The Aesthetic Movement - History and Concepts
Beginnings of The Aesthetic Movement
The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked a turning point for the visual arts in Britain. Although the event showcased important recent innovations, including the new medium of photography, much of the work on display conformed to the fussy and shallow design style of the Victorian era. Worse still was the mechanization of the creation process, which according to famous critic John Ruskin, meant the dehumanization of design. These predictable, repetitive designs coupled with the strict Victorian standards for art that placed greater importance on the moral message conveyed than quality of the work fostered a stifling environment from which many artists were desperate to escape.
Shortly after the Great Exhibition concluded, a group of artists went about creating a new and simpler aesthetic - one inspired by the intricate detail and intense colors of medieval art and design. Art of the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gained popularity by the 1860s thanks in part to favorable reviews by John Ruskin. The group split thereafter when younger artists, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, joined Dante Gabriel Rossetti to create a "Cult of Beauty," laying the foundation for Aestheticism. Rossetti's sensual portraits of unconventionally beautiful women with large eyes and flaming red hair adorned in loose, flowing gowns introduced a new ideal for feminine beauty that challenged Victorian associations between non-corseted, red-haired women and sexual licentiousness; and eventually became an importance motif of the Aesthetic movement.
The Japanese Influence
When in 1854 Japan began openly trading with foreign powers, their products flooded the British market. Artists and consumers alike were captivated by the stylized organic motifs, circular designs, and geometric patterns that characterized this new aesthetic. Its simplicity and elegance of form contrasted sharply with overcrowded and busy Victorian designs. British consumers began collecting Japanese screens, fans, and porcelain, as well as staining their furniture ebony in imitation of Japanese lacquer. Painters, such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, began incorporating these items into their work, while also modifying their compositions to reflect the original aesthetic. Designers E.W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser were similarly inspired. Gradually a new style emerged within the Aesthetic movement known as the Anglo-Japanese style.
Art for Art's Sake
Aesthetic artists, like their Pre-Raphaelite predecessors, placed a great deal of importance on a work's visual composition. But whereas Pre-Raphaelite art almost always contained a degree of narrative content, Aesthetic artists generally avoided any clear storyline or message. Instead they strove to evoke a mood, explore color harmony, or rediscover the intricate details they associated with superior craftsmanship. Drawing on diverse sources, such as Ancient Greek, Japanese, and Medieval art, they loudly touted their motto: "art for art's sake," taken from French critic and poet Theophile Gautier's novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1836). This modern notion that art should be evaluated on the basis of its own criteria rather than the subject's significance or truthful depiction, became a rallying cry for artists eager to separate art from Victorian materialism. Walter Pater became one of the most important voices of the Aesthetic movement when he argued for the primacy of the viewer's aesthetic experience of art in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). According to Pater, "Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments sake."
The Grosvenor Gallery
When the Grosvenor Gallery on Bond Street opened in 1877, it provided a space for artists, most notably Aesthetic artists, to exhibit work that conflicted with the Royal Academy's classical expectations. In particular, it promoted the careers of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Albert Moore, George Frederic Watts, and Edward Burne-Jones. The Grosvenor Gallery was not only the first to have electric lights; it also introduced a new method of display (now the standard method for galleries and museums) wherein paintings were hung with ample spacing to facilitate the viewer's absorption, as described by Walter Pater. Designed to mimic a picture gallery in a private residence, the exhibition space was surrounded by other sumptuously decorated rooms that adhered to the Aesthetic rules of design. Adornments included ionic pilasters with gilt capitals, green Genoan marble, a wide staircase, and green and yellow silk damask covered walls, prompting it to be mocked as the "greenery-yallery Grosvenor Gallery" in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience.
Condemnation by Ruskin
Noted critic John Ruskin praised the Pre-Raphaelites' creative expression and agreed that standards of design for machine-produced decorative arts had declined so much so that they had become repetitive, lacking soul and quality craftsmanship. However, he also advocated for the social utility of art, which directly conflicted with the Aesthetic movement's "art for art's sake" mentality. For Ruskin, art was not simply a matter of taste, but also a conveyor of intellect, feeling, morality, and knowledge. When the Grosvenor Gallery opened in 1877 with an exhibition of work by Burne-Jones and Whistler, Ruskin published a scathing review of the latter's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874). Objecting to what he perceived to be meaningless content carelessly created, Ruskin wrote, "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face..." Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin the following year and, although the artist's victory yielded a mere farthing in damages, it proved to be detrimental to Ruskin's critical career, which never fully recovered. Ruskin, who had been responsible for elevating the careers of several Pre-Raphaelite painters during the 1850s, now found himself out of sync with the up-and-coming modern art movement.
The Aesthetic Movement: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Inspired by Rossetti's sensual female portraits, Aestheticism made its first appearance in paintings. Through this medium, the movement and its values trickled into other fields. Of all Aesthetic artists, painters were perhaps best equipped to realize the movement's goal of creating art for art's sake. This is because paintings, unlike the decorative arts and fashion, for example, can be separated from utilitarian functions quite easily. Thus, painters like Moore, Whistler, and Leighton were able to focus entirely on creating beautiful compositions that were pleasing to the senses. Because oil paints allow for subtle tonal changes, Aesthetic painters could use the medium to explore color harmonies and tonal variety. Many of these artists, particularly Whistler, also incorporated Japanese motifs (peacocks, fans, vases) and aesthetics (such as feathery brushwork or simplified forms) into their work.
Although some Victorian musicians, most notable Eduard Hanslick, championed formalism and the separation of music from any obligation to express something beyond itself, there appear to have been no specifically Aesthetic musicians. Nonetheless, the medium was an important source of inspiration for many Aesthetic painters. In the 1870s, the critic Walter Pater famously asserted that "all the arts aspire to the condition of music." This was taken to heart by Aesthetic artists who believed that music provided an ideal form of art that painting could emulate. This process involved eradicating narrative content in favor of creating an impression or evocation through the "harmony" of colors and composition. Painters, such as Whistler and Frederick Leighton, even titled their paintings after musical forms. Whistler explained the connection between art and music and the artist's role as creator: "Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful - as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony."
Houses and studios designed by and erected under the supervision of Aesthetes deviated from the classical academic tradition by bringing together seemingly disparate sources of inspiration to create a unique structural layout. Frederic Leighton's house, for example, incorporated Oriental, Middle-Eastern, and Italian Renaissance references. Instead of a traditional British foyer or tearoom, guests enter into what is called "Arab Hall," an elaborately decorated domed room that blends many different middle-eastern design elements. Meanwhile, Whistler designed the famous Peacock Room for the shipping magnate Frederic Leyland, which was inspired by a Japanese lacquer box. These eclectic homes often demanded collaboration among industrial artists, such as William Morris and Charles Voysey. For Aesthetic architects and designers, the beauty of the structure as a reflection of its complex inhabitants trumped adherence to any one style.
The Aesthetic movement saw, for the first time, designers being recognized and even made famous for their excellent craftsmanship. Before Aestheticism, designers were rarely credited. But thanks in part to designer-poet-socialist William Morris, design as a profession gained legitimacy as an art form. Famous designers of the era included Christopher Dresser, Edward Godwin, and William Morris himself. These artists created furniture, metalwork, textiles, and ceramics characterized by geometric designs, stylized floral, vegetal, and zoomorphic motifs inspired by medieval and Japanese aesthetics. These designs offered clean lines and simplicity of form intended to be an antidote to the fussiness of most Victorian products. Some designers, like Morris, established their own brand. Others, including Walter Crane and Christopher Dresser, collaborated with shops and manufacturers to create products for middle-class homes. Thanks to Oscar Wilde's notion of "the house beautiful," which asserted that a home's interior should be as beautiful as possible with the aim of providing an inspirational environment for its inhabitants, Aesthetic shops offering such products prospered. The most famous of these was Arthur Liberty's of London, which opened in 1875 and sold textiles from the Middle East and Japan as well as specially designed Aesthetic style consumer goods.
By the 1890s, Aesthetic shops were marketing consumer products to satiate the public's desire to play the part of the Aesthete. For some, this meant dressing the part. Echoing the graceful beauties depicted in Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite paintings, women abandoned restrictive corsets and heavy fabrics for more "bohemian" loose, unstructured dresses decorated with delicate floral embroidery. Some even enhanced their hair color with henna. Men, inspired by the extravagant male peacock (a popular motif of the Aesthetic movement), dressed the part of the foppish dandy, favoring velvet jackets, flowing ties, and breeches. Playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde, the ultimate dandy, became the celebrity symbol most closely associated with the movement. Like many other Aesthetic men, Wilde was ridiculed for his fashion sense. He received considerable criticism, for example, when he attended the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery wearing a flamboyant suit designed to look like a cello.
For Aesthetic literature, as in the visual arts, beauty of form trumped conveying a social or moral message. Inspired by Walter Pater's essays of the late 1860s, Aesthetic writers, most notably Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, composed poems and prose that were sensuous and riddled with suggestions rather than clear statements. Aesthetic poems and writers were scorned and satirized by their Victorian peers, including Gilbert and Sullivan as well as the editors of Punch magazine.
Later Developments - After The Aesthetic Movement
The popular success of Aestheticism seemed assured when Aesthetic painter Frederic Leighton became President of the Royal Academy in 1878. Leighton made it his mission to ensure that paintings by non-academicians received equal consideration and were prominently displayed at their annual spring exhibition. He also nominated other Aesthetic artists, including Albert Moore and Edward Burne-Jones, for election to the Academy.
Although Aestheticism was popular with many people, it also became the subject of ridicule. In 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Patience, a comic opera which mocked Aesthetes and their ideals, while George du Maurier produced a famous cartoon that depicted a stylish "Aesthetic" couple worrying about whether they could live up to the example of their beautiful teapot.
The absence of a single, cohesive philosophy to bind members of the movement together meant that some artists gravitated in different directions. Socialist William Morris, for example, complained of "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich" and sought to make his work available to the masses, not just progressive aristocrats. His ideas gathered strength and Morris became a leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. In Britain, his involvement inspired designers to revive pre-industrial techniques to distinguish their craftsmanship from machine-made products. In Germany, where distain for modern machinery was not as pervasive, the Bauhaus movement reconciled what Morris could not. They combined aesthetic notions of craft and design with modern technology to mass-produce quality designs for household items, particularly furniture.
Still other Aesthetes, most notably Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, delved deeper into shocking Victorian society out of its complacency. Their efforts evolved into the Decadent movement, which quickly faded in popularity when it became associated with immorality and sexual promiscuity, in part because of Oscar Wilde's trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency" with men.
Although public perception of Wilde's involvement with the Aesthetic movement meant that it, too, suffered, the modern notion of "art for art's sake" affirmed the movement's place in art history. The idea that art had its own intrinsic value released it from the obligation of having a moral or historical meaning. This rejection of the past (of historical or mythological narratives) became vital for modern painters. The artist, it was thought, should have freedom of expression - in terms of subject choice and stylistic representation. This concept of self-expression combined with an eagerness to explore the formal aspects of painting (color, form, and composition), culminated in the Abstract Expressionist movement of the mid-20th century and continues to be a basis of creative exploration for many contemporary artists in the 21st century.