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Decadent Victorians Obsess Over Shopping, Celebs at V&A: Review

A photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony. The object is on show in
A photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony. The object is on show in "The Cult of Beauty" at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London until July 17. Source: V&A via Bloomberg

The Aesthetic Movement believed in “art for art’s sake.” Strangely, it ended up being obsessed with interior design.

Indeed, the designer house started in Victorian England, as is shown by a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900.”

It’s a splendid show, full of magnificent objects, richly decorated and sometimes odd. There are artistic teapots designed by Christopher Dresser that look like small artifacts from Mars, a recreation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sitting room, and a velvet Knickerbocker suit such as Oscar Wilde might have worn.

The Aesthetic movement sounds extremely highbrow, though a lot of it came down to what these days is called “lifestyle,” by which we generally mean shopping, drugs and sex. The aesthetes of late 19th-century Britain were interested in all three of those, but especially in the first.

The only top-drawer painter involved -- on this showing -- was James McNeill Whistler. Some might put in a claim for Burne-Jones and Rossetti. I find their brand of late Pre-Raphaelitism cloying although this may, I admit, be a blind spot.

There are some wonderful black-and-white illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and, in the last section of the exhibition dealing with the “decadence” of the 1890s, sculptures by the brilliant Alfred Gilbert (including a cast of Eros from Piccadilly Circus). But fundamentally “The Cult of Beauty” is about decor.

White Symphonies

Whistler is represented by remarkable paintings, such as his “Symphonies in White,” numbers 1 to 3, all pictures of young women. This follows the critic Walter Pater’s suggestion that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” the painter liked to give his works musical titles. Whistler also appears -- more unexpectedly -- as a painter of furniture and entire rooms.

His masterpiece of interior design, “The Peacock Room” (1876-77), is illustrated by a film (the original is in the Freer Gallery, Washington). There’s also a recreation of one of Whistler’s exhibitions. This consisted of etchings of Venice and elsewhere; but the whole gallery, including the brown and red wall colors, was conceived as a utility by the artist. It was what we would nowadays call an installation.

The funny thing about this exhibition is that the furnishings are more cutting-edge than the pictures. A Whistler cupboard, “Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet” is on display, designed by the architect Edward William Godwin and decorated by the painter in an almost abstract idiom. Godwin’s sideboard (1865-75), is black, stark, angular and extraordinarily avant-garde for the mid-Victorian age.

Exhuming Poems

Sex and drugs featured in the aesthetic movement, as well as interiors. Rossetti, with his addictions to booze and chloral, lived a life as lurid as that of any rock star. After his wife Elizabeth Siddal died of a drug overdose, he had her exhumed to retrieve some poems he had buried in the coffin. Oscar Wilde climbed to fame, like a contemporary celeb, through flamboyance and attention-grabbing talk (and paid for outraging convention with a savage prison sentence).

More widely influential than the ostentatious behavior, though, were the teapots, furniture, wallpaper and bric-a-brac. Walter Crane’s frontispiece to “The House Beautiful” (1878), an early design guide, shows a lady in an aesthetic dress pouring a cup from her artistic teapot surrounded by Japanese fans, oriental porcelain and modish objects of all kinds. This wasn’t just a beautiful house, was the suggestion, but a beautiful life -- and one that could be bought.

“The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900” is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from April 2 through July 17. The show is sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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