The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900
In London, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, they called it "The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900." Now in San Francisco, at the Legion of Honor, it's "The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900." It's the same show, The Cult of Beauty, but subtitles must mean something. Have the Americans trumped it up, or were the Brits trying to play it down?
"The Aesthetic Movement" might not sound like much to us, but England may remember it as a spasm of the national soul, and a period in which the contradictory meanings of "Victorian" and "Avant-Garde" did indeed somehow co-exist. Infuriatingly to many critics, this yielded a bumper crop of art whose moral position was its lack of a moral position. "Art for art's sake" became the slogan, tellingly borrowed from the French.
In retrospect Aestheticism seems like pretty nonthreatening stuff: peacock feathers and flowers everywhere, pretty women wearing comfy clothes and dozing off in armchairs, some arresting wallpapers. Fine art bends rapturously toward the decorative, and vice versa. Decadence becomes defiance, or at least gets capitalized. Whatever it takes to gratify the eye.
The Cult of Beauty sees a common hope, in Oscar Wilde's hedonism and William Morris' Marxism, for society's deliverance by way of beauty. In other words a middle-class reassurance, with all the uneasiness that implies. It is a mark of shrewd curation that you drift through this show perpetually expecting to round a corner and find yourself staring at the picture of Dorian Gray.
This plays well in a city self-characterized by the queeny hauteur of fog-draped Victorian homes, its streets ever-clogged with yearning neo-Aesthetes. San Francisco of all places ought to know that dandyism never can last in a brutal prudish world, but will always be worth its own flourish anyway. Call it quaint if you like, but try leaving the gift shop empty-handed.
The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900 runs through June 17, 2012, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit legionofhonor.famsf.org.
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