Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Cult Of Beauty, V&A

The V&A's latest exhibition, on the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century, is very close to home. The art and design of the group loosely centred about Rossetti's work and ideals was a well-researched, globally sourced hotchpotch of contemporary Eastern and Antiquarian art which became the mainstay of the South Kensington Museum, later the V&A itself. Leaving the exhibition is a curiously protracted experience, as a large Burne-Jones style work hangs in the east stairwell and the museum is littered with the beautifully preserved Antiquarian sculpture on which Frederick Leighton based works such as Sluggard (1885).

It's a comprehensive exhibition in as much as there is a fair bit of weak art on show which is nonetheless representative of the movement. In the context of the meticulously rendered light, colour and patterns of works by Albert Moore (such as Midsummer, right), the broody-hued, poorly rendered portraits of women by Rossetti seem less artwork than manifesto. Indeed a lot of the canvases in the first room are there to confirm the movement's preoccupation with peacock feathers.

Anomalies are included. One artist who walks a parallel, French track to the movement is Whistler. There are a couple of impressionist canvases but most striking is the trio of Symphony In White paintings (not brilliantly displayed in the only shortfall of the curating, which has the third painting stuck in a corner behind, a dais after a bottleneck) which have the same attitude towards content as the rest of the movement, i.e. that it is secondary to the manner in which it is rendered. I was rather overwhelmed by Symphony In White No. 1: The White Girl (1862) - a study in the texture of pale paint, yes, but also an opaque allegory. The flame-haired individual stands, with neutral demeanour, on the pelt of a polar bear whose rictus face screams out from the base of the canvas. Powerful stuff.

The revelation of the exhibition for me was he influence of Japan. Furnishings and homeware were common subjects of stylistic reproduction, notably the thin-jambed pieces of Edward Godwin and the straight-edged, and frankly sci-fi tea service designs of Christopher Dresser (right). Dresser wasn't just some sort of proto-futurist or vorticist though. Unusual though pieces such as this teapot are, they are firmly grounded in the lines of the Japanese culture from which he was borrowing as other works of his, to which a pair of globe vases, made in Staffordshire but easily passable as of Eastern origin, will attest.

The final room of the exhibition is a large, open plan collection of pieces, moving towards the curdling of the movement in the commodification of Aubrey Beardsley and self-satirisation of Oscar Wilde. At the centre of this cornucopia which includes work by John Millais and the furnishing design company William Morris is a reproduction of the Japanese dining room or Peacock Room that Whistler designed for the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Permanently on display at Washington's Freer Gallery, the V&A have constructed a cylindrical screen onto which a 360° image of the room is projected. This ambitious idea turns out to be a bit muddled in the execution, washed out and ill-focused, something that can't really be excused in this latter-day period of digital projection.

I came and saw the Aubrey Beardsley retrospective at the V&A a decade or so ago and the genteel counterculutralism of that period's artists still resonates in these galleries. I would also suggest watching Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy-Turvy in which a visiting Japanese exhibition revives the fortunes of the artists as they are inspired to produce The Mikado. Above all, I want to see a comprehensive Whistler retrospective right now.

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