The crowd was small but the appreciation stupendous; the basement room of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum filled with the quiet shuffling footsteps of the loyal bodies, eager to witness first hand the treasures of The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900 exhibition that will be showing through to June 17th. Information
The exhibition celebrates the revolutionary advances in functional art and interior design that took place during the Victorian era, when artists had the notion to use beauty as the subject, transforming art and society. This notion of beauty as an ideal may have paved the way to modernity, walking through the exhibit though one cannot help but feel society has sorely forgotten it in these past years.
The Cult of Beauty is a collection of work from noted literary and artistic figures such as James Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, who defied the popular social code by their devotion to formal beauty. They fashioned a new standard for beauty experimenting with new mediums, producing functional art that qualified as artistic pieces, bringing works of aesthetic beauty to the masses.
Rossetti’s oil-on-canvas painting, Bocca Baciata (The Kissed Mouth), 1859, for example, was seen as provocative and vulgar at the time but is now considered classic, even tame.
The collection, which features over 160 works from artists involved in the Aesthetic Movement, as it is called, honors the much forgotten handcrafted art of the grand Victorian style and the idea that more is indeed more. The show opened in London, before moving to Paris, and now San Francisco.
The cast brass Fire Place Surround byThomas Jeckyll, engraved in detail with repeating labyrinths of geometric and floral patterns, is an example of the quality of work and craftsmanship in this time. Jeckyll transformed an otherwise ordinary fireplace into a thing of beauty, warm and inviting.
The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours we live – Richard Jefferies, The Life in the Fields, 1884.
In the last few decades of the XIXth century, this handful of artists and literary souls rebelled against the Royal Academy of Art and its snobbish gang of aristocrats to create a new genre of art for art’s sake.
More layers of lithographed prints of whimsical irises and roses, more hand-painted blue and white porcelain tableware inspired by the Far East, make up a large portion of the exhibition, in a creative contrast of opposing mediums and objects. The decorative floral designs engraved and painted on changing doors and a chest of drawers show the results of XIXth century Japanese influences. Such attention to detail has vanished from western virtual hot list, from what is or isn’t currently trending. We’re now living in a land where less is more and the Ikeas of the world are king, abandoning the art of beauty and craftsmanship.
The artists of the Victorian period included in this show were fearless and daring sacrificing everything for the sake of quality. They believed in art for the sake of art, while championing the notion that nothing is exempt from artistic attention. All was deserving of their attention, and furniture, tableware and other seemingly ordinary household objects to the ignorant, became the canvas for their vision.
Artists of our time like Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier follow in their spirit, seeing art and beauty for what it is, raw and contrary to the norm and therefore, world changing.
Images: Curtesy of The Legion Of Honour