A riveting return to Victorian values

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Contemporary artists have drawn much inspiration from the fascinations, obsessions and contradictions of the Victorian age, as Adrian Hamilton finds out at the most enthralling exhibition of the year so far

One's first thought on visiting the Guildhall Art Gallery's new exhibition of contemporary takes on Victoriana is “why hasn't this been done before?” Our artistic view of the Victorian era is so stuck in the sentimentality of its narrative pictures and the jewelled precision of Pre-Raphaelite painting, that it is easy to forget just what a boisterous, anxiety ridden and populist period this was.

That's the part which fascinates modern artists, as this invigorating exhibition proves. The last two decades has seen a steady revival of interest in the period, most flamboyantly in the Steampunk movement, which has created a whole world of sci-fi out of the imagery of the 19th century and spawned comics, fashion and even music in its wake; and more individually in the work of artists such as Paula Rego and Mark Tichner, who use the pictorial language of the 19th century to comment on the concerns of the 21st. The era may be seen largely through ironic eyes, but it is no longer viewed with dismissive ones.

What's the attraction? It's partly the sense, then as now, of a world overwhelmed by technical change, at once wondrous in its possibilities but also unnerving in its effects. For today as for the Victorian era, old certainties have been shattered but new ones have yet to take their place. The darker side of the Victorian imagination, with its concerns for spiritualism and its fear that mechanical progress was releasing all sorts of spirits from the deep, has come to be seen less as an oddity and more as an understandable reaction to a world of mechanised warfare and dark satanic mills.

At the same time, the Victorian period was a time when mass education promoted an outpouring of popular prints and publications in which the humorous jostled with the educative, the moral and the scientific. It is easy to ridicule the Victorians for covering their table legs lest they arouse salacious thoughts, and for dressing up their women like dolls – incapable of free movement, let alone free expression. But that is to ignore the rumbustious working-class culture which arose from the industrial cities and to underestimate the confusion of often contradictory impulses which made up the clamour of the period – where an obsession with death could sit beside a fantastical imagination about progress, and where tracts of religious piety could share the shelf with science fiction and brutally realistic novels.

One of the great virtues of the Guildhall show has been to gather a full variety of contemporary response to these impulses. Grayson Perry is here with a vase made for the Charms of Lincolnshire project, in which he imagined himself as a Victorian farmer's wife made mad by the loss of her children, with their ghosts haunting his works. It's a piece that combines both the style of the pottery of the period with its morbid imaginings.

Staffordshire figures become a means of satire in Carole Windham's Dearly Beloved, where she substitutes David Cameron and Nick Clegg for Victoria and Albert as the archetypal couple. Polly Morgan deals with taxidermy. There's the Victorian obsession with hair woven as a cake; a banner in the style of the workers redone with the wallpaper of companies using child labour; and several works based on the fashion of the period.

Yinka Shonibare, who adorned the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square with Nelson's ship in a bottle, portrays himself as Dorian Grey in a series of dark photo realisations that underscores his blackness. Phil Sayers does a Cindy Sherman and portrays himself as the Lady of Shalott, after Waterhouse's painting – only as the product of modern technology and confused gender.

For feminists in particular, this past time presents the extreme of constriction in its dress as in its social norms – but also, in its literature and political discussions, an assertion of feminine rights and individuality. So if the exhibition seems at times dominated by women artists, it is because the era has had a special attraction, half of revulsion and half of intrigue in the gap between public presentation and private reality. Paula Rego is present with nine monumental lithographs of her illustrations of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, in all of them the savagery of her sense of the plight of the women characters and the brutality of man.

The sculptor Chantal Powell more directly assaults the sentimentality of the Victorian view of home and hearth with a disturbing installation, Nightingale's Nest, in which models of sleeping babes lie on white pillow cases in a Jasmine-scented atmosphere of stifling purity. Tessa Farmer, meanwhile, elaborates the Gothic nightmares of Victorian vision with an installation that has Roscoe Mullins' 1880 statue Mignon surrounded by attacking bees. They've been let loose by monstrous insects based on Richard Doyle's illustrations of fairies, so popular in his time.

The great attraction of popular Victorian graphics is that they are so easily subverted. There is something immediately recognisable and also inherently old fashioned about the frock dress and the moustache which modern artists have picked up with evident glee. It's almost too tempting to take engravings of fashion and add animal heads, as Kitty Valentine effects in watercolour elaborations, or turn their skirts into octopus tentacles, as Dan Hillier does in Mother.

Otto von Beach, the fictional illustrator alleged to have been resuscitated from the Siberian ice 114 years ago, has been commissioned to do a “Victoriana Alphabet” in the style of the period, describing what makes up Victoriana – and the result is instantly approachable and fond. We are, in other words, in the realm of the graphics of Monty Python, when Victorian imagery can be used both to present the pomposity of man and to prick it.

The point often missed about the Victorians is that they were already halfway there in subverting their own social norms and moving into surrealism. While they might have believed profoundly in a muscular form of Christianity and the future of technical progress, they also had a belief in ghosts and the spirits of the departed that was anything but Christian or scientific. There's a wonderful installation in the show by Paul St George, who is fascinated by how far the inventions of the time reached towards a world of television and power which only came in the next century.

Gestlicht Tube, based on the experiments of the scientist Sir Williams Crookes, positions two glass cabinets on pillars on separate floors of the show. Look into them and you can see someone peering into the other one, an achievement of visual communications that Crookes was seeking, but was only achieved with the coming of television. Look further and you witness a garden of phosphorescent flowers, butterflies in various stages of development representing the Victorian belief in butterflies as the soul leaving the body, and a wheel which turns if it senses the presence of spirits – a central search for Crookes. If you see it move, you are to report it.

It's this combination of the fantastical, the self-mocking and the mechanical which has proved so attractive to the so-called Steampunk movement. Born in the US in the late 1980s, this genre of science fiction envisions a world in which the world has reverted to steam power and 19th-century habits. Represented here by some comics and a splendid space helmet with pith helmet and goggles inside, it takes off from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea to imagine its heroes reaching again for inventions to take them into the future. If you think it mad, you still have to admit its retro-futuristic charm.

“The first major retrospective of a retrospective,” the show's curator, Sonia Solicari, calls it with a beam. And her pleasure is justified. It may be a little cramped, it could have done with a projection room to show films and stills (the Guildhall is combining with Birkbeck College to run a season of films to coincide with it), but it has more than enough to keep you entertained and informed about a revival of which most of us know far too little. Quite the most entrancing exhibition of the year.

Victoriana: The Art of Revival, Guildhall Art Gallery, London EC2 (020 7332 3700; cityoflondon.gov.uk) to 8 December

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