Peacock feathers, Japanese fans and blue and white pottery are some of the objects that appear in paintings and interiors in a show centered on the Aesthetic Movement, a late 19th century British school of art, at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum.
"The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900" is the brainchild of originating curator Lynn Federle Orr, who first proposed the idea for the exhibit 10 years ago to Harry Parker, then director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
"How can anything created in the Victorian era be avant-garde?" Orr asked at the news preview for the exhibition.
We normally equate the avant-garde in the latter half of the 19th century with French artists, but Orr makes a strong case for the revolutionary status of the "art for art's sake" credo of the Aesthetic Movement, which originated with a group of maverick artists centered on Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and designer William Morris.
Though many of the paintings in the exhibition strike this viewer's eye as somewhat campy period pieces, they were groundbreaking and shocking in their time. Scenes of beautiful women with beautiful objects epitomize the Aesthetic Movement's desire to replace the sentimental moralizing of mainstream Victorian art with an antidote to the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution's urban areas so common at the time.
Beauty for the sake of beauty was the cry of progressive artists such as Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederic Leighton, whose sensual "Pavonia" graces the cover of the exhibition's liberally illustrated catalog. With her peacock feather, "Pavonia" epitomizes the Aesthetic ideal of beauty strong, free and unconventional, not to mention uncorseted.
Whistler's "Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl" is emblematic of the spirit of the times and the equation of painting with musical arts. Even more so is "Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl," with his model holding a Japanese paper fan while posing in front of a mirror over a fireplace whose mantel is set with a blue and white porcelain vase. Indeed the Whistlers, among them one of his "Nocturnes," which provoked critic John Ruskin to accuse Whistler of flinging a paint pot in the eyes of the public, are worth a trip to the show.
But it is not a show of painting alone. On view throughout the exhibit are examples of furniture, utilitarian objects, Chinese porcelains, clocks, over- mantels, books and reproductions of period wallpaper that demonstrate how the ideas of Aestheticism radically redefined the relationship between the artist and society and filtered down to the middle class through how-to books and interior design publications that were the forerunners of Architectural Digest and Better Homes and Gardens.
Following the example set by the artists who decorated their own homes and studios with beautiful and often exotic objects and designs, everyday abodes came to be graced with touches of beauty, even if only a peacock feather for the mantelpiece.
The catalog goes into fascinating detail about the dissemination of Aesthetic principles of design and decoration, and the show includes many examples of forward-looking design. Among the strikingly modern objects in the show are an ebonized sideboard by architect and designer Edward William Godwin that combines Japanese and Modernist aesthetics and a wonderfully geometric tea service of silver plate with ebony handles by designer Christopher Dresser.
By the turn of the century, Aestheticism had devolved in the eyes of some to a state of decadence with the sexually suggestive black and white drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and the influence of Oscar Wilde. The Beardsleys, however, point the way to Art Nouveau, and Wilde's preoccupation with Aesthetic ideals continued to his death when he looked around him and said: "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go."
"The Cult of Beauty" is a big show, so large in fact that it overflows the museum's lower level and continues in two of the galleries upstairs at the Legion. You'll want to take your time looking at it and then sit for awhile in the museum's cafe. It is worth noting that the exhibition previously was shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The show at the Legion is its only appearance in the United States.