Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Cult of Beauty at the Legion of Honor

In the mid 19th century, seven young men formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England as a reaction against what they saw as the stylistic pretense and industrial grime and vulgarity of the day. They were the rock stars of mid-Victorian England, with their sexual scandals, their women, drugs and a serious hair fetish.

Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris, 1873–8, oil with gold paint on canvas. Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newcastle upon Tyne

The group of renegades – Frederic Leighton, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, G F Watts, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – had been working together since the 1860s , but it was their momentous 1877 exhibition, staged at the fashionable Grosvenor Gallery in the heart of Bond Street, that tipped them from the obscurity of their Holland Park salons into the big time.

The show sent excited ripples across high society – the kind of "art buzz" that the media craves, then as now. 

Frederic Leighton, Pavonia, 1858–9, oil on canvas. Private collection

John Spencer Stanhope, Love and the Maiden, 1877. Tempera, gold paint and gold leaf on canvas. FAMSF

Beardsley, Illustration for Salome

Yet for all its success, Aestheticism was, in some senses, destroyed by the same fin de si├Ęcle scandal and controversy on which it had first risen to fame decades earlier. Wilde's trial and imprisonment for homosexuality came to epitomize the apparent decadence of the group, although by that time, he had turned his hand to play writing and moved away from the ideals of the group.

Ironically, their work was also beginning to be mass produced by manufacturers who saw a business opportunity in the selling of beautiful homes: art for art's sake became synonymous with interior decor, furniture and the beginnings of an art that overlapped with design – furnishings were produced for ordinary homes in the suburbs, not extraordinary ones in Holland Park, and entrepreneurial Victorian manufacturers started to call what they were making "art decoration" or "art furniture". Everyone, it seemed, could become an "artist" for the price of wallpaper


1 comment:

hexkitten said...

I'm afraid your third picture is incorrectly attributed. That is not Stanhope, but JW Waterhouse's "St. Cecilia."