Leaving behind the morality of art, the Aesthetic Movement touched upon all art’s disciplines and focused on the sensual and the beautiful in life. Rebelling against the materialization and ethics of the Victorian period, intellectuals, painters, writers, designers, and philosophers drew inspiration from the bohemians of the Paris society and pushed for the idea that art should imitate life and not vice versa. A special kind of beauty cult was formed and it pushed to the extreme. Nature was considered crude and lacking in design while the magic and sensuality were hidden in the perfect constructions and in the smallest details of the fresh paintings, literature, and lifestyle. The Britain society of the latter part of the 19th-century found itself overwhelmed with images and objects featuring peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue and white chinoiserie, and strikingly beautiful red hair women. Avoiding the slogan and concept of art for truth’s sake, pushed forward by John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and George MacDonald, every inch of this movement proclaimed that creativity should be produced for art’s sake.
The movement started as a single spark in 1860’s which soon spread as a fire in all the areas of Britain’s society and abroad. From the studios and houses of various creatives and designers, involving William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to the writings and lifestyle of Oscar Wilde, original skirt dance of Kate Vaughan, contemporary critical thoughts of Harold Bloom, and the various theater productions, life in Britain rebelled against the design standards of the day presented in the 1851’s Great Exhibition. What also aided the movement forward was the newfound Japanese art that was after nearly 250 years of self-imposed isolation visible. Believing that creativity should not possess any didactic purpose, suggestion rather than the statement, sensuality and the dependence on symbolism and decadence (visible also in France and Italy) predominated. Correspondence between words, colors, and music built the atmosphere of extravagance that almost suffocated the senses.
For some, the period was first and foremost a painter’s movement. The paintings of above mentioned Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J.M Whistler, Edward Burne – Jones, Albert Moore, Aubrey Beardsley, and certain works of Frederic, and Lord Leighton presented controversial models and scenes that avoided any narrative and were important just because they were beautiful. Influenced by, as Oscar Wilde put it “three things the English public never forgives: youth, power, and enthusiasm”, the painters decided to paint honest paintings full of visual and sensual delight. The beautiful red-haired women in Rossetti’s paintings were considered by the ideals of the Victorian period as an unconventional choice and would have been considered even as vulgar due to the color of their hair, here were celebrated and adored. The famous painting by Edward Burne-Jones The Golden Stairs , featuring a procession of young and beautiful women descending a staircase holding musical instruments, many consider as THE painting of the movement.
In time, the newfound idea of beauty spread from painting to sculpture, furniture, ceramics, and interior design. Both the aristocratic and the middle class shared the same goal of surrounding themselves with the very best and the most pleasing to the eye materials, household objects and decorative murals. The masterpiece by J.M Whistler Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room is one of the best interior decorative mural paintings originating from this period. The original furniture designs favored painted or stained to black ebony finish pieces, along with the carved surfaces of the feathers or stylized flowers that embellished the objects, and in the use of nature motifs, we witness the Far Eastern influence.
Defined as the important elements of the Aesthetic Movement within the decorative arts are Reform and Eastern Art and these were researched and influential for the development of the design of British products. Many different designers, especially William Morris, called for the design reform that stood and backed up traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decorations.
The philosophical idea that we should all live beautiful lives and that creative production need not tell stories or have an important narrative to be considered critical or valuable is the legacy that the movement left us with. The design and decorative ideas of the arts and crafts movement, run by Willam Morris, is seen to have later influenced the decorative sensibility of pattern and paintings of the avant-garde movement Art Nouveau, and the focus of the beautiful in life, helped to shape the cultural phenomenon dandyism that we also see in the hipster’s culture today. The research into the aesthetic theory and its language is also important today since we are experiencing the growing need for an original aesthetic language that will help to fuse the language of technology and visual art led to the birth of an original term New Aesthetic. The term was coined by James Bridle and is used to refer to an increase of the blending between the virtual and physical. This term should not be confused with The New Aesthetics, the movement originated from art school held in Irsee, southern Germany, in 2007, that stresses the material and physical process in the making of visual art.
Focusing on pushing the boundaries of creativity and our understanding what the nature of creative production is all about stands at the core of the Aesthetic Movement of the 19th-century and this concern will exist as long as the world and its authors continue to document the shifts and turns in our nature.
Editors’ Tip: The Aesthetic Movement
The author of the book Lionel Lamborne, former head of painting at the Victoria and Albert Museum, offers its readers a well-researched history of the movement that redefined the understanding of the role of creative production, which helped to form an original aesthetic language. Exploring the influence of far East art, the need for reform, and the lifestyle of some of its leading figures, such as Oscar Wilde, Whistler, and Ruskin, the book is a recommended purchase for anyone who considers beauty as the most important element in life.
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Dante Gabriel Rossetti - La Ghirlandata, detail.Image via bl.uk; James Mc Neill Whistler - The Peacock Room. Image via wikimedia.org ; Albert Joseph Moore - Midsummer. Image via wikiart.org; WC Gilbert - Patience - Theatre Poster. Image via wikimedia.org