THE CULT OF BEAUTY; The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the V&A

The V&A at opening time, unlike the other South Kensington museums, is largely void of rucksacks and bum bags, London travel maps and baseball caps. Instead the modest Friday morning queue is dotted with preened early birds;art & design aficionados. 50+ year olds on trend in leather panelled cigarette pants & slate platforms wait alongside their playground contempories with craft fair earings & National Art Passes. Japanese elegance in charcoal & black, with wispy greys that compliment the sketches she is making. In the courtyard outside self assured kids with clipboards sit next to a Buddhist monk. These are my companions on this morning jaunt to explore The Cult of Beauty.

At £12 for a full price adult ticket this is not a cheap morning & I’m faced with the embarrassing question of ‘are you happy to add a £1.50 donation onto that’… in full ‘Supporter of the Arts’ mode I smile ‘yes’ & think to myself I’ll walk home & break even from the tube fare.

Despite the steep price tag I am excited to see this show. I value aesthetics & beauty, & am fully behind ‘Art for arts sake’.

Walking through this exhibition I feel reaffirmed & reassured by the surrounding artsists & their values. The lack of pretence that comes with creating something purely for visually pleasing purposes is refreshing & something that the contemporary art world- saturated with self importance could do with embracing.  I start to wish I’d seen this exhibition two years ago in the middle of my degree, just to know Rosetti, Whistler, Watts & Morris had my back.

Lack of concept & narrative does not equate lack of meaning. The allegory of the Camellias & the Violets in George Frederic Watts, Chosing are eternal symbols for moral choices & personal values that Watts described through his young actress wife but which are everlasting contrasts of vulgarity & modesty. The simple motivation of the exhibited work, including many design pieces by William Morris & a collection of ‘Art Furniture’, is to live alongside beauty in everyday life. This uplifting aspiration is ever relatable as it is beauty that improves the experience of everyday living, despite dramas and disasters beauty can always be found.

James Mcneill Whistler is responsible for some of the most impressive works featured. His preoccupation with colour transforms his subjects into objects- vessels for his chosen colour palette- whether that be Symphonies in White, or Arrangement in Grey & Black. It is a shame & a loss for the art world that he shouldn’t exist today as his vision would translate beautifully into contemporary photography- alas we shall never know what one artist could be capable of in an another time.

Floral symbols are repeated throughout the show as is that of the peacock which seems to be something of a motif for the exhibition. It’s superlative opulence is a clear statement of beauty for beauty’s sake (though having experienced their horrible screeching recently I’m aware of the thin surface of their appeal).

The inspiration for many of the featured artists come from foreign art traditions largely from Rome, Greece and Japan.  The recently acquired Elgin Marbles offered an array of poses featured throughout works of the time from Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography to Albert Moore who simultaneously features poses from the Parthenon alongside Japanese props in A Musician showing the weight aesthetics had over accuracy.

The largescale paintings for me are the highlight of this show however the inclusion of sketches, photographs, books and even fashions of the movement help develop a thorough portrait of the artists in context, showing the way they worked and lived and the inspiring relationships between artist and model, and artist and artist. The fact these intimate sketches in particular have been so carefully preserved for so long gives a valuable back story to the artists and their work and for me makes every snapshot I take feel worthwhile.

The impression I leave with from this exhibition is that the celebration of beauty these artists were involved in has been recreated for the modern viewer, a tonic from modern art and modern issues. The astounding detail of the work is evidence of the massive amount of time, effort and care invested in these paintings and this is the biggest testament to these artists love of aesthetics. Art works which are so consuming not just in time but in energy and emotion can only leave you awe inspired and hopeful to see more contemporary artists lose their fixation of concept and justification and turn to the wonderful world of aestheticism.

The Cult of Beauty runs until July 17th.


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