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April 06 2011

The art of illusion

Artists inhabit the borders between fact and fiction – no wonder their works and lives have inspired writers from Vasari to Dan Brown

I recently read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time since I was a teenager. I understood what was going on a lot better than I did when I was 14 and had not heard of a gay subtext. But it also triggered me to think about why art inspires so many good stories.

In Wilde's scintillating novel, a painter creates a portrait of a young man he is in love with. All his unrequited, indeed unspoken, passion goes into the painting, which somehow makes it more than a passive work of art. It takes on magical, mysterious properties, and when young Dorian wishes for the portrait to age and decay while he is preserved in his pristine beauty, he gets his wish. This story belongs to a particular class of art fictions – tales about works of art. Other examples include The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac and The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe.

If writers can tell such stories about works of art, imagine what they can do with the lives and milieux of artists. From Emile Zola's The Masterpiece, a dark portrait of the French 19th-century avant-garde, to Michel Houellebecq's La Carte et le Territoire, which satirises the contemporary art world, novelists have had their fun with artists.

This goes back to the very origins of artistic celebrity. The first great work of art criticism and art history, Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, published in 1550 with an expanded second edition in 1568, is sometimes dismissed by pedants as nothing more than a collection of sensational anecdotes about artists and their works. In fact it is nothing less than a collection of great stories about art. Vasari saw art as an adventure, its creators as heroes or anti-heroes whose travails make terrific tales. Have you heard the one about Andrea del Castagno murdering Domenico Veneziano? He relates the story of these 15th-century artists who took their rivalry to the point of actual murder. It is not true: the supposed killer predeceased his victim. But Vasari's compelling murder mystery says a lot about the obsessive rivalries of the Renaissance, so it remains artistically true. Dorian Gray would have understood.

Vasari created the modern image of the artist by telling stories that hover on the borders between fact and fiction. His contemporary Benvenuto Cellini, sculptor and criminal, told his own life in a way that just as richly weaves reality with fantasy. It is no wonder that writers have continued to recognise in art and artists a tantalising subject matter that lingers between truth and lies, between the plausible and the fabulous. Cellini's life was turned into an opera by Berlioz; Vasari's life of Michelangelo was spun into Irving Stone's bestseller The Agony and the Ecstasy, which was filmed with Charlton Heston. Since then we have had the life of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring and the commercial king of them all, The Da Vinci Code.

All these fictions exist in the enigmatic borderland between art and life. If life is real and art is an illusion, does the life of an artist glide between illusion and truth? Do artists take on the unreality of their works? Or perhaps, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is a two-way relationship, and art reveals truths that the illusion of everyday life conceals. Either way, art is easily strange enough to inspire many more stories.


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March 28 2011

Beautiful rebels: the daring art of the aesthetic movement

The aesthetic movement was more than William Morris wallpaper – it turned Victorian values upside down. Jonathan Jones goes to Paris to seek out its dark side

In spring sunlight, art students rush through the grand courtyard of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Artists such as Matisse studied here. But I am looking for a British and Irish cultural hero. On the Rue des Beaux Arts, a narrow Left Bank street next to the famous art academy, an expensive hotel (simply called L'Hôtel) is getting ready for the lunch hour. Only if you know this was once the run-down Hotel d'Alsace where Oscar Wilde died in 1900, disgraced, despised, penniless, his health broken by Reading jail, will you stop and notice the plaque that commemorates him.

My trip is a pilgrimage inspired by the new V&A exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. Remembered today as a dramatist and wit, in his lifetime Wilde was notorious as the spokesman of this daring art movement and its bold declaration that art exists solely to create beauty with no moral purpose whatsoever. To follow this idea to the hotel where its persecuted hero died is to discover that the V&A's spring blockbuster is not just a delve into the drawing rooms of Victorian England, but a portal to the very origins of modern attitudes to art, sex and death.

In 1873, the students of Oxford were shaken by a very strange book. The Renaissance, by Walter Pater of Brasenose College, is a vision of life as pure sensual experience and a manifesto for hedonism. Writing in Victorian England, in that age of stern hypocrisy and repression, Pater gleefully expounds on the sexual adventures of the great Renaissance artists, openly praising gay desire. His febrile vision of art culminates in a bizarre description of the Mona Lisa: "Like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave."

Pater concludes that the purpose of life is to pursue sensual beauty and live in the moment. "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life," he declares. His students were enthralled – one of them was expelled because of love letters Pater sent him. Another, Oscar Wilde, was inspired to become the high priest of the movement Pater launched and to defy the age until finally it destroyed him, convicting him for homosexual "crimes", imprisoning him, then leaving him to eke away his final years abroad.

Not far from L'Hôtel is the Musée d'Orsay, where a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec portrays Wilde at the moment of his fall (they had met in London when Wilde was awaiting trial). Toulouse-Lautrec pictures him in Paris, watching the wild dance of the Moulin Rouge star La Goulue. As she kicks and leaps, Wilde stands massive and melancholy, with an unhealthily red face and dry yellow-grey hair. He looks like a ruined man.

Wilde's portrait underlines that the aesthetic movement was not merely a Victorian taste for William Morris wallpapers and peacock-tail Liberty prints – though it abounded in such beautiful creations. It was dangerous. This was the age of Gladstone, the British Empire, the pious bourgeoisie. The idea of "art for art's sake" turned Victorian values upside down. The aesthetic movement inspired an astonishing range of innovations in art and design that the V&A exhibition brings together, from Edward Burne-Jones's spectral, waxy paintings to "aesthetic" clothes for men and women. Wilde took the lead in dressing in knee-length velvet, while women wore simple dresses in blue or white, a reaction against the stuffy frocks of their forebears. In the best aesthetic movement designs, you see a simplicity that is beguilingly modern. As a young man, Morris was disgusted by the ugly exhibits piled up in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition: he set out to reform taste and society. If Pater and Wilde advocated a liberation of the senses, Morris was a Marxist who believed the triumph of beauty would destroy capitalism. The repeated, interlocking patterns of his wallpapers and fabrics are not just lovely – they are abstract art.

For all its rich creations, the real point of the aesthetic movement was rebellion. In France, modern art was already born – aestheticism is contemporary with Manet, Monet and Renoir. While Britain was buttoned up, the French capital was hedonistic. The aesthetes set out to live as if they were in France, and it was in Paris that the most beautiful art of the movement was born. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was by far the greatest painter linked with the aesthetic movement. As a cosmopolitan art star, famous on both sides of the channel and across the Atlantic, he blended heady ideas from London with new techniques from Paris. While most aesthetic painters – even Burne-Jones – are hampered by their acceptance of very traditional ideas of the well-crafted depiction, Whistler's paintings fizz with impressionist suggestion. This makes their declaration of the supremacy of beauty all the more striking. If Pater's book The Renaissance is the literary manifesto of the aesthetic movement, its visual masterpiece is Whistler's 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 1 – otherwise known as Whistler's Mother. She sits today in the Musée d'Orsay among the masterpieces of impressionism. But where Monet enjoys, Whistler argues. Greys and silvers, whites and blacks shimmer across the canvas with the restrained beauty of a Japanese screen. The message is provocative: Whistler pours scorn on the sentimentality and piety of his age. Whatever he felt for his mother, her portrait does not show it. In Whistler's eyes, art has no moral duty to convey any feeling except the sheer bliss of visual stimulation. His painting, its title and its formal purity, make that message explicit.

The aesthetic movement soon revealed its dark side. The hero of Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray destroys lives in his pursuit of beauty without limits. When Pater compared the Mona Lisa with a "vampire", he linked the cult of beauty with depravity and death. There is a close parallel between the heady prose of Pater and the art of his French contemporary Gustave Moreau, whose paintings reimagined Renaissance art as a decadent ecstasy of the senses. Moreau's beautifully preserved home in Paris is near the Moulin Rouge and the sleaze of Pigalle. Its walls are lined with his paintings of orgies, beheadings and cruel goddesses, but the bed he slept in is a single bed, austere and lonely. An eerily similar single bed can be seen in Leighton House in London, where the rich aesthetic painter Frederic Leighton created a fantastic realm of Arabic tiles, a delicate fountain, bronzes, flowers. Like Moreau, Leighton painted beauties, but seemingly slept alone. It was easier to dream than to act.

Today we visit Leighton House to glimpse the world of these sensuous dreamers, but an ideal aesthetic movement tour would include the long-vanished opium dens of London's docklands, where Dorian Gray attempts to fulfil the aesthetic ideal. Nothing modern was lost on these pioneers. But the supreme expression of the darkening mood of aestheticism in British art – and in the V&A show – is in the gorgeous macabre drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, ornate fantasmagoria of sin.

In the end, these adventurers were Victorians, and pure hedonism was never going to be simple for them. Thus, the culmination of the aesthetic movement in Britain was to be a golden age of horror fiction that began with Gray's portrait. The most famous Victorian aesthete, immortalised in a thousand screen bites of sex and death, may be Count Dracula, the connoisseur of young beauty in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel that popularised aesthetic decadence. The lingering morality of the Victorian age pushed imaginations inward – in those single beds of the aesthetes – to feast on macabre visions of sin.

It is the intensity of the aesthetic movement, dreaming of a hedonism just out of reach, that made it influential. Across Europe its passion for flowers and vampires, decor and desire can be glimpsed in Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Munch's macabre women, Klimt's Kiss. Its legacy weaves through modern times in the defiance of dandies from Salvador Dalí to David Bowie. In art, it is still provocative because champions of culture (and arts funding) still feel obliged to claim that art has a moral value, a political value. Today as the arts face cuts, such proclamations of usefulness seem all the more necessary. So it is salutary for us to read the aesthetic philosophy expressed in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray. We can still be provoked by its Victorian modernist hauteur: "All art is quite useless."


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March 26 2011

The Aesthetic Movement

The Victoria & Albert Museum's exhibition of the 'Cult of Beauty' reflects how art spread into everyday life in the Victorian period

What was the aesthetic movement? If we do not know now we certainly will within the next few weeks as the V&A's latest blockbuster exhibition gets into its stride and Londoners are overwhelmed with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers and blue and white chinoiserie, symbols of an art movement gorgeous in its detail, shimmering in surface and verging on the decadent. Even for its admirers the aesthetic movement comes to have a rather claustrophobic feel.

The movement started in a small way in the 1860s in the studios and houses of a radical group of artists and designers, including William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These were angry young reformers who explored new ways of living in defiance of the horrendous design standards of the age as revealed in the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Over the next two decades aestheticism burgeoned, drawing in architects and craftworkers, poets, critics and philosophers to create a movement dedicated to pure beauty. The aesthetic movement stood in stark and sometimes shocking contrast to the crass materialism of Britain in the 19th century. "Art for art's sake" was its battle cry, a slogan that originated with the French poet Théophile Gautier.

Aestheticism spread with a speed of conspiratorial excitement that reminds one of the radical art movements of the 1960s. Emilia Barrington, biographer of Frederic Leighton, himself a leading aesthete, gives a wonderful definition of the "craze":

Burne-Jones painted it, Kate Vaughan danced it, Maeterlinck wrote it, the "Souls" (rather unsuccessfully) attempted to live it, the humorists caricatured it, the Philistines denounced it as morbid and unwholesome.

There was indeed a conscious gloom to a form of art that revelled in love-sick wistfulness and tormented reveries. It eschewed mid-Victorian heartiness and cheeriness. This was a counter culture. Pickwickian it was not.

First and foremost it was a painter's movement. Aestheticism combated the popular anecdotal, sentimental, morally sententious art of the Victorians. It had its own dedicated showplace, the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street, which opened in 1877. The Grosvenor was a sensuous experience in itself with its palatial décor of gilt and inlaid marble and the greenery-yallery silk walls which showed off to maximum advantage the work of its star artists GF Watts, JM Whistler, Albert Moore and especially Edward Burne-Jones.

One of the excitements of the V&A's Cult of Beauty show promises to be the reassembly of many of these then so controversial paintings. The Grosvenor held London's most must-see exhibitions and it became the fashionable talking shop. The gallery's proximity to the Royal Academy polarised opinion about the techniques and purposes of art. It was after the first exhibition at the Grosvenor that Ruskin launched his notorious attack on Whistler, accusing him of asking 200 guineas "for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face". Oscar Wilde chose the occasion of a Grosvenor opening party to make his first sensational appearance in London wearing a custom-designed suit following the contours and colour of a cello. Oh to see a photograph! The aesthetic movement frequently veered over into performance art.

The cult of beauty expanded way beyond the gallery. One of the main tenets of aestheticism was that art was not confined to painting and sculpture and the false values of the art market. Potential for art is everywhere around us, in our homes and public buildings, in the detail of the way we choose to live our lives. Art had to do with architecture. The new Queen Anne style is visible to anyone who walks around the areas of London that were the main enclaves of the aesthetic movement: Bedford Park, Holland Park, Cadogan Gardens and Queen's Gate. Red brick, demure and pleasing: this was the architecture of the children's story book.

The relatively plain Queen Anne houses of the period opened out into often breathtaking interiors. The aesthetic movement was lifestyle with a vengeance. It was Rossetti in his beautiful tenebrous house in Cheyne Walk, furnished with an eclectic mix of old and new and an ever-changing entourage of rather mangy animals, who invented the style later known as shabby chic. Following his lead, art became self-definition. Your choice of paintings, objects and interior decoration told people who you were and indeed who you were not.

The most marvellous example of aesthetic movement interior decoration was Whistler's Peacock Room designed for the wealthy (and famously unpleasant) shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland. The large scale frieze of stylised peacocks, gold on turquoise blue, wound around the walls of the dining room in Leyland's palatial house in Prince's Gate, giving his guests something sensational to look at while they ate. These days you have to travel to the States to see this masterpiece which, after Leyland's death, was sold to the American collector Charles Freer and is now installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.

But there is an extant aesthetic-movement dining room much closer to home and indeed still in use. No visitor to the V&A exhibition should miss the chance of recreating the experience of having lunch or tea in the Green Dining Room, commissioned in 1865 from William Morris's decorating firm for what was then the South Kensington Museum as part of a new complex of public refreshment rooms.

The Green Dining Room was envisioned as a place of enchantment, giving its customers the feeling of entering a mysterious green bower or a hidden chamber in an enchanted palace, as described in one of Morris's own poems. With its green stained oak panelling, its layer upon layer of texture and pattern, Burne-Jones's painted panels and stained glass, this is a prime example of the style of decoration that would soon be filtered down to middle-class "artistic" homes, not just in sophisticated central London but throughout the suburbs of most large provincial towns.

As a style aestheticism was elaborate, allusive, extravagantly literary, infused with a love of the medieval, going overboard for the exotic and outlandish. But excess has many mansions. Another of its signs was an equally startling reticence and purity of whom the great exponent was EW Godwin, the architect-designer: Godwin's artist's house for Whistler, the White House in Tite Street, Chelsea, was an early example of fashionable minimalism, with its built in furniture and Japanese-style matting on the floor.

Seeing it today Godwin's pared-down furniture has a peculiar modernity. His famous black ebonized geometric sideboard could almost be the work of the Dutch De Stijl designer Gerrit Rietveld. Similarly Christopher Dresser's beautiful angular aesthetic movement teapots could have emanated from the Bauhaus metalworking school. Dresser's almost modernist designs were taken up by 19th-century Sheffield manufacturers and made in some quantity, though still mainly by hand.

Specialist shops opened to supply a movement which was all about individuality of choice. Here is art critic Julia Cartwright describing in her diary the delights of discriminating shopping at her favourite Morris & Co in Oxford Street: "There are lovely things at every turn, Persian potteries, hangings of every variety, cabinets and rugs and I fell in love with a sunflower paper at fourpence ha'penny a yard."

Much the largest aesthetic movement shop, more a spectacular department store, was Liberty's. The shop on Regent Street opened in 1875 by the enterprising Arthur Liberty introduced London consumers to a vast array of objects and textiles imported from the Middle East and from Japan. Liberty was aestheticism gone commercial. The store registered "Art Fabrics" as a trademark. It had its own artistic and historic costume studio, specialising in free-flowing quasi-medieval Pre-Raphaelite gowns in dusky colours. You too could look like Janey Morris in a Rossetti portrait wearing a deep blue dress.

In Liberty's wake a succession of smaller more experimental "art furniture" shops opened. Like the rush of little Scandinavian design shops that sprang up in Britain in the 1960s, a few of them flourished but most closed down fairly fast.

The movement had its own intellectual underpinning. If Wilde, "the first celebrity style guru", became the public face of aestheticism, as the V&A exhibition curator Stephen Calloway claims, then its resident philosopher was Walter Pater. The Oxford don, a nervy bachelor and specialist in Renaissance studies, was far from an outgoing aesthete in himself but he became the revered spokesman for aestheticism. The Conclusion to his book of Renaissance essays, published in 1873, was seized on for the ardour with which Pater propounds a philosophy of beauty. Life should be lived for the seizing of the moment. No chance of experiencing exquisite passion should be rejected or passed by. "To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."

This was a heady doctrine. No wonder aestheticism had its wilder shores. It so easily transmuted into decadence. It was also prone to extraordinary silliness. As a movement it was wonderfully lampoonable. It gave WS Gilbert his material for Patience, the popular musical satire on the aesthetes which opened at the Opéra Comique in London in 1881.

Through his two central characters, Bunthorpe and Grosvenor, Gilbert gently pours scorn on aesthetic language and values and self-conscious languor, the floppiness and droopiness that characterised the craze. The costumes for Patience, which were custom-made by Liberty, derived from the flowing dresses of the maidens in Burne-Jones's defining aesthetic movement painting The Golden Stairs.

The potential for absurdity in Pater's definition of aestheticism was grist to the mill of George Du Maurier, whose cartoons for Punch developed a whole gallery of characters in thrall to the culture of sensibility in which "too-too-utterly" were operative words. The gaunt and gushing Mrs Cimabue Brown; the ingratiating poet Jellaby Postlethwaite; the pathetic painter Maudle; the aesthetically aspirational Jack Spratts . . . It was through this cast of characters that many people first got aestheticism's measure in terms of its follies and pretentiousness. In one of the most brilliant of his Punch cartoons Du Maurier reworks a quip of Wilde's about how to live up to the beauty of one's teapot. One can think of design aficionados for whom the dilemma still exists.

At the heart of aestheticism lay the unsolved problem of how to make beauty more generally affordable. This was much debated and became a source of agony to one of the founders of the movement – William Morris – as he realised his influence had actually reached little further than north Oxford. Morris & Co's main clients were the liberal aesthetic aristocrats and the forward thinking industrial tycoons. It was while working on the decoration of the mansion of the northern ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell that Morris was driven to make his famous tactless outburst about "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich". He had by then reached crisis point in his hopes for democratic beauty. What is beauty, after all, unless everyone can share it? Final disillusionment with the prospects of art drove Morris into revolutionary socialism.

Did aestheticism lead anywhere? Of course it did. Morris's total despair was premature. The cult of beauty was certainly destabilised by the Wilde trials of 1895 and his subsequent imprisonment, events which bore out the public's worst suspicions of the sexual transgressiveness inherent in the movement. But this was really just a temporary blip in the socially progressive British art and design movement that gathered strength in the Arts and Crafts workshops and the garden cities of the early 20th century.

In its essence aestheticism was a movement for reform and the project to infiltrate beauty into everyday life was still very much alive in the Festival of Britain of 1951, when Atlee's Labour government made a brave attempt to bring art to the people on a giant scale. The quest for beauty inherent in the young Terence Conran's bid to bring good design to the high street will be clear to those of us who remember Habitat in its earlier, purer incarnation. Now more than ever we have the power and knowledge to make informed choices of the things we want to live with, on aesthetic as well as ethical grounds.

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 from 2 April to 17 July. www.vam.ac.uk


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September 14 2010

Art exhibition for art's sake

First major exhibition to gather work of 19th-century artists including pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde and William Morris

At a time of anxious austerity it could be just what is needed: an examination of one of the most flamboyant and joyously bohemian art movements there has ever been.

The V&A announced today that it is to mount the first ever major exhibition devoted to the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, looking at a group of artists who placed the importance of beauty above everything else and followed a mantra that said let us value art for art's sake.

The show will bring together 300 objects, including 60 paintings, to celebrate a British movement that flourished between 1860 and 1900 and whose members included pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Frederic Leighton as well as Oscar Wilde and William Morris.

Co-curator Stephen Calloway said now was a particularly good time to shine a spotlight on the aesthetes. "In times of austerity fantasy always seems to be the thing, but I think it's particularly interesting at the moment because people, I suspect, are becoming rather tired of ugliness and things which are not well made and art that isn't well drawn."

Calloway said there was much contemporary art and design that was not aiming to be beautiful or comfortable to live with. "So the idea of looking at an art movement where, consciously, beauty and quality are central ideas seems to me extraordinarily timely.

"A lot of people would like a return to a kind of art and a kind of decoration that is all about pleasure of the eye and the beauty of being within a complete environment."

The aesthetes were passionate and serious-minded, reacting against Victorian values which said that all art had to have a purpose and also against a kind of pervading ugliness seen, for example, at the 1851 Great Exhibition, with its rather hideous and huge furniture.

It started out as a group of people amusing themselves in their own houses, becoming a wider movement that people were eager to buy in to. It was the first art movement to inspire an entire lifestyle. Suddenly the middle classes were aspiring to create their own beautiful interiors and Liberty became purveyors of all that was gorgeous.

The show will include numerous loans from private collections – including Andrew Lloyd Webber's – and will also feature paintings which use models who were not conventionally beautiful by the standards of the day. Women such as Elizabeth Siddal, a model for many of the pre-Raphaelites, whose pale skin and copper red hair was held to be ugly by most Victorians.

Of course not everyone was won over and enchanted by the aesthetes, and the show will include Punch magazine cartoons satirising the movement and a novelty teapot by James Hadley which poked fun at Wilde and his belief that by surrounding yourself with beautiful things you become beautiful. The spout is a man's effete arm in the air and the inscription reads: "Fearful consequences, through the laws of natural selection and evolution, of living up to one's teapot."

The exhibition, which will travel to Paris and San Francisco, also marks the first sponsorship of a V&A show by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.


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