Literature in Art, Part Two: The Cult of Beauty

Cult of Beauty     After spending the morning at the V&A exhibit that featured in Literature in Art:, Part One, I spent the afternoon at the V&A’s newest exhibit, The Cult of Beauty. This major collection focuses on the Aestheticism that developed in Britain in the latter half of the 19th century, which featured KeatsWilliam Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with Oscar Wilde as the poster boy, believing in truth, love and beauty as raison d’etre - in fact, all those lovely, life-affirming things they sing about in Moulin Rouge!

     Of course, finding literary inspiration in a movement that contained quite so much actual literature was never going to be hard; especially when it was so coloured by bohemia and decadence, sensuality and romanticism and a deep appreciation of the ephemeral beauty of life. The poetry practically writes itself, doesn’t it? 


            Yeats, Keats, Morris and Rosetti all wrote prodigious amounts of the stuff in the time and themes of the movement, putting into words the feelings and ideals that their paintings and illustrations, and those of WhistlerFrederic Leighton and G. F. Watts, so elegantly expressed. They were all about the beauty of a flower, a leaf, the sound of the wind through the trees, a blush, a smile, a look. The movement had no interest in narrative or story, just the expression of ephemeral moments of inspiration or memory. In a way, it reminded me of Nabakov’s 'Spring in Fialta', musing over the fleeting humidity and sadness of a lost love affair, resplendent with glistening language, which itself echoes, to me, the touched, glancing decadence of Rosetti’s 'Bocca Baciata' (‘Kissed Lips’).

           The art, coloured by the unconventional beauty of the women they painted (the model Elizabeth Siddal, Rosetti's wife, was the first to popularize the beauty of red hair) and touched by hints of fantasy, neo-classicism and Arthurian legend, reminded me of the feeling you get from the best short stories, that seem less interested in weaving you through a complex narrative structure and more interested in just pressing a transcendent moment or a sacred feeling into the palm of your open hand.

            There was also an innate lack of judgement in their work: l’art pour l’art, if you will. There were no moral lessons, no religious significance to their work. Beauty was enough to give the work significance and gravitas, and, as Algernon Charles Swinburne said at the time of Albert Moore’s painting 'Azaleas', ‘it’s reason for being is to be.’ This freed the literature of the time, and of every decade since, from the obligation of crafting their stories around instruction or ethical ideals. It being beautiful was enough to justify its existence. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray      'The Picture of Dorian Gray' is the ultimate book of this era, written, of course, by the movement’s most famous proponent, as it divides the existences of morality and beauty and shows that one can exist quite happily without the other, whilst expounding a lack of moral judgment in the deliberate crafting of a decadent, dark and hedonistic narrative (you can’t keep narrative out of all things, it seems). Although, could someone explain to me why it all ends badly, with Dorian’s paranoia and eventual death? I’m not sure how that part fits this ethos. Perhaps Wilde had an innate belief in goodness and the final come-uppance of Dorian was the only way to expound the ‘truth’, that being a belief also. I’m not sure. Anyway, this triumph of expression over judgment is forever now evident in our literary freedom and the Western lack of censorship. Lady Chatterley couldn’t have existed without it (although it took the establishment some type to catch up), nor would the ultimate tome of literary freedom over moral judgment, Lolita. Isn’t it interesting how you can mention these characters outside the context of their page? Maybe it’s this absence of judgment that allows them and their contemporaries to become flesh and blood real.

            I’m going to leave you now with Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s ‘Genius in Beauty’ and one final thought: the Aesthetes were the first people to really believe that everything in your life should be useful and beautiful (to paraphrase William Morris, another Aesthete), including your clothing, your jewellery, your lifestyle and your house. Out of this came dandyism (an awesome trend), costume jewellery (praise be) and interior design. It is therefore possible to draw a line directly from Frederic Leighton and G.F. Watts to Apple (both functional and beautiful), MGMT and their neo-dandyism and Grand Designs. For some reason, that makes me very happy indeed. This is an exhibition you really should see.

Genius in Beauty

Beauty like hers is genius. Not the call
Of Homer's or of Dante's heart sublime,--
Not Michael's hand furrowing the zones of time,--
Is more with compassed mysteries musical;
Nay, not in Spring's Summer's sweet footfall
More gathered gifts exuberant Life bequeaths
Than doth this sovereign face, whose love-spell breathes
Even from its shadowed contour on the wall.

As many men are poets in their youth,
But for one sweet-strung soul the wires prolong
Even through all change the indomitable song;
So in likewise the envenomed years, whose tooth
Rends shallower grace with ruin void of ruth,
Upon this beauty's power shall wreak no wrong.

The Cult of Beauty exhibit will be at the V&A until the 17th July 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you wrote about this. I will be in London in June and it sounds like a great exhibition - one to watch out for.


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