Opinions are divided about Oscar Wilde’s last bon mot. Was it, “I’m dying beyond my means” or “Either the wallpaper goes or I go”?
Wilde died in a Paris hotel under a false name, an outcast in his own country. His death symbolized the end of a movement whose most eloquent standard-bearer he was.
The Aesthetic Movement is the subject of “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in Oscar Wilde’s England” at the Musee d’Orsay. At London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, where the show started in April, it was called “The Cult of Beauty -- The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900.”
The move to Paris is, in a way, a return to its origins. The battle cry “L’art pour l’art,” meaning that art has nothing to do with moral edification, was coined by the French writer Theophile Gautier in 1835.
In his “Hymn to Beauty,” the poet Charles Baudelaire exclaimed: “Whether thou comest from Satan or from God, what does it matter?”
To the Victorians, it mattered very much.
The cartoons in “Punch” or Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “Patience,” mocking the ultra-refined, velvet-clad aesthetes, were mild compared with other attacks on the “fleshly school of poetry,” as one critic called them.
Walter Pater, a Classics don at Oxford and the movement’s theorist, was denounced by the Church and forced by his superiors to rewrite his “Studies in the History of the Renaissance” in which he had asserted that conventional morality should not get in the way of the search for beauty.
That search embraced all spheres of life, not only literature and the fine arts. Along with paintings, books and photographs, the show includes ceramics, teapots, wallpapers, textiles, furniture and dresses -- all designed to create a world in which even the most ordinary object was beautiful.
What that meant was by no means clear. The Aesthetic Movement was a strange mix of progressive ideas and nostalgia for the pre-industrial past, not a homogenous school with a unified program.
“Dante” Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) tried to revive the “Pre-Raphaelite” universe of the early Renaissance.
William Morris (1834-96) was a socialist who railed against “the swinish luxury of the rich” and preached the gospel of art for the masses. He was the driving force behind the Arts and Crafts Movement that later inspired the Bauhaus.
American-born, French-educated James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the most talented of them all, was heavily influenced by Japanese art and became one of the pioneers of Art Nouveau.
The soulful, rose picking, violin playing maidens from England are a perfect match for the French “pompiers,” the slick academic painters who are well represented at the Musee d’Orsay.
After a 20 million euro ($27.3 million) facelift that has enlarged the museum’s exhibition space, their number has even grown, bringing to light dozens of ugly ducklings that had been languishing in the storerooms.
An entire new wing, the Pavillon Amont, is filled with Art Nouveau furniture and also allows more breathing space for the Impressionists, the museum’s trump card.
Visitors who have been here before will also notice the new colors on the walls. Vanilla, a “color killer” according to Guy Cogeval, the museum’s director, has been banished and replaced by darker hues -- deep gray, brown, green, violet and blue -- creating an atmosphere of high voltage and drama.
“Beaute, Morale et Volupte dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde” runs through Jan. 15, 2012, and will then travel to the de Young Museum in San Francisco (Feb. 18-June 17, 2012). Information: http://www.musee-orsay.fr or +33-1-4049-4814.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)