the 1860s . The English poet Algernon Swinburne promoted this French idea of L’art pour l’art in England and it became a motto of the British Aesthetic movement.

“Today Aestheticism is acknowledged for its revolutionary renegotiation of the relationships between the artist and society, between art and ethics, and between the fine and decorative arts, all of which paved the way for the art movements of the 20th century,” wrote Lynn Federle Orr, curator of the exhibit and co-editor of the show catalog, “The Cult of Beauty, The Victorian Avant Garde 1860-1900.”

Showing at the Legion of Honor through June 17, the Cult of Beauty, is not just painting and sculpture, but furniture, strikingly original teapots, wallpaper and ceramics.

The British Aesthetic movement represented a reaction to Victorian notions that art was required to “tell stories, preach sermons,or rely upon sentimental cliché,” according to catalog co-editor Stephen Calloway. Their art was often short on symbolism and done just for the beauty of it, hence the Cult of Beauty.

Prominent among the artists of the British Aesthetic movement was James McNeill Whistler, who many will recognize as the man who painted “Whistler’s Mother.”  Whistler embodied the Cult of Beauty by his and other artists of this period desire to live “artistically.” Whistler not only painted but was involved in furniture design and interior design. Whistler also brought with him from Paris to London his collection of Japanese wood block prints, screens, fans and blue-and-white ceramics. Fans, blue ceramics, screen, sunflowers and peacock feathers, light furniture and sideboards to display ceramics and assorted bric-a-brac came to be the visual symbols of Aestheticism as it became accepted and popularized by the middle class and then lampooned by Punch cartoonists and playwrights, including Gilbert and Sullivan.

Disseminating the principles of the Aesthetic movement to the middle class was the concept of “the House Beautiful,” which spawned advice magazines, catalogs and books.

For the artists at the center of the Aesthetic movement it wasn’t so much a movement as “a loose association of the sometimes share aims, enthusiasms and ideals of a shifting cast of characters united for the most part by ties of comradely friendship, but also animated by occasional rivalries and even at times instances of carefully honed enmity,” wrote Calloway in summarizing and 1882 book by Walter Hamilton, called “The Aesthetic Movement i England.”   “Only as the protagonists became better known and … came to wider notice of an increasingly admiring public and of satirists could anything approaching the present definition of a ‘movement’ be said to have come into existence.”

The Cult of Beauty exhibit is 10 years in the making. Lynne Federle Orr took a six-month leave of absence when the de Young Museum was torn down and being built again from scratch. She used that time to go to England and study the Aesthetic movement and begin selecting the 180 pieces in this exhibit. About 30 percent of the show are pieces from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which began collecting in the 1850s. This Cult of Beauty Show, in fact, first was shown at the V&A and the then Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The Legion of Honor is the exclusive venue for this show in the U.S.

From Aestheticism came the International Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. Museum Board President Diane Wilsey, a major sponsor of this exhibit at the Legion, was impressed with much of the decorative art: “Some things could have been made by the 1930s’ Bauhaus (design school in Germany).”

Indeed, there is a Bauhaus simplicity and startling modernity to some of the decorative pieces. A square teapot set on its corner and held up with delicate legs immediately comes to mind.

Much of the simplicity and lightness of the furniture came from the influence of Japanese art that Whistler brought  with him and his fellow artists too up with enthusiasm.

The Aesthetic movement came not long after the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of the Industry of All Nations in the Crystal Palace. Seeing the superiority of  product design from other countries, the profits from the exhibition were used in 1857 to establish a teaching program in South Kensington for British industrial designers and the public. This South Kensington Museum later became the V&A.

When the Aesthetic movement got under way and the public wanted to lie “artistically” as well, British designers and new commercial ventures were ready for the shift from dark, heavy Victorian furniture to the lighter, simpler furniture of he “artistic’  home.

The model was best stated by Oscar Wilde in 1883: “I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made b those who strive to make something useful.”

Wilde became the chief spokesman for the British Aesthetic movement, even doing a lecture tour in the U.S. He was so enthusiastically received in San Francisco that he gave four lectures there in March 1882, precisely 130 years ago this month. his San Francisco lectures included as subjects “The English Renaissance,” “Art Decoration,” “The House Beautiful” and “Irish Poets of the Nineteenth Century.”

As the late Director of Museums John Buchanan Jr. wrote in the introduction to the Cult of Beauty catalog, “these progressive artists formed a Victorian avant-garde whose aesthetic commitment to the ‘Cult of Beauty’ redirected the trajectory of British arts and design.”

“Some 130 years after Wilde’s sensational engagement, we are thrilled to reintroduce the Aesthetes and their achievements to museumgoers in the Bay Area,” Buchanan wrote.

Admission to the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park is $10 for adults and there is a surcharge for the Cult of Beauty,” which is on exhibit downstairs.  Bs sure and see additional pieces of the show upstairs in the gallery portion that customarily hosts smaller traveling exhibits. It is just beyond the medieval art. There you will find additional paintings, women’s dresses of the Aesthetic period, a man’s aesthetic suit similar to what Oscar Wilde wore, jewelry, a reproduction of Whistler’s Peacock Room and architectural elevation drawing of his house.

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