The Cult of Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetic Movement
Stephen Calloway, Head Curator, Cult of Beauty:
The way in which the Aesthetic Movement emerged is really fascinating and really complicated. You have to think back to the Great Exhibition in 1851, and a lot of people at that time felt that what was on show there was somehow ugly and meritricious, a lot of things made by machinery. Artists somehow felt that beauty had got lost.
The prime movers in the Aesthetic Movement are artists, poets and designers. We are thinking of people like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who had been one of the Pre-Raphaelites but who by the 1860’s had moved on and were exploring and looking for a new kind of beauty. People like Lord Leighton, with his grandiose ideas of classical imagery.
Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator, Leighton House:
Leighton was born in 1830 and he rose to become the president of the Royal Academy, probably the most eminent artist of his day. He lived here for thirty years - he started building in the mid 1860’s and he was still working on it almost at the time of his death. So what started off as quite a modest house became what was described as a modern palace of art. I suppose what is also so noticeable about it as a piece of architecture is that it draws its influences from such a wide range of sources, so it’s partly Italian Renaissance; partly the architecture of the Near East; so it’s a very eclectic set of sources, but brought together as this one artistic or aesthetic statement.
The key thing about the Aesthetic Movement is that it didn’t just present a single picture on one hand of a single piece of furniture. The key to it was the way in which things were brought together, the assembling of the complete room with all it’s decorative objects and all the elements in it became an expression of taste and of cultivation. We still have that, I think, as a basis of how we live.
Another fascinating thing about the Aesthetic Movement is the way it develops over the decades from the 1860’s, from the first group of friends it extends out to include painters like Burne-Jones, but other figures come in like Oscar Wilde.
Christopher Breward, Head of Research, V&A:
Oscar Wilde was really the pin-up boy for the aesthetic movement. He was an Oxford Undergraduate at the time that aesthetic ideas were starting to infiltrate public consciousness and he immediately turned himself into the celebrity that was associated with aesthetic ideas. I think all that early experimentation in the 1860’s and 1870’s with aesthetic ideals allowed Oscar Wilde to become the man who is so celebrated, and so famous and infamous today.
I think one of the intriguing things is that the Aesthetic Movement actually looked back to the art of the past, and particularly perhaps to Renaissance painting, where manly beauty was every bit as important as female beauty. It had this extraordinary effect of creating a new kind of fashion in which the peacock male could dress flamboyantly.
I think people argue about what the characteristics of a Dandy are. It’s about an attitude towards life that is based on an understanding of elegance. So, the surface, the way you behave, the way you appear to others becomes much more important than what you actually do. I think men involved in the Aesthetic Movement who tended to be artists or people associated with the artistic life, the way they dressed was a sort of badge of belonging to the Aesthetic gang, so it’s a very Bohemian way of dressing.
One of the fascinating things is the way in which painters had an enormous effect as it were not just on their art, but on the way people looked, because people wanted to look like the pictures. Painters like Leighton, particularly, and Rossetti especially, sought out models of very unconventional beauty. So Rossetti’s paintings of Elizabeth Siddal with her very pale skin but red hair was an extraordinary choice at that time. She would have been considered not even not beautiful but possibly even ugly by the standard of the day. It’s the power of art which transforms the look.
The history of red hair for both men and women is complex, but really the change in attitude towards them came about with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Who was very important in that was Elizabeth Siddal, really erroneously called the first supermodel, but she is certainly in Britain the first famous model. At a time when their role was ambiguous, really. By the time we get to the 20th century, the idea of red hair as being beautiful and essentially morally acceptable is established, and that really begins with Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal.
I think that to a certain extent many of the styles continued with a degree of popularity, probably up until the First World War.
As the century moves on towards the Second World War we get a re-emergence of the ideas of peacock dressing in the 1960’s when men again, young men feel comfortable with their sexuality, with expressing their identity through flamboyant clothes. So it’s almost a hundred years later that we get a new interest in the Aesthetic Movement and that is reflected in new ways of dressing.
In a much more broad way, it’s really intriguing that the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement, the idea that art is of great importance; the idea that art should be, as it were, severed from notions of morality; that pictures don’t have to preach or tell stories - is actually fundamental to the whole development of the 20th century and remains with us today.
The Aesthetic Movement gave us an absolutely lasting legacy of suggesting the primacy of art; the importance of art in everyday life. This notion that beauty should inform everything that we do and the ways that we live is absolutely crucial. You can say that the Aesthetic Movement was the first lifestyle revolution.
The first major exhibition dedicated to Aestheticism highlights the spectacular work produced by the artists, designers and architects of the late 19th-century movement, including James McNeill Whistler, William Morris and Thomas Jeckyll.
"A world of beauty, flamboyance and faint danger..."
Lead curator Stephen Calloway and other experts lead us through a world of beauty, flamboyance and faint danger via the work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Oscar Wilde.