The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900

Albert Joseph Moore, "Midsummer"

by Pearl Chaozon-Bauer
University of California, Davis

Upon entering “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900,” an exhibit at the Legion of Honor that features art work and pieces from poets, painters, sculptors, designers and architects who produced art for the sake of art, I expected to be intoxicated and affected by the beauty that the exhibit promised to deliver.  Since these artists championed the axiom that the only purpose of art is to be beautiful, I anticipated losing myself in the works that were wholly dedicated to producing things of beauty. In some ways, I expected the exhibit to fire my imagination and to touch the depths of my soul.  Perhaps I sound like a silly teenager who has yet to connect to a more critical, if cynical, view of the world around her, one who yearns to find something romantic in the world, and especially, in what art represents for the world–a window into its soul, so to speak.  And perhaps this teenage reaction is valid, for the Aesthetic Movement fueled a visceral reaction to the art it produced.  At its core, Aestheticism holds the philosophical position that aesthetic values should foreground the human experience, the aesthete James McNeill Whistler declaring that “art should stand alone and appeal to the aesthetic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love patriotism.”  In short, it is “Art for Art’s Sake” and, by proxy, “Beauty for Beauty’s Sake.”

Knowing this “truth,” I wondered why I shouldn’t allow these beautiful pieces to lull me into a sense of critical complacency.  I asked myself: “why shouldn’t I simply succumb to the Beauty before me?”  After all, the rising peacocks rich in texture and opalescent colors, the oriental fans exquisitely extravagant in their luxury, and the cascading azaleas, roses and sunflowers so brightly crowded in their multiplicity were all pleasing to my eyes.  The Japanese-inspired furniture; the medieval-inspired wallpaper, furnishings, stained glass and textiles of William Morris; Aubrey Beardsley’s self-indulgent drawings of Salome; or Lord Frederick Leighton’s and Albert Moore’s stunningly decorated Grecian goddesses each implore us to leave the drudgeries of our lives and to escape to Beauty without question.  I suppose this is why featured artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and Oscar Wilde chose to illustrate their muses, always women, set against the backdrop of some distance place or distant past.  Such nostalgic settings promote escapism, and when we look at these women painted in their Asian- and Greek- inspired dresses, draperies and flowers, we want to be these women, adorned and adored by those who gaze at them ever so longingly.

But all the while that these pieces were intoxicating to my fifteen-year-old self, my more critical side kept nudging me to open my eyes to the inherent problems that the exhibit itself seemed to gloss over.  So while parts of me thoroughly enjoyed the show, my cynical side couldn’t help awaken to the way in which the women were used merely as ornaments, much like the teapots or arm-chairs that were currently on display, to be looked at in passing, but not to be touched or used.  I realized then that many of these pieces revealed the Aesthetic movement’s general tendency to objectify women and, by extension, victimize them, because the joy that their beauty promises is often unattainable, and by idolizing them, they become dehumanized.  In a way, the aesthetes themselves imprisoned these women in their frame, marking them as ciphers.  And in exhibiting them as ciphers, these women had no choice but to remain insignificant, without weight, worth or influence.

Julia Margaret Cameron, "After the manner of the Elgin Marbles"

Upon making this realization, the paintings yielded more critical insights.  Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Burne-Jones painted wreathed and gowned women in barely concealed, salacious draperies reminiscent of Peter Lely’s portraits of Charles II’s mistresses in Classical undress.  This criticism is, of course, not original: the Pre-Raphaelites have often been critiqued for representing weakness in femininity, painting women in an essentially powerless fashion, but I wondered if women artists from the Aesthetic Movement painted women in the same way.  Unfortunately, Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph After the manner of the Elgin Marbles (1867) is the only work by a woman that originating curator Dr. Lynn Federle Orr chose to feature in the exhibit. If Cameron’s work is an indication of 19th-century women’s reaction to the Pre-Raphaelites’ objectification of women, we have evidence that women did defy this movement in interesting ways.  In analyzing After the manner of the Elgin Marbles, for example, I noticed that the woman to the right looks away from the camera and exhaustingly slumps on her seat, much like a listless and inanimate Edward Burne-Jones beauty; the woman on the left gazes defiantly, and perhaps even angrily, at the viewers.  She does not look happy in her role as a cipher and seems protective of the tired woman beside her.  This piece was remarkable because it differed so greatly from the other portraits of women that came before or after it.

James McNeill Whistler, "Symphony in White #2"

But I began to notice then too that there were selected moments of female defiance in the works of the male artists too.  In James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White #2 (1864), a virginal figure stands amidst a 19th-century drawing room, gazing at her reflection in the mirror.  Wearing a vestal white dress that appears to be a wedding gown (she looks down at her ring finger set on the mantle), she stares at her reflection solemnly.  What I found most interesting about this piece is the reflection itself.  While the standing figure is a young woman of marrying age, the reflection shows a middle-aged woman who looks sad and forlorn.  This figure exhibits emotions not usually noticeable in other aesthetic works and seems much more subversive than the other pieces from the exhibit.  Likewise, in Proud Maisie (1903), shown below, Anthony Frederick Sandys draws a figure that is much more defiant than the likes of Jane Morris (at least Rossetti’s rendition of Jane!).  This woman bites on her curls, suggesting perhaps a small moment of rebellion.  These beautiful Pre-Raphaelite curls belong to her and only her, and no lover will possess them like she does. She is proud, and perhaps even irritated, and yet, she does not conceal her emotions as a Victorian young woman ought to.

Anthony Frederick Sandys, "Proud Maisie"

As I approached the exhibit’s concluding painting of Albert Moore’s Midsummer (1887), which is included at the top of this review, I couldn’t help but be enchanted by the vibrant orange-colored togas that draped the Greek women’s bodies, or the bright orange marigolds that hung loosely on the highly-detailed and inlaid throne, or the beautiful and luxurious fans that the two women flanking the central figure held so demurely.  Aesthetic art delights us with its sumptuous paintings and decorative products.  And yet, I felt frustrated by the central figure whose eyes remained closed, who seemed so powerless and weak, enclosed in her throne, without having a say in such “imprisonment.”  And as I left the exhibit, I allowed both reactions to arise within me.  Even though I found much to critique in the exhibit’s treatment of women (both as subjects and as artists), I also found the pieces very beautiful for they were so pleasing to my senses.  The exhibit did produce the beauty it promised, all the while laying out a critique of such production.

“The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900” at the San Francisco Legion of Honor runs through June 17, 2012.

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