Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 (V&A)

Review written retrospectively.

This is the first international exhibition to explore the unconventional creativity of the Aesthetic movement in Britain. As the well spring of the 'new art' movements of the late 19th century, Aestheticism is now acknowledged for its revolutionary re-negotiation of the relationships between the artist and society and between the 'fine' and design arts. Superb paintings by artists such as Whistler, Rossetti and Leighton will feature alongside fashionable trends in architecture, interior design, domestic furnishings, art photography and new modes of dress, tracing Aestheticism's evolution from the artistic concerns of a small avant-garde to a broad cultural phenomenon.

- V&A
Admittedly, despite my overwhelming excitement to be attending the exhibition and experiencing so much of the art I love in the same place, my initial, and lasting feeling that it was just too busy. I understand that for these types of events it is key to get as many paying customers through the door as possible. The exhibition itself was undoubtedly a feat to piece together and had been in the works for approximately ten years by the time it opened, but I feel as though all of that hard work was lost. The space was clearly arranged for the movement of traffic, but that is not how most exhibition-goers view art, in my experience.

The type of people who attend these shows, particularly when they have paid for the privilege, prefer to languor over the works a while, myself included. I like to visit and revisit works, perhaps informed by something else I’ve seen in the room. If I am taken with a specific work, I enjoy standing for a while in its presence. Also, in this case, I was there for academic purposes and wished to seek out as much information as possible, equally from that provided within the exhibition space, and from my own exposure and musings. As this exhibition was comprised of art and artists I am deeply invested in, the sheer volume of the crowd was a heartening sight as I felt as though these people were sharing it with me. Obviously, many people in the room probably had an equal and greater grasp of the subject matter as I did, but there would have also been people experiencing this work for entirely the first time.

Therein lies the problem; there was no experience. There was no space to move and view the works in the manner you wished to; you were forced around the space through construction and the societal pressures of being polite and trying not to get in anybody’s way. I feel as though the people who will have managed to take the most away from this exhibition are those who were lucky enough to have a private viewing. That honour is, of course, reserved for select company, while the rest of us must force our way through the crowds.

Considering the significance of the aesthetic principles for bringing many things together, I had assumed that the exhibition would take a similar approach. Instead, I found that the works were organised semi-chronologically and medium-based. Furniture with furniture, paintings with paintings, photographs with photographs, clothing with clothing. I felt that there was a complete lack of engagement with the spirit of the time, which was shocking as I had seen and read interviews with one of the curators who lives this life every day in the twentyfirst century.

The reconstruction of Rossetti’s rooms was especially perplexing to me. Hidden by a big blue box with only arrow slits for observation, a replica of Rossetti’s rooms had been constructed right in the centre of the exhibition space. Again, I had assumed that this exhibition would have taken a more literal approach with the concept of wholeness and everything would have been integrated. Instead, gallery-goers were forced to observe this possibly fascinating reconstruction through tiny arrow-slit like gaps in a blue wall. These openings were angled specifically to draw your sight to specific objects in the room. This was not the point! The whole spirit and lifestyle of the movement had been neglected, despite its claims to the contrary. The deep green walls and illustrated peacock lightshow seemed to be the exhibition’s statement that they had absorbed the ideals and aesthetics of the movement and adapted them to the twentyfirst century. Unfortunately, I found these displays just as disappointing.

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