That period in British cultural history that is sometimes called the “Gilded Age”, corresponding to the “Belle Époque”, or the “beautiful era” in France, and similar movements in America and elsewhere that we associate with the grace and style of Art Nouveau, the exquisite paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the drama of the romantic painters and the exaltation of beauty in craft, design, literature and art during that era, actually had its roots in ugliness.
The first wave of this shift in art, design and literature began in the 1860’s and was dubbed the “Aesthetic Movement”. It was a response to the sooty, clanking, oil soaked and steam shrouded ugliness of the industrial revolution.
Notable artists in this movement included Frederic Leighton, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, GF Watts, Edward Byrne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The latter two were core members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Their motto was “Art for Art’s sake”, in its original usage meaning art that was in pursuit of beauty itself and not burdened with requirements to convey social or religious morals. This is in contrast to the mid 20th Century Modernists’ later abuse of the term to insist art must be devoid of any literary or storytelling component.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the movement with an exhibition titled The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, that is on display until 17 July, 2011.
The museum’s website has a display of a few of the pieces from the show. There is an article and slideshow of additional images on The Guardian, and another review with a smaller selection of images on The Independent.
The V&A Museum also has an article on designing and staging the exhibition, Creating the Cult Of Beauty.
For more, see my related posts below, which contain links to additional images and resources.
(Images above: George Frederic Watts, Albert Moore, Frederick Sandys, James McNeill Whistler, Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones)