Plastered around the London underground are very large posters showing a beautiful woman looking towards the viewer with a thoughtful, sensuous gaze. She has glossy black hair and a plume of peacock feathers crown her head. I was lured to this exhibition because of this poster, the luscious Pavonia by Frederic Lord Leighton.
Something as luxurious and elegant as this couldn’t fail to captivate any audience, even after a stressful day of work rushing after commuters on the grimy London transport network.
The exhibition itself is an expansion of this particular style of painting, the pre-Raphaelite style, favoured by the romantic artists. It illustrates a particular era of the romantics, when ‘art for art’s sake’ was the main objective. Nothing to the artists was so important as the very concept of painting something beautiful, another string to the bow of the constant debate of the purpose of art.
The entire Cult of Beauty exhibition is adorned by peacock feathers, not just in the paintings but also highlighting the guiding captions around the exhibition, even a room titled ‘The Peacock Room’. Peacock feathers are known for their myriad of meanings, from exemplifying the exotic notions of artists who loved to absorb the designs, colours and textures from other cultures, to beholding themselves as a symbol of vanity. Here, the exhibition uses them as a motif, an icon of exotic luxury, though traditionally in England they are thought of as unlucky.
A great focus of the exhibit is a true icon of the Romantic movement; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founders of the pre-Raphaelite movement. The paintings shown illustrate the luxurious sensuous beauty that the aesthetic movement was famous for. His paintings display goddess-like heroines, draped in deep greens and royal hues that are more than pleasing to the eye. It is clear how closely linked the artists are from their styles and their influences, many motifs lifted from the orient, such as the kimonos worn by several models, and the oriental style jewellery on show.
There are noticeably two different moods to the exhibit, revolving around Rossetti, which inspired the likes of designers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, then followed Whistler, whose beautiful, calm images contrast brilliantly with his romantic elders, whose paintings are coloured with sensuality and royal colours.
Whistler’s startlingly simplistic colours express a different aspect to the luxury of the aesthetic movement, his Symphony in White series shows an innocence that Leighton and Rossetti neglect, showing that the sensuality in the romantic’s paintings was by no means intrinsic to their beauty.
As I waded through the exhibition there was a noticeable feeling of sumptuous comfort, nothing unpleasant or unnerving, only rooms crammed with opulent colours and lavish scenery, to the extent where it becomes evident that this was an idea of a perfect world. Demonstrating a group of artists creating imagery around themselves that was only visually pleasing. As though the world outside these paintings, an ugly and unpleasant one, simply didn’t exist, a true testament to the Aesthetic theory which was that if you surround yourself with beautiful objects, you would become beautiful too.
Whether you love art for its concept, history or its looks, this is an exhibition to see, if only because it is a treat for the senses, the visual equivalent of a box of rich, dark chocolates.
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 is showing until July 17 at:
The Victoria & Albert Museum
Tel: 020 7942 2000