The Cult of Beauty: Beautiful Dreamers

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A new exhibition at the V&A showcases the work of the 19th-century Aesthetic Movement. Arifa Akbar explores the enduring allure of art for art's sake

Until the summer of 1877, a small circle of artists volubly rejected the "ugliness" of the Victorian age in favour of a purer appreciation of aesthetics. They had been dismissed as velvet-clad bohemians and dissolute dandies who congregated in prettified corners of west London to cock a snook at convention and exhibit artworks in their own homes for lack of patronage.

The group of renegades – Frederic Leighton, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, G F Watts, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti – had been coming together since the 1860s but it was their momentous 1877 exhibition, staged at the fashionable Grosvenor Gallery in the heart of Bond Street, that tipped them from the obscurity of their Holland Park salons into the big time.

The show sent excited ripples across high society – the kind of "art buzz" that over a century later would hit the Royal Academy with Charles Saatchi's 1997 Sensation exhibition – and so these aesthetes became the Young British Artists of their day whose Aesthetic Movement was proselytized in Europe and America in decades to come.

An exhibition, opening on Saturday at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, will unite the art, craft, jewellery and inspirations of the Aesthetics in its fullness, and reveal the extent to which their maverick philosophy, with its focus on the primacy of beauty in a work of art over and above a moral message, became a guiding principle of the 20th century.

Some key works will be united at the V&A for the first time since leaving the Grosvenor, including two "star works" of the original show by Burne-Jones and Watts, and the gallery space will partly be re-created.

In 1877, the gallery's guests were mesmerised by the paintings and their subject matter, so utterly removed from the social realities of the day, and hinting at an otherworldly landscapes of Grecian idylls and ivory towers.

The models in these works did not display the genteel good looks familiar to Victorian portraiture but were unconventional red-heads dressed like nymphs in diaphanous robes, a look that the phalanx of wealthy women at the Grosvenor immediately sought to emulate while their wealthy male counterparts became avid buyers and patrons.

The Aesthetic's abiding dictum was to create "art for art's sake", a Gallic term (l'art pour l'art) that they adopted as their own that summed up the new ideal of a beauty removed from any social reality or overarching religious morality.

Their commitment to beauty was not limited to the canvas; the aesthetic philosophy was an ostentatious one that extended fully into their lives. The cultivation of a beautiful living space was essential to their purpose, they claimed, with no hint of irony. They dressed flamboyantly, used the peacock feather as their motif, lived in homes they called "palaces of art" and followed the spirit of John Ruskin's Aesthetic sentiment: "Beautiful art can only be produced by people who have beautiful things around them."

Stephen Calloway, curator of the V&A show, says the idea of a larger sense of beauty that is disconnected from a moral register and is all pervasive is one that endures today in our preoccupations with design and interior decor. Morris and Leighton were, in this sense, the high-minded prototypes to our modern-day Laurence Llewelyn-Bowens and Gok Wans. "People had art on their wall but this group lived their life based on the principle that everything should be beautiful. It is an idea that we take for granted now. Everything became a creative endeavour – how you lived your life, how you decorated your home," says Calloway.

While the concept of an art that existed just to be beautiful might appear whimsical or elitist today, at the time the separation of aesthetics from moral propriety was regarded as radical and dangerous, and this separation came to dominate 20th-century art as a fundamental principle.

"You can say that their endeavour was all about creating a rarefied atmosphere. On the other hand, they wanted their way of life to be artistic and they said people should have high aspirations. William Morris was an early socialist and his idea of beauty was that it should not be for the few but for all," adds Calloway.

Another distinguishing feature of the group was their ability to manipulate and market their own image – the way they looked, the way they lived their lives, and romances they had and the homes they lived in became a matter of immense public fascination, and deliberately so. The clique knew exactly how to build their personas and manage their images – a feature that reflects a very contemporary, PR-savvy sensibility.

"Artists now think they are special but this is an idea that was very much underlined by the arrival of the Aesthetics' attitude. They were aware of their bohemian legend. Several of the artists created extraordinary houses. It was part of the way they presented themselves."

The artists took their leads from the wild coterie of Romantic poets such as Byron, Shelley, Keats, although they did not live nearly as hard or die as young. Burne-Jones, Morris and Leighton were working prolifically into old age.

And as captivating as this cult of personality proved to be, their peacock feathers and long-haired loftiness also left them open to ridicule, together with stories of decadence and complicated amours. As the years went by, they were attacked for being a narcissistic, pavonine and self-regarding group that was prone to excessive foppery.

Satirical ribaldry against them emerged in the form of cartoons in Punch and in Gilbert and Sullivan's opera Patience. Calloway says this cloud of disparaging humour did "slightly puncture the grandeur of the movement". A young Oscar Wilde, still a student at Oxford at the time, came on board the movement to counteract the negative publicity after being asked by the theatre impresario, D'Oyly Carte, who was promoting Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, to undertake a series of lectures in America so the nation would understand the opera's many contemptuous references to the movement. Wilde spent a year lecturing, giving 300 talks and travelling a thousand miles to spread the word. His efforts paid off: aestheticism became well understood in America.

Yet for all its success, Aestheticism was, in some senses, destroyed by the same fin de siècle scandal and controversy on which it had first risen to fame decades earlier. Wilde's trial and imprisonment for homosexuality came to epitomise the apparent decadence of the group, although by that time, he had turned his hand to playwriting and moved away from the ideals of the group.

Ironically, their work was also beginning to be mass produced by manufacturers who saw a business opportunity in the selling of beautiful homes: art for art's sake became synonymous with interior decor, furniture and the beginnings of an art that overlapped with design – furnishings were produced for ordinary homes in the suburbs, not extraordinary ones in Holland Park, and entrepreneurial Victorian manufacturers started to call what they were making "art decoration" or "art furniture". Everyone, it seemed, could become an "artist" for the price of wallpaper.

The movement, some have suggested, became what it sought to get away from: a symbol of industry and commerce. As a response to this, as well as the unrelenting satires that had built up around the movement, a second wave of Aesthetics emerged around 1890, far edgier and more decadent than their founding figures, who sought to distance themselves from the original movement that had been so dragged down, and who brought an end to this particularly fascinating chapter of art history.

The Cult of Beauty: the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, V&A, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) 2 April to 17 July

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