Frederic Leighton, Pavonia, 1858–9, oil on canvas. Private collectionThere is a fabulous new exhibit at my favorite San Francisco museum, The Legion of Honor. It’s called The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900. I can’t believe it’s taken me nearly a month since it opened to get myself over there. Especially since I spent a good part of my college Junior year abroad in London studying the art, architecture and design of the Victorian era. I bet a lot of you think of Victorian Art — if indeed you think of anything produced in England during the Victorian Era as Art — as endless series of vapid “morality and message” paintings or maybe all those Landseer-style paintings of dogs and stags. Or, especially if you’ve been to London, you’ll think of those great public buildings and monuments that cheerfully threw together every possible influence from Greek temples to Roman coliseums to Hindu temples and Moorish palaces into a head-spinning montage of history. (The Albert Memorial is the prime example of this trend, although I have much affection for its “No Influence Left Behind” aesthetic.)

But the other side of Victorian Art is the tightly knit group of writers, artists, artisans and thinkers who kicked off all that exuberance. Most art historians trace the start of their influence to the Great Exhibit or Crystal Palace that showcased the art and artisanship of Europe. What became apparent, as knowledgeable viewers compared the French and Italian contributions with Britain’s, was that British leadership in manufacturing had brought a terrible price. In the rush to produce cheap mass-manufactured goods, a level of artistry and craftsmanship was distinctly missing from much British furniture, pottery and textiles. This group of artists, who were also rebelling against the staid moralizing message pieces so favored by the Royal Academy of Art, decided to bring back design and aesthetics to British Art. When I say this was a tightly knit group, I really mean it. They painted each other, illustrated each others’ poems and music, designed furniture for each other and even stole each other’s mistresses and muses. But somehow the movement they started in the cozy Bohemian confines of St. Johns Wood and Chelsea grabbed the imagination of the British public at large. As the growing middle class suddenly had money to spend, they wanted to spend it on demonstrating their taste and refinement in everything from their clothing, to their home furnishings to their teapots. This loosely connected group of thinkers and artists — including the Pre-Raphaelites, textile designers and furniture makers like William Morris, proponents of the Japanese aesthetic such a James McNeill Whistler and writers such as Oscar Wilde — became the new taste-makers. Victorian England rushed to reflect their style in their furniture, wallpaper, clothes, even things as prosaic as garden chairs. Of course, the artisans, workshops and even factories stepped up to fulfill the need with masses of goods and fabrics for the home. Talk about Job Creators!

from the Cult of Beauty exhibit. A fox terrier in a sketch

The Victorian Avant-Garde also knew the decorative power of a Smooth Fox Terrier! Note the black and white one added into this sketch for a mantle and decorative shelves! (There is NO photography in the exhibit. But I believe captures of Smooth Fox Terriers are exempted.)

This new aesthetic wasn’t an overnight hit. The more staid Victorians — schooled by the stodgy Royal Academy — were confused by the new artists’ lack of moralizing messages and “Art for Art’s Sake” motivations. The leading critic of the day, John Ruskin, famously put down one of James MacNeill Whistler’s impressionistic (and Japanese inspired) paintings with the charge that Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the Public’s face.” A lawsuit ensued, Whistler won by eloquently outlining the new Aesthetic Movements’ theory of Art, but was awarded the paltry damages of one farthing (a quarter of a penny), which effectively bankrupted the artist who had racked up substantial legal fees. Karma proved to be a bitch for Ruskin, though. The critic was a strange man whose entire understanding of the female body was informed by Greek and Roman statues. The story is that, on his wedding night, he was so shocked and repulsed when he discovered a certain part of his wife’s body was covered with — well, let’s just say it was not smooth as marble — that he never consummated the marriage. She promptly ran off with one of Whistler’s pals, the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Proof perhaps that the paintbrush can be mightier than the critic’s pen or, at least, that you should think carefully before pissing off an artist. (As an aside, I don’t want to offend the sensibilities of some of my gentler readers. But this is one story even the excellent and highly-recommended audio tour of the exhibit won’t tell you. And it does make history come alive!)

William Eden Nesfield, Screen, 1867. Victoria and Albert Museum William Eden Nesfield, Screen, 1867, ebonized wood with gilt and fretted decoration and painted panels of Japanese silk paper. Victoria and Albert Museum

Commodore Matthew Peary had just opened up Japan to trade and the Victorian artists were mad for Japanese techniques and forms. This William Eden Nesfield screen, 1867, is British-made but includes painted panels of Japanese silk paper. From the exhibit website.

Luckily, the Cult of Beauty includes lots and lots of Whistler. You should get to know him, beyond the misunderstood and misnamed “Whistler’s Mother”. This is one of the larger collections of really important Victorian art I’ve seen in one place. You’ll see everyone from the Pre-Raphaelites — including Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti — to the later and more decadent Aesthetes — most famously Aubrey Beardsley — but also examples of the style and philosophy as manifested in clothing, wallpaper (yes, William Morris), furniture, architecture, pottery and household items.

I hope you’ll walk away, as I did, valuing artists and artisans all the more and determined that the study and practice of art is a noble endeavor — not a “frill” — that can enrich all our lives. As the Aesthetics were fond of saying, “The hours spent contemplating Beauty are the only hours in which we truly live.” Of course, Oscar Wilde condensed that thought into something much wittier:

“We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars!”

Addendum:

The Cult of Beauty runs through June 17th, 2012, and this is the ONLY U.S. venue. If you are anywhere near San Francisco, make the trip! Otherwise you’ll have to get to London’s V&A or to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Some highlights:

*A portrait of Charles Dickens’ daughter (a painter in her own right) looking decidedly soigneé in black and not at all as you would expect Charles Dickens’ daughter to look.

*A wonderful small painting that makes such wildly disparate references as The Parthenon, Pompeii and Japanese screens — yet somehow makes it all work.

*A recreation of Whistler’s famous Peacock Room and the scathing portrait he painted of the patron who refused to pay him for it. (Again, don’t piss off artists!)

*Marvel at how the Pre-Raphaelites, especially, really had “a type” in women: thick red hair, strong Roman nose and fleshy lips. No wonder they traded each other’s wives, mistresses and muses so readily.

Top image: Frederic Leighton, Pavonia (Peacock), 1858–9, oil on canvas. Private collection. From the exhibit website.

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