A brilliant exposition opened in Paris this month of November.
The Aesthetics, a mid 19th century movement that even if never clearly defined a style, came to influence art in the following century and beyond with their a quest of new sensations, a revolution in perception and soul alike.
Determined to move away from the ugliness and materialism of their day, this band of radically engaged artists rebelled against the rigid Victorian Academism under the banner of Art for Art’s sake, proposing a new idealisation of art and beauty.
From the 1860s to the last decadent decade of Queen Victoria’s reign, this movement is seen through the emblematic works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde.
Painters, poets and decorators passionately defined an artistic mood freed from the principles of order and Victorian morality, and allowed the expression of sensuality to prevail.
They all united in a quest to combine artistic creation and lifestyle, a quest that found fertile areas of expression in photography, the decorative arts, literature and fashion.
It was the age of Aesthetic romantics. It became a rallying call for a younger generation of disciples, amongst whom; the most prominent would be Oscar Wilde.
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.
Wilde said : “A dreamer can find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
“ It was an age of hedonism, of extravagances and depravity. Art that simply offered visual and sentimental delight. Pure poetry or beautiful pictures that had no need to tell stories, preach sermons, or rely upon sentimental clichés.
An art self-consciously absorbed in itself, aware of the past but created for the present, and existing only to be beautiful.
The emphasis was on elegance and often showed heavy Japanese influence. The opening of the East by the convention of Kanagawa, 1854, ended Japan’s long period of self imposed isolation. Supplanting a largely fantastical Japan of the imaginary by real Japanese artefacts, these objects were avidly studied by artists, greatly influencing Edward Godwin in furniture designing.
As the movement rapidly evolved, it also revealed its dark side. The hero of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray destroys lives in his pursuit of beauty without limits.
Indeed most aesthetic poetry dwelled upon the subject of sensual love, lust and cruelty, degenerate Femmes fatales and the theme of blood, punishments and death – sorely lacking what the Victorians described as ‘moral fibber’.
Writing in that age of stern hypocrisy and repression, Walter Pater, who was also Wilde’s tutor in Oxford, 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”.
Choosing as their models women whose looks and lifestyles where at odds with conventional Victorian ideals of demure and feminity, these painters created an entirely new type of beauty.
When Fredric Leighton painted Nanna Risi (la Pavonia) – with her sultry Roman features and glossy black hair, neither of which conformed to stereotypical notions of genteel good looks – it was a social scandal. Oscar Wilde reacted saying ‘An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.’
Likewise, Algernon Swinburnes treatment of masochist sexual themes whipped a storm of critical abuse. Considered Unmanly Manhood, decadent and shamelessly vulgar, they were loathed by the society.
It was “the fleshy school of controversy”. Many, if not most, objected to art for arts sake and deplored the absence of religious sentiments and virtue.
Oscar Wilde personified the movement in it’s fullest. When asked to explain reports that he had paraded down Piccadilly in London carrying a lily, long hair flowing, Wilde replied, “It’s not whether I did it or not that’s important, but whether people believed I did it”.
Wilde believed that the artist should hold forth higher ideals, and that pleasure and beauty would replace utilitarian ethics.
Even as the movement widened, it’s ideas brought scant public support for what, to many observers, was deemed a perverse and immoral artistic clique.
Indeed, The prevalent bourgeois mentality reacted fiercely, for the most part they characterised the Aesthetics as obscene, viewed with suspicion and often downright hostility, to which Wilde would retort ‘Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.’
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.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel popularised aesthetic Victorian decadence in its most glorious personification, Count Dracula. Sex, death and everlasting beauty pushed the lingering morality of the Victorian age inward – in the single beds of the aesthetes – to feast on macabre visions of sin.
This debate would continue to reverberate throughout the period and come to fore again as the pivotal issue during Oscar Wildes trials, until the final decadent phase of the movement in the 1890’s.
Oscar Wilde who became the high priest of the movement, defied the age until finally it destroyed him, convicting him for homosexual “crimes”, imprisoning him, then leaving him to eke away his final years in Paris, Saint Germain.
Few artists or writers have influenced the society of their times and beyond as much as the Aesthetics.
Across Europe its passion for flowers and vampires, decor and desire can be glimpsed in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Klimt’s Kiss or Damien Hirst’s sliced animals.
Yet, unfortunately, today art is moving away from beauty, becoming a statement, either political or social.
Propelled by armies of Nouveaux-riches with little sense of aestheticism, they stink the market with easy money deforming norms of beauty with mediocre taste. The major art fairs of today vomit innumerable objects which are, quite frankly, incomprehensible, and frequently just simply ugly.
Nowadays Critics seems enchanted with their own perspectives, oblivious of the merits of the oeuvres. Aesthetical beauty seems to be an afterthought.
We can still be provoked by the Victorian modernist hauteur: “All art is quite useless”.
Maybe one day, once again, we can have art for art’s sake.