The Cult of Beauty

The VAamp;A’s cult of beauty exhibition is the latest in a long line of exhibitions in recent years to dwell on the Victorians and the Pre-Raphaelites. The description of late Victorian art as belonging to an aesthetic movement was coined by Walter Hamilton in 1882. But as Hamilton conceded, it was never really a movement in the sense of a cohesive group. As such, the exhibition tends to include a fairly heterogeneous range, placing Moore and Whistler are placed alongside Burne Jones and Morris. Where Whistler consented to the Paterite dictum that all art aspires to the condition of music, Morris took a more politicised approach to art, partly under Ruskin’s influence. Where Morris and Burne Jones looked to mythology and medievalism to escape modern industrialism, Whistler painted impressionistic scenes of bridges over the Thames. It ultimately seems difficult to accept too much equivalence between the women Moore drew simply to show the fabrics they were wearing and allegories from the likes of Watts. In fairness, the exhibition does well in showing the contradictory attitudes expressed at the time towards aestheticism, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s swipe at ‘greenery-yallery’ or Punch cartoons directed at Oscar Wilde. It also does well in placing Victorian art in its overall design context, showing Whistler’s peacock room and his porcelain collection, paintings of Alma-Tadema’s rooms and a recreation of Rossetti’s rooms, placing designers like Godwin, De Morgan and Crane at the centre of the movement.

At the Tate, the Joan Miro exhibition seems somewhat underwhelming. Much of his early work is redolent of symbolism, with Catalan landscapes at once shown realistically and as a set of calligraphic glyphs but it lacks the mythological quality of Dali’s later works, the repeated depictions of ladders leading to heaven notwithstanding. The later work recalls Pollock and Rothko, with giant triptych canvases filled with only a few colours or spattered with stochastic paint patterns. His most successful work is probably the mid-period Constellations series or his burnt canvases.

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