Beauty queens

“No object is so beautiful that under certain conditions it will not look ugly.” Oscar Wilde, who spent his youth trying to live up to his blue china and his middle age chasing “Greek forms passing through Gothic cloisters”, embodied in his life and work the aesthetic movement – the loosely linked fin-de-siècle painters, writers and designers who believed that art existed only for its own sake. His tragic genius as its spokesman was that he predicted also the movement’s limitations, and thus his own likely destruction.

Wilde, says Stephen Calloway, curator of The Cult of Beauty, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s excellent new exhibition on the aesthetes, was “the original celebrity style guru”. From Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings for Salomé and an exquisite first edition, illustrated by Walter Crane, of The Happy Prince, to photographs of his American tour and Charles Ricketts’ bronze figure “Silence” for his tomb, Wilde’s endangered wit and outrageous dandyish poses weave through this theatrical, multimedia show. It’s one he would have loved for its extravagance, sense of doom, and graceful unmasking, as in his plays, of the psycho-social truths of Victorian Britain.

It begins stunningly, with spangled peacock-green and midnight-blue walls the backcloth for the icons that defined mid-19th century concepts of beauty. The V&A’s poster image is Frederic Leighton’s “Pavonia” (1859): glassy, black-haired Italian model Nanna Risi turns alluringly to glance over her shoulder, while behind her spreads a huge ornamental fan of peacock feathers, a key aesthetic emblem. Next to her, painted the same year, is “Bocca Baciata”, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s flame-haired, pouting lover Fanny Cornforth in what he called her “Venetian aspect”, her sparkling jewels and archaic costume recalling Titian. Three years later comes James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Symphony in White, No 1”, a girl in a simple white dress standing against a pale curtain, holding a white lily – another aesthete accessory. The white-on-white sets off her red tresses and a bearskin rug: the title argues for a composition perceived as a harmony of colours, not a portrait.

In the 1860s, Leighton, Rossetti and Whistler were reckoned as far apart as, say, David Hockney and Jeff Koons are today. Leighton was a neo-classicist. Paintings such as his marble-cold “The Bath of Psyche” and “The Syracusan Bride Leading Wild Animals in Procession to the Temple of Diana”, a frieze-like painting of figures still as antique sculpture, marching snarling tigers on leashes, pinpoint that strand of Victorian thought locating beauty in a stylised, dead past.

Rossetti, by contrast, led the pre-Raphaelites – painstaking naturalists and terrific sensualists who also, paradoxically, depended on historical inspiration: Rossetti’s cloistered medieval heroine “Veronica Veronese” and Edward Burne-Jones’s elongated damsels, recalling tapestries, in “Laus Veneris”, are important examples here.

And then there is James McNeill Whistler – the London-based American, maverick, determinedly non-narrative, flirting with the beginnings of abstraction. He insisted that his steely portrait of Thomas Carlyle should be entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black No 2” and that his luminous blue-gold shadows flitting over the Thames at Battersea Bridge constituted not a landscape but a “Nocturne”.

The V&A’s triumph here is to demonstrate the common ground between such disparate figures. All were shaped by a Zeitgeist in desperate flight from the ugliness of rapidly industrialising Britain and promoting beauty as the incontestable ideal. In Victorian England, this meant female portraits, formal elegance, and an increasing interest in abstract patterning, sometimes at monumental scale, which extended naturally beyond easel paintings to interior decoration.

A film recreating Whistler’s “Peacock Room”, and a reconstruction of Rossetti’s ornate bedroom in Cheyne Walk in London, with its ceramic displays and Chinese furniture, provide focal points here but the aim was broader – to redeem everyday banality and win new middle-class consumers. Liberty’s, which is part-sponsoring this show, offered popular designs such as Arthur Silver’s peacock feather furnishing fabric. William Morris sold delicately crafted wallpaper, including the “Pomegranate” motif on show here; a variation was used for the V&A’s Green Dining Room. The painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema designed his wife’s jewellery, notably a diamond- and ruby-studded snake-shaped spiral bangle.

Do we still find these things beautiful, and does it matter? Challenged that his The Picture of Dorian Gray had no moral, Wilde replied that on the contrary it had too much: the message was that “all excess as well as all renunciation brings its own punishment”. His story, he added, “is an essay on decorative art. It reacts against the crude brutality of plain realism. It is poisonous if you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect.”

That, cumulatively, is what this show made me feel: each piece has formal perfection but, as layer builds on layer of ornamental, over-embellished work, the effect becomes claustrophobic, dull, soporific even. Is it a coincidence that too many paintings – Leighton’s “Garden of the Hesperides”, Albert Moore’s bright marigold “Midsummer” – feature young women so overcome by midday heat that they lie in a somnolent haze, passive sleeping beauties to be awakened by the viewer?

It happens that The Cult of Beauty, launched on Saturday, opens three days before the Musée d’Orsay’s big spring show, Manet, Inventeur du Moderne (to be reviewed next week). The trophy piece there is “Olympia” (1863), the reclining nude courtesan who dares to return our gaze, announcing in her audacious stare that painting’s subject from now on must be modern life.

Aesthetic movement women, by contrast, do not look us in the eye, because their creators are frightened of them. Anxiety at women’s erotic power in the new urban society courses through the femme fatale images that dominate the V&A show. Rossetti’s “Day Dream”, setting his green-robed lover Jane Morris in a leafy summer bower, evokes Eve in the garden of Eden; decorative images from Morris’s pomegranates – symbol of fertility – to Alma-Tadema’s serpent reprise such symbolism.

Forbidden desire – Rossetti’s for Morris’s wife, Wilde’s for Lord Alfred Douglas – was the driving force behind the aesthetic movement. Its philosopher, urging that we “burn always with this hard gem-like flame”, was the repressed homosexual Walter Pater, and it ended, almost overnight, with the court case that brought the subject out of the shadows and into newspaper headlines: Wilde’s trial and conviction for sodomy in 1895.

Aestheticism had no future because Manet’s stark truth-telling, rather than Rossetti’s sultry goddesses or Leighton’s chiselled statues, pointed the way forward. But, as this comprehensive show demonstrates, it marked, nevertheless, a key shift in English sensibility, producing, Wilde concluded, “certain colours, subtle in their loveliness and fascinating in their almost mystical tone. They were our reactions against the crude primaries of a doubtless more respectable but certainly less cultivated age.”

‘The Cult of Beauty, The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to July 17,

Then Musée d’Orsay, Paris, September 12-January 15 2012; de Young Museum, San Francisco, February 18-June 17 2012

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