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The Cult of Beauty

Elegant feathers, redheaded sirens, sunflowers and lilies adorn the backdrop of olive green and peacock blue. Beauty is everywhere.

Last Sunday 17July, was the closing of one of the V&A’s most successful spring exhibitions, The Cult of Beauty. 

It celebrated the achievements of nineteenth century British art and social history through the work – paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, designs, clothing, jewellery – of contemporary figurehead artists and designers such as: Walter Crane, James McNeil Whistler, Edward Poynter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Godwin.

Under the banner of the Aesthetic Movement, these artists pioneered the a lifestyle in which everything – not just art – should be beautiful. As nineteenth century Britain experienced rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, aesthetes escaped by harking back to a romantically medieval style emphasising natural patterns and luxuriantly harmonious colour. Sensual, exotic art sought to resist vulgar materialism.

They hinged on the Parisian doctrine of l’art pour l’art – art for art’s sake – which dispelled the idea that art should contain a religious truth or moral message. Art and design was, and arguably still is, inextricable from questions of morality, sexuality and personal liberation. Yet for them what mattered most was not the subject matter but the emotions stirred in the viewer by the delicately reserved colours, compositional balance and trancelike, sultry atmosphere evident in Rosetti’s Bocca Baciata (1859).

Whistler commented:

“Art should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity love or patriotism.”

Art in itself was paramount rather than attempting to make us better people.

The Cult of Beauty successfully charts the revolution in this ideal. 

The exhibition’s designers, working under curator Stephen Calloway, rose to the challenge of creating a show that sung the same beautiful tune as its content. The extravagant motifs – sunflowers, lilies, peacock feathers – illuminating subtle tertiary hues both complemented the work on show while indulging in the idea of “art for art’s sake.”

Meanwhile, the chronological layout tangibly displayed the development of the Aesthetic Movement throughout the 1860s and 1890s. From meeting at the “greenery yallery” to their 1877 landmark exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery that broke their obscurity and culminating in the late Aesthetic paintings including master pieces such as Leighton’s Bath of Psyche and Rossetti’s final picture The Daydream.

A common and well-executed feature of the exhibition is the recreation of rooms within rooms. Peeping through strategically placed windows, we glimpse the dimly lit bedroom of Rosetti at his Tudor home in Chelsea.

More impressively, and one of the most notable features of the whole exhibition, is the life-size 360 degree projection of Whistler’s Peacock Room. Celebrating both his artistic and architectural work, golden peacock feathers pour from the shutters into their turquoise surroundings.


People who enjoy this may also want to check out Leighton House. With its Arab Hall lined containing beautiful Islamic tiles, it also offers the opportunity to see Leighton’s studio where he created some of his masterpieces.

The exhibition’s sponsorship by Liberty & Co. similarly has an interesting and enduring history. Renowned as the ‘flagship store of aestheticism’, Liberty played a vital role in popularising Aesthetic clothing and furnishing fabrics. Patrons of the dress hall often looked as if they had just stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. When, for instance, Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened his Regent Street shop in 1875, he specialised in the Japanese and Indian imported fabrics, which were so popular among Aesthetes.

The Cult of Beauty featured a Liberty kimono (1891) alongside a striking dress made specifically for the Liberty family. Meanwhile Liberty’s renowned window dressing featured The Cult of Beauty as its main theme coinciding with the renovation of its beauty hall, opened yesterday (21 July).

A reviewer for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row said they “would love to live in the exhibition”. It is easy to see why. The Cult of Beauty is by far one of the best exhibitions I have seen recently; it was both filled with exquisite work and steeped in a fascinating history that was truly inspiring. As William Morris said: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

For those who missed a chance to visit, curator Stephen Calloway gives an excellent insight into the movement and the exhibition in the video available here. There is still chance to catch the show at its new home in the Musée D’ Orsay in Paris where it runs from 13 September until 15 January 2012. It then moves on to the United States and will be on at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from 18 February until 17 June 2012.

This article was originally published by HerUni.com.


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Rae Boocock, 24. An aspiring journalist. Loves: interviewing, writing, reporting, reading, current affairs, culture, travel, food and feminism.

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