The Cult of Beauty exhibition currently showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a disappointing affair, looking in detail at the mainly British Aesthetic Movement which flourished in the very late nineteenth century. The most obvious problem seems to be how to tie down what the movement was, who its followers were and what, if any, were its aims. Hence the show begins with some quite poor late pre-Raphaelite paintings by William Morris and Gabriel Rossetti and proceeds to muddle its way through an odd selection of James Whistler etchings, some sticks of furniture, paintings by late century portraitists, a selection of quite dull ceramics and a camp teapot… culminating in the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus by Alfred Gilbert. It is the sign of a culture in decline to look outside its borders for inspiration and so it proves to be the case here. Gone is the certainty and the great celebration of Englishness that characterised the Victorian era in painting and in its place are minor works that fumble for identity amid unseemly squabbles between critics and patrons.
I think it’s always a problem to define artistic movements retrospectively in this way and shows like this tend to drag in all-comers at the expense of the few very good pieces. What for me is more disturbing is the emphasis that the show puts upon external influences without once giving examples of the original piece of inspiration. Hence the catalogue notes point out Whistler’s huge debt to Japanese prints or Godwin’s debt to Japanese furniture and yet the exhibition is lacking any original Japanese pieces. This is not because the V&A does not possess or have access to ukiyo-e; far from it. I suspect the real reason is that next to even Meiji-era ceramics, the works created in London at the same time were just far, far inferior. I recommend a brief journey to the lamentably small Japanese section at the V&A after the the exhibition and there you will see items of far greater beauty and ingenuity than anything on display at the Cult of Beauty.
British and Continental interest in Japanese art was first aroused by the 1862 exhibition in London and then in Paris in 1867, where for the first time Europeans could see thousands of fine and applied artworks by Japanese artists and craftsmen. Japan fever quickly spread and it became the fashion to emulate not just the motifs and designs of the culture but also the spirit of Far Eastern traditions leading eventually to the trite slogan of the group: “Art For Art’s Sake”. At a point at which Victorian traditions were stagnating and where young artists and designers were wanting to turn over the recent past it was convenient that the culture of Japan should become so visible. Here was a cultural tradition that seemed to defy western values of representation and depiction. Here was a world that seemed, with its sinuous forms, its daring subjects and its emphasis on pleasure – the floating world – to be a perfect antidote to the straitening values of Victorian England.
Hence within a few years the fashionable salons of Mayfair were decorated with preening peacocks and sparse lacquered furniture, where society hostesses entertained in kimono and where languid poets read aloud their own versions of the mysterious and allusive haiku. Tea services and delicate chinaware, decorated with lotus flowers and pretty geisha were all the rage and intellectual young men started in earnest to collect the sparse landscapes of Hokusai and the pleasure soaked women of Utamaro.
Sadly little of this is evident at the V&A exhibition. As mentioned, there are no examples of the far superior original Japanese and Chinese works of art and in isolation, the British contributions seem half thought through and derivative. Even the projected diorama of Whistler’s Peacock Room of 1876, painted for ship owner F R Leyland, seems heavy and turgid compared to the constantly exhilerating sparseness of the Japanese screens that he was attempting to emulate.
When Western cultures plunder other traditions, the results rarely add anything to the original pieces. I’m thinking here of the fad for things Egyptian which followed the discovery of the tomb of Tutankamen or even the cubist borrowings of African sculpture. This exhibition fails to be critical of the cheapness and shallowness of much of the work of the Aesthetic Movement when compared to the purity and coherent vision of those from whom it borrowed so freely.