Comment: Thoughts on the Aesthetic Movement Exhibition

David R. Marshall

Edward Burne-Jones, 'Laus Veneris', 1868.

These are some thoughts after seeing the exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, at the Victoria and Albert Museum (till July 17th 2011, see the review by Kim Clayton-Green on the MAN website).

What struck me about this exhibition was how familiar it was, on both a personal and intellectual level. On the personal level it helps one make sense of one’s own familial history: that photo of great-grandmother in strange loose fitting costume with metal armlets in a dirty green and gold frame, or that pair of brass candlesticks in the form of rearing cobras remembered from childhood and spotted in an obscure corner of the exhibition. But more importantly it was familiar ideologically. The idea that the purpose of art is to enrich the lives of the comfortably established, and its practice should be driven by the artist and a sympathetic circle of patrons still seems to have a lot going for it. It remains, I suspect, the underlying impulse behind interest in art today, whatever its overt ideology. And it makes a refreshing change from the strenuous self-flagellation of art that seeks only to effect social reform or simply to be ‘challenging’. It also makes a change from the art of the Baroque, which is aesthetically interesting in spite of, not because of, the suffocating theocratic state that produced it.  In the Baroque one admires the humanity, creative invention, and sheer beauty that human beings are capable of in spite of the cultural system in which they are embedded; with the Aesthetic movement these are the cultural system.

To be sure, the art-for-art’s-sake approach raises its own problems, but as is often the case with pioneering movements, many of the problem are raised, addressed, but never fully resolved before art rolls on in new directions. The aesthetic mode of perceiving art demands detachment from narrative; it is about disengaged seeing. Perhaps the exhibition designers were trying to make this point when they recreated Rossetti’s sitting room as a peep show, like the Samuel van Hoogstraten peep show box in the National Gallery in London. It is seen through slits, one horizontal and highly raked, the other two vertical. These are perhaps intended to make you see the interior not as a series of objects, but with the detachment of a painter’s eye. Certainly the  picture of Rossetti’s bedroom rendered as a convex mirror like Parmigianino’s Self-portrait implies that the designers were pursuing a concern with early modern modes of seeing. But then why the label identifying a strange Chinese chair that was owned by Rossetti (and practically everyone else), which is placed beside the slit through which it cannot be seen? Very strange. But perhaps the driving idea is more Liebeskind than Vermeer.

The artists most engaged with disengaged vision were Moore and Leighton. Moore in particular demonstrates what seems to be the core technical problems facing the art-for-art’s sake artist. This is the problem of the face. Pretty well every face in this exhibition is a failure.  Moore, famously, de-narrativizes art, with a splendid display of high-keyed patterning and draperies (Fig. 1). There is no problem with the setting, or even the bodies, but the heads break the spell, as if the painterly surface has suddenly become relief sculpture. It is not the repetitiveness of his types – the same statuesque frizzy-haired girl is everywhere – but the way the head is too solid and the features too dated. Oddly enough, Burne-Jones’ Laus Veneris opposite does the faces better (Fig. 2). This is thanks to Rossetti and Jane Burden. Although she was Morris’s wife, artistically he clearly didn’t get her at all, as his unique painting of her in full medieval dress and setting, La Belle Iseult,  demonstrates (Fig. 3). I had never properly looked, this painting before, and it is better than I was led to expect, given the conventional view (repeated in the label) that this early painting demonstrates his recognition that he was more interested in pattern than people. But the face is in fact quite skillfully modelled, in a chiselled kind of way. But Jane doesn’t look happy, and, more importantly, embodies no ideal of beauty. Rossetti  fixed all that, and nearby, is his Veronica Veronese, a completely over the top portrait of René Russo (Fig. 4). Here Rossetti had a vision of a face and went for it. Opposite is a row of belle donne, a collection of small portrait-type heads mostly exploring this ideal of beauty, most of which don’t work half as well as the Veronica Veronese opposite, apart from Leighton’s Pavonia (Fig. 5), which is coming from another direction entirely. The organizers have recognized this image as one that is both successful and unfamiliar, and it appears in the exhibition banners everywhere, and on the cover of the catalogue. But the Rossetti vision carries through into Burne-Jones, and the Laus Veneris, which is nicely placed opposite the Moore so as to encourage it to be read in the same terms, works very well. In spite of their distinctive period look the faces and heads are less problematic than Moore’s, and the rich red-gold and green colouring makes a refreshing changes from the pallid mode of Moore. Unfortunately, Burne-Jones, unlike Moore, was interested in stories, and the unfortunate Beguiling of Merlin beside it makes one wish he was less of a medieval storyteller and more of an aesthete.

In spite of being the hero of the Aesthetic movement, this exhibition is not Whistler’s triumph. His low key colour harmonies are often strangely flat. Perhaps the dense wall colouring used through the exhibition, and the rather crude projected ornamentation, is too much for his works.  At the Freer in Washington Whistler’s paintings hang on pale walls and are intimately associated with the exquisite oriental pieces which is the prime purpose of the museum, and there they look fabulous. But here, such iconic works as the Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (Fig. 6) look dull from a distance and not much better close up. Hung high was another Whistler, which looked simply dim flat, not a symphony of subtle colour relations. In many ways Barocci handled monochrome better, in such works as his Beata Michelina in the Vatican.  The Symphony in White 1: The White Girl (Fig. 7), supposedly his masterpiece, suffers from the face problem, and the whites-on-white never really sing, although it has its moments in the bearskin rug and floor. The more Leightonesque (or Meldrumesque) Symphony in White 2: The Little White Girl (Fig. 8), beside it works much better. It has Leighton’s interest in colour accents, and does not labour the point of Whistler’s ‘big idea’.

In many ways it was Leighton who best resolved the face problem. This has something to do with his classicism. The classical world developed a language of the human body as ornament, which extended to the face and head. Upstairs in the silverware section there are some amazing ornamental uses of the human body, where the classical schema manages to control the attention-grabbing tendency of the face (Fig. 9). Perhaps the reason why Moore didn’t succeed in this was that he had no real affinity for the classical ideal, as his woodenly modelled nude based on the Venus de Milo amply demonstrates (Fig. 10). This Venus cries out to be draped and have her head covered, and so recover some of her dignity. This sort of thing Leighton was very good at. The figure of a priestess second from left in his Syracusan Bride leading Wild Beasts in Procession to the Temple of Diana has her head draped, and becomes a strange knobby thing, not quite human: part science fiction, part Carpaccio, but more rounded (Fig. 11). This long, frieze-like painting, incidentally, grabs one’s attention in the second room. Its very wide composition proves to be a perfect vehicle for aesthetic detachment (anyone writing on of Leighton uses words like ‘detachment’ or ‘disengagement’ a lot, as it is his defining quality). You never really get swept up in the event, but roam with disinterested fascination over dusky faces and exquisite forms, before settling on the draperies as the true subject. Here Leighton is most at home, and at his most detached: his drapery studies, like the one exhibited here, lacks the sculptural interest of their classical models, without being exercises in linearity.

Where the figures are concerned, Leighton’s detachment seems to be confined to women. His statue The Sluggard dominates the opening display (Fig. 12): it is a Michelangelo Slave triumphantly freed from his Counter-Reformation paralysis. He is no captive; just stretching. But it is more than just a stretch: it is a statement about the release of art from his servitude to unsympathetic ideas. It is the kind of statue to make a straight man gay. His painting of Psyche, however, would never do the reverse: it is so detached, it is nothing at all, and as big a failure in its own way as Moore’s Venus, which hangs beside it (Fig. 13). The same may not be true for two highly classicizing statues that dominate this same room in the same way that the Sluggard dominates its (the lighting and presentation of the sculpture in this show is impressive). The point being made is the relationship in pose between Watt’s Clytie and Thorneycroft’s statue. Clytie is a hefty, busty Victorian woman almost overpowering in her physicality as she turns her head and thrusts out her breasts (Fig. 14). Thorneycroft’s figure. Which has, we are told, the same head twist at Clytie, is much more decorous, and one of the best takes on fourth century BC Greek sculpture from the nineteenth century.

Leighton’s classicism helps him to resolve the face problem in his Mother and Child (Cherries) (Fig. 15). The head of the mother does not engage us and is not meant to, but neither is it gauche. But this is more than a matter of facial type. Leighton’s technical mastery is extraordinary. Because he uses blacks and shadows, he has chiaroscuro to play with as well as the singing of closely match tonalities of the high-key boys. But he also plays with focus in a way that undoubtedly owes much to photography. There is an extraordinary unerotic sensuality in the way a glistening, translucent cherry hovers over the mother’s lips. The cherry is sharp, but the lips are out of focus. So too is much of the rest of the face, where the wet paint has been dusted over with a soft brush to make it blend and soften. Only the nose drifts into focus through the use of a light impasto. The child’s face is in shadow and hence recessive, and is similarly blended. In such passages as these Leighton solves the problem of detaching the viewer from too human an engagement with a story, without adopting the high key that most clearly signalled this path. His colours do not resonate subtly with each other: rather, they are as luscious as the cherries themselves, or a piece of dark chocolate with a liqueur filling.

If one then moves on to Alma-Tadema, one realises how he failed to properly grasp the aesthetic attitude. His Lady with a fan (which is surprisingly small), although seeming to belong to the same genre as the paintings by Moore, remains a narrative picture, although in an unintentionally comic mode (Fig. 16). Naked women on tiger skins may not have been the erotic cliché they became with Elinor Glin, but the point is there and hardly subtle, as is the placing of the fan and the possible uses to which a strigil might be put. In the face of such cues as these it is is impossible to maintain an attitude of detachment, even eroticised detachment. The Aesthetic spell has been broken.

Incidentally, the catalogue, or rather ‘exhibition book’  is scrumptious, but is evidence of the alarming tendency of the ‘exhibition book’ to become detached from the exhibition itself. Although it conveys the tenor and intent of the exhibition well enough, it is interesting to note how many of the works I have discussed aren’t in it. The ‘exhibition book’ tendency is taken even further in the Jan Gossaert Exhibition in the National Gallery. Here it makes no pretence to be a catalogue, and is instead an introduction to sixteenth-century Flemish art. I am told this is the new policy of the National Gallery. No doubt it avoids duplication of already published material, and there is a recent catalogue raisonné of Gossaert’s work, but it does leave you with the question of why the pictures are there. The labels don’t say much and only a few sequences of works (such as the run of Adam and Eves) tell their own story, you are left wondering what the logic of the exhibition actually is. With a catalogue you know you can work it out eventually by consulting the catalogue, even if you never do. With no catalogue one can only passively admire the works, which is not easy to do with a not-very-accessible painter like Gossaert.

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