The Aesthetes pay a visit

March 4, 2012 § Leave a comment


To the serious collector of ironies, the Aesthetic Movement of 19th century England has much to offer. Surely one of the most ironic things is that the business community may well have become aware of a need for something new and different sooner than most English artists did. Putting it in a nutshell, England’s traditional hostility toward what was merely artistic had begun to hurt the bottom line. During the 18th century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England, the lowering of prices made possible by machine production gave English products an enormous competitive advantage. But then time passed, foreigners began to catch up, and competition was no longer based on price alone.

By the second quarter of the 19th century, it had become clear that French producers were — not literally, perish the thought — eating England’s lunch. What England needed was at least a saving remnant of artists and designers who didn’t mind being like the French or Spaniards or Italians in having a taste for merely beautiful things. Although regrettably associated with loose morals, un-English taste could bring in money.

Enter, in a somewhat disorderly queue, the Aesthetes, whose hits and misses are handsomely displayed in “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900,” a traveling exhibition that opened February 18 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Conceived 10 years ago at San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, which did a fair amount of the curatorial heavy lifting, the show was organized jointly with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, whose own holdings in 19th century English art and design, combined with access to English lenders, made it easier to put the show together. The objects range over a variety of art media — painting, sculpture, drawing and photography meant to be artistic — but also includes furniture, wallpaper, blue and white porcelain and Japanese fans, silverware, indeed pretty much everything for the home, including the architecture of the home itself.

Aestheticism involved a new (for England, at least) emphasis on the primacy of artistic considerations, and had no single style. Painting could range from the Renaissance clarity of Edward Burne-Jones to the near-abstraction of James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes.

As the show’s title suggests, what seemed to be at issue was whether art should be merely beautiful or should teach lessons of some kind: dedication to the greater glory of God, the urgency of building socialism, and the nobility of dogs, from whom we can all learn something, were themes widely reflected in Victorian art.

Aestheticism could and did seem pretentious. The humor magazine Punch ran a satirical series about a hypothetical Aesthetic family, the Cimabue Browns, whose name alone pointed to the opposition between straightforward Englishness and the embarrassingly foreign. And Punch wasn’t making it all up: There was a Victorian pianist and composer, no marginal dilettante but a principal of the Royal Academy of Music, who was actually named Cipriani Potter.

At a preview of the exhibition, curator Lynn Federle Orr said that the Aesthetes were the Kardashians of their time. From the viewpoint of People magazine or the National Enquirer, they made outstanding copy. Conspicuous substance abuse didn’t wait for the 20th century: Whatever Dante Gabriel Rossetti lacked in trouble caused by cocaine he made up for with chloral hydrate.

Some must have led sexless or closeted lives; others were ahead of most of us. During one period the poet and artist William Morris, his wife, Jane, and Jane’s lover, the poet and artist Rossetti, occupied a house in joint tenancy; putting a love triangle into the actual real estate paperwork was far from what we think of as Victorian prudery.

Aestheticism evolved into three related movements: Art Nouveau, which extended the Aesthetes’ yearning for the exquisite; the Arts and Crafts Movement, which turned its back on urban luxury and sophisitication and stood for the revival of rural crafts and healthy values; and the turn-of-the-century Decadence, which continued tendencies already associated with writer Oscar Wilde and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. We still argue back and forth about the relative value of making art for its own sake, but as with the cultural values of the 1960s, much that was avant-garde about the Aesthetes has long since entered the common ground of our thinking about art and design.

The exhibition continues at the Legion of Honor through June 17.


San Francisco’s Swedenborgian Church, at Washington and Lyon Streets, is considered one of the outstanding achievements of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America. Its design has been variously attributed to the architect of record, A. Page Brown, and Bernard Maybeck, who was employed on the project in the humble capacity of a draftsman but later attained superstar status as an architect.

These considerations leave out the one person who had the most to do with the church’s design: its minister, Joseph Worcester. Although not formally trained as an architect, he was an unusually knowledgeable amateur, often considered the father of the Bay Area shingle style, in houses he designed for himself and others.

Whatever its undisputed merits as an expression of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the church may also be seen as an explicit repudiation of the kind of art exhibited in the show at the Legion of Honor. Worcester disagreed strongly with the idea of art for art’s sake. In 1882 Oscar Wilde made a lecture tour of the United States, and the two talks he gave in San Francisco set forth the Aesthetic ideal of how a home should be decorated.

Worcester was sufficiently provoked to respond by giving his own series of lectures, between August and October of 1882, denouncing the Aesthetes’ position. He was still thinking along those lines 10 years later, when he wrote in a letter to a nephew, “I hope our plan will not be too aesthetic, but my artist friends are much bent on making it so. A pretty church I do not think I could stand; I prefer the little congregation in the bare hall.”

After the church opened, to great acclaim, in 1895, Worcester recalled the design process. “I could have done nothing without the architect,” he wrote, “but he was very patient with my suggestions. Sometimes he said that an idea of mine was not good architecture. I answered him that I cared nothing for the canons of architecture — the building must teach its lessons.” The Aesthetic Movement, which seems in retrospect to be a mixture of triumph and excess, stood for a different attitude toward the value of beauty.


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