Entering the Cult of Beauty

Earlier this week I went to the opening of The Cult of Beauty; The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the V&A.  The bowl of scattered flowers and pale green figs, sliced open to reveal wound like slits of luscious ruby flesh, and a tall branch of pale pink blossom on the reception desk, announced the tenor of the exhibition. Walking into a crowd of people sipping champagne I reached the exhibition; a vision of amethyst, turquoise, and amber lights, with peacock feathered shapes projected onto the walls.

In the face of the materialism, ugliness, and debasement heralded by the Victorian era, a new kind of beauty was sought.  This was found by the Aesthetic Movement in the new form of Art for Art’s Sake; an art that was devoid of moral codes and didactic narratives. This gave birth to objects of pure beauty, offerings of visual delectation, tactile pleasure and sensual delight. The walls of the V&A exhibition are dripping with paintings of languid classical nudes, caressed by billowing diaphanous drapery, rendered in sumptuous jewel like colours.

One example is Leighton’s The Bath of Psyche (1890); female beauty here is objectified and conflated with the beauty of painting resulting in idealising depictions of women, not as themselves, but as objects of beauty. As well as a cacophony of paintings of beautiful woman, beauty was also found in the tables, chairs, sculpture and cabinets that constituted the new ‘Art Furniture’ that the Aesthetic Movement spawned. Innovation in design allowed for new furniture to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

In The Search for a New Beauty 1860s room, the fixation with woman as the epitome of beauty is felt in the obsessive repetition of female faces such as Leighton’s Pavonia (1858) in which a seated woman turns back towards the viewer, her gaze abstracted, wistful even. Her ebony hair contrasts dramatically with her milky skin, which is tinted with yellow, writing a sense of exoticism onto her face. Her lips are a glossy pink, directing our gaze to her soft cheek, also flushed with pink, and ending up at the pink corner of her eye. As we scan her face we consume her beauty. Framed by a fan of peacock feathers, the symbol of pride and beauty, she is removed from the realm of the individual and transformed into the personification of beauty.

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This fetishisation of the female face is also seen in Rossetti’s Bocca bacciata (1859). The title of the painting ‘the mouth that has been kissed’ abstracts the female from her real body, presenting her mouth as the object of desire, a gash of rich scarlet paint – a sign of her female sexuality in its evocation of her genitals. At first for the male viewer she incites a sense of anxiety, a threat to male sexuality in her female potency, and yet this explicit image of female sexuality is managed and contained by the paint in which she is rendered. 

We are presented with a fragment of the female body, her face, as opposed to her whole figure, denying her agency. This repression is further emphasised by the fact that she is imprisoned within the shallow space of the canvas, tantalisingly pressed up against the picture plane. The fact that she is shown head-on, trapped behind the parapet and thus objectified at a distance, framed almost as if she were a painting herself, facilitates the viewer’s visual dominance and voyeuristic consumption of her beauty. Her gaze is lost; she is the epitome of melancholy and the embodiment of beauty, objectified therefore as an object of desire specifically for the male viewer’s visual pleasure.

This obsession with beauty and the female form that pervaded painting, sculpture, interior design and architecture by the poetic, melancholic artists of the Aesthetic Movement was also subject to ridicule in Beardsley’s satirical cartoons of pretentious, effeminate men and idealised women dripping in peacock feathers. This injection of humour into the exhibition softens the otherwise elitist, inaccessible, class specific insistence on beauty and taste of the Aesthetic Movement, whilst providing a greater insight into the social and historical climate of the time.

The evening came to a close at 9 o’clock and people came spilling out of the V & A. One man ran out with a handful of figs from the reception desk showing it to all his friends, whilst others languorously sat on the steps, intoxicated on champagne, their visual appetite for the beautiful satiated.

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‘The Cult of Beauty; The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900′ is showing at the V&A until July.