Paris Over the Holidays Part 2: “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde”
16, January 2012 § 3 Comments
Waiting in line at the Musee d’Orsay on a cold January morning is no joke. It is such a visited destination that even with a reserved ticket one needs to wait outside for close to an hour. As placeholder in line I anxiously awaited the arrival of my brother, sister and brother-in-law. After waiting forty minutes and with the vast majority of the line behind me, my tardy siblings sheepishly arrived and took their places next to me, much to the irritation of the Australian couple behind us. Kindly the Australians let them pass and soon we entered the beautiful train station turned museum.
Not surprisingly, the museum was completely packed.
The exhibition, “Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde” currently on display at the museum was our first destination, shows works that were created under the “Aesthetic Movement” occurring in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. The Aesthetics were invested in making works of beauty without overarching meanings that went beyond the piece itself. It was “art for art sake,” a stance that permeated the culture in Victorian England in art, design, fashion, literature and poetry.
It was a movement which started in painting reacting against everything from the gritty realist art of Gustave Courbet to the ugliness found in mass industry. John Ruskin’s idea of art as the ultimate in human endeavor was challenged by Ruskin’s rival in later life, French born, American painter John McNeil Whistler, a major figure in the movement. Whistler stated, “art should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism”. The Aesthetics aimed to make their world more beautiful, using influences as wide in scope as ancient Egypt, the early Italian Renaissance, classical Greece, Japanese tapestries and ukiyo-e, chinese porcelain bowls and illuminated manuscripts.
It must have been an exciting time, experiencing the effects of globalism in London in the second half of 19th century. The Acropolis marbles that were taken from Athens and placed in the British Museum impressed many artists in England. Soon after, images portraying life in idealized ancient Greece and Rome became the rage. Albert Moore’s “Summer Solstice” depicts a sleeping toga-clad Greek fanned by attendants. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, one of the most successful artist/designers of his day, is represented by pieces of furniture that drew inspiration from Greco-Roman design motifs. In the exhibition we also find a small, gorgeous Alma-Tadema painting of a woman resting in a Roman bathhouse titled “Tepidarium.”
Through Whistler we see works greatly influenced by Japanese design and color principles. Often the models in his paintings are wearing kimonos and holding Japanese fans. His pieces are often titled with references to music, such as “Symphony in White,” “Harmony in Gray and Green, and “Nocturne: Blue and Gold.”
Whether it is a portrait of a statesman or his own mother, it is the composition and arrangement of colors that seem to be of paramount importance to Whistler. Blurring the eyes, Whistler’s portrait of Thomas Carlyle, “Arrangement in Black and Gray No. 2” becomes a play of positive and negative shapes. Whistler was a designer as well. There is an interactive digital video of his masterpiece, the “Peacock Room,” a room entirely designed and painted for shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland for his Chinese porcelain collection. Art as design and as decor–this is the trend that soon emerges throughout this exhibition of the Aesthetic movement.
Works by many of the preeminent Pre-Raphaelites are included with paintings depicting innocent maidens with doe-eyed expressions. The figures in the works of Edward Burne-Jones are reminiscent of Botticelli with languishing looks and red lips and hair. The spaces in his paintings are much denser however, flat and patterned like a medieval tapestry.
Where is Oscar Wilde in all this? Quotes from a wide range of his writings are to be found stenciled throughout the exhibition. Through Wilde’s insights and musings he plays the role of a guide, explaining to the viewer how such an artistic movement could have had such an effect on the London of his time. “I am finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china,” he quipped, shedding light on the craze for imported Chinese plates. For what starts as the ideas and motivations of mid 19th century painters Dante Rossetti and William Morris in painting grows into a cultural movement that permeates the aristocratic classes, the way they dressed themselves and their homes, and the places they went and with whom.
One is struck by how much was made within the spirit of Aesthetism: everything from chairs to wallpaper to whole rooms; it was an industry unto itself. We find with all the myriad objects and images collected in this exhibition the Aesthetic movement feels like a passing fashion, one that made its mark and then moved on. To find a real revolution one must go up to the fifth floor of the Musée d’Orsay and see the works that were painted at roughly the same time across the English Channel in Paris. There the works of Monet, Degas, Cezanne and the rest of the Impressionists truly challenged the way people thought about art and beauty.
“Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde” shows us that the Aesthetic movement was such a mix of ideas and influences that we need some sort of anchor to comprehend how the whole movement fits into our understanding of art history and the world at that time. Wilde provides the anchor. As beautiful as it is, the art of Wilde’s world, that of Victorian England, simply reflects the man’s refined tastes and trappings. The Aesthetic Movement aspired to little else in their philosophy of art.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless. — From “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde