Thursday, September 16, 2010
Art for art's sake: V&A to celebrate aesthetic movement
[Detail from Pavonia by Frederic Leighton, one of the pre-Raphaelite artists who will feature in the exhibition. Photograph: c/o Christie's/Private collection]
At a time of anxious austerity it could be just what is needed: an examination of one of the most flamboyant and joyously bohemian art movements there has ever been.
The V&A announced today that it is to mount the first ever major exhibition devoted to the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, looking at a group of artists who placed the importance of beauty above everything else and followed a mantra that said let us value art for art's sake.
The show will bring together 300 objects, including 60 paintings, to celebrate a British movement that flourished between 1860 and 1900 and whose members included pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Frederic Leighton as well as Oscar Wilde and William Morris.
Co-curator Stephen Calloway said now was a particularly good time to shine a spotlight on the aesthetes. "In times of austerity fantasy always seems to be the thing, but I think it's particularly interesting at the moment because people, I suspect, are becoming rather tired of ugliness and things which are not well made and art that isn't well drawn."
Calloway said there was much contemporary art and design that was not aiming to be beautiful or comfortable to live with. "So the idea of looking at an art movement where, consciously, beauty and quality are central ideas seems to me extraordinarily timely.
"A lot of people would like a return to a kind of art and a kind of decoration that is all about pleasure of the eye and the beauty of being within a complete environment."
The aesthetes were passionate and serious-minded, reacting against Victorian values which said that all art had to have a purpose and also against a kind of pervading ugliness seen, for example, at the 1851 Great Exhibition, with its rather hideous and huge furniture.
It started out as a group of people amusing themselves in their own houses, becoming a wider movement that people were eager to buy in to. It was the first art movement to inspire an entire lifestyle. Suddenly the middle classes were aspiring to create their own beautiful interiors and Liberty became purveyors of all that was gorgeous.
The show will include numerous loans from private collections – including Andrew Lloyd Webber's – and will also feature paintings which use models who were not conventionally beautiful by the standards of the day. Women such as Elizabeth Siddal, a model for many of the pre-Raphaelites, whose pale skin and copper red hair was held to be ugly by most Victorians.
Of course not everyone was won over and enchanted by the aesthetes, and the show will include Punch magazine cartoons satirising the movement and a novelty teapot by James Hadley which poked fun at Wilde and his belief that by surrounding yourself with beautiful things you become beautiful. The spout is a man's effete arm in the air and the inscription reads: "Fearful consequences, through the laws of natural selection and evolution, of living up to one's teapot."
The exhibition, which will travel to Paris and San Francisco, also marks the first sponsorship of a V&A show by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.