“The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde” at the Legion of Honor

by Admin on 02/17/2012

19th century England was a land of large, foreboding factories, cramped city living, unclean streets, and soot-filled air from the coal-fed fires. At The Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851 thousands gathered inside this immense monument made of glass and iron to celebrate the technological advances from the Industrial Revolution, and foster the burgeoning international free trade. It became apparent France and Germany were plainly well ahead of England in creating attractive goods for the middle class, providing an impetus for England to keep British goods viable in this competitive market. At the Fine Arts Museum’s Legion of Honor, “The Cult of Beauty” and its 180 artworks acutely illustrate at its only United States venue these conditions formed one of the first epochs incorporating art, design, and literature that influenced the everyday lives of disparate groups of people, accessible (albeit in varying degrees) to these new societies with interests in art.

Exploring a “Victorian Avant-Garde” seems paradoxical, but it is why this exhibition is so significant. Popular opinion of the Victorian era mainly comprises of stories of covering piano legs and renaming breast and thigh meat to “dark”or “white” meat to avoid sexual connotation, dangerous clothes-binding, and strict morality and ethics. This artwork and its aesthetic proves that in this time of deep conservatism there existed arts that liberated themselves from these stereotypes in a way that was not necessarily retaliatory. The exhibition’s arts evinced the Parisian motto ,“l’art pour l’art” or “art for art sake” became ‘avant-garde’ because it was cleverly subversive, existing as a new form of beauty. Proponents and participants in the Aesthetic Movement believed art could provide an escape from a dark, gritty world, and a pursuit of Beauty could change lives.

James McNeill Whistler Arrangement in Gray and Black no. 2, Portrait of Thomas Carlyle 1872-3

Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all of whose artworks are on display in “The Cult of Beauty,” began an avant-garde movement that concurrently propelled art forward and lassoed it back: Pre-Raphaelitism, that is, before artist Raphael and his fellow Italian Renaissance masters introduced vanishing points and perspective. Their paintings and designs created this simpler aesthetic comprised of flat surfaces, and subject matter derived from British folk art and mythology. Other influences of this fine art avant-garde were derived from current events: the newly-opened Suez Canal in Egypt, and opened trade routes with Japan. This facet might be termed the most contemporary art of the era, paintings by James McNeill Whistler, and design by architect and designer Edward William Godwin. The exhibition also highlights The Grosvenor Gallery, where many of the artists associated with this genre were free to exhibit their work.

The influence of this Victorian movement is obviously apparent in 20th century Arts and Crafts style and Art Nouveau, and its introduction of Japonisme and Chinoiserie into Western Art. Yet, perhaps its lasting impact was the belief artwork could be for the masses and exist without a need to teach or instruct, but form within its own history, ideas, and materiality.

The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde is on exhibition at the Legion of Honor until June 17, 2012.