Christopher Bernard’s review of the Cult of Beauty: the Victorian Avant-Garde (1860-1900) at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor




The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900


The Legion of Honor, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


Through June 17


A review by Christopher Bernard



For a shining moment in the savage tale called history, pleasure was held as the highest good rather than as the road to damnation for a weak and sinful humanity. Happiness was seen, not only as a legitimate aim, but as the sole aim of human life. What was virtue without pleasure; what indeed is goodness without happiness?

We’re still not sure: our meaner impulses insist on what some may see as a preposterously heroic view of life in the pursuit of money, power, celebrity – if you’re not training for the Olympics, what’s wrong with you? “No pain, no gain” is many a person’s mantra; though to gain what, they don’t always say, or perhaps know. The pursuit of mere pleasure, the right to a happiness made of the sweetness of life, we darkly suspect are signs of laziness and a lack of courage, a romantic withdrawal from the Darwinian struggle, rather than the civilized repudiation of the mindless callousness of nature, of evolution and its economic incarnation, capitalism.
So it’s quite a revelation to be reminded of something many may remember from their art-history classes: in the middle of the era of those old, dull Victorians, the Aesthetic movement flowered for almost two generations, and pleasure, happiness, love, and their objective correlative, beauty, were honored, pursued, worshipped, even adored.

The very success of the movement led to its own repudiation by the early modernists, and much of the art and criticism of the last century dismissed many of its products as kitsch. Yet, as often happens, the impulses behind the repudiated style went underground, and continued to nourish arts less susceptible to public ridicule; in this case, the crafts, home decorations, fabric design – the domestic arts in general. In fact, the very idea of a beautifully designed home, of the “house beautiful,” with stylish but not costly furnishings, that people might actually be able to afford – an idea most of us now take for granted – originated during that time.

And now we have an ambitious exhibit of work from the Aesthetic movement and the sister movements that followed – from the Pre-Raphaelites to art nouveau – now at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, that succeeds wonderfully, even spectacularly, in bringing back to the center of our attention this often-dismissed but enormously fecund movement in the arts. Not only is it about “the cult of beauty,” it is itself a feast of beauty and offers revelations around almost every corner.

The exhibit, a model in how to be richly informative and enlightening without condescension or dry academicism, unfolds historically, establishing immediately the harrowing social conditions and the peculiar circumstances that inspired, and made possible, the movement. For Aestheticism was a reaction to the industrialism of mid-Victorianism, to its ugliness and social carnage, and was one of the roots of the various progressive movements, from feminism to the trade union movement to socialism, that germinated in the rich humus of Victorian society.

One of the causes of the movement was sheer embarrassment and shame when, during the international exposition of industrial products presented at the Crystal Palace in 1851, English goods appeared shabby and poorly designed when compared to similar products from France and Germany. Well, the intensely competitive English would not put up with that. And there was, as it were, a national decision to make up for lost time.

In the following decade, such designers as Owen Jones, Edward William Godwin and Christopher Dresser were hard at work creating designs for the home meant to appeal to the eye as much as the pocketbook: wallpaper, cabinets, sideboards, chairs, tea services (regarding the last: some of Dresser’s are so remarkably sleek and functional they remind one of the height of the Bauhaus several generations in the future, and others are so avant-garde they wouldn’t see their like again until a century later, in the studios of Italian designers in the 1970s).

The early years also saw the paintings and poetry of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, the poetry of his sister Christina, the paintings of Edward Burne-Jones and Frederick Leighton, the domestic designs of William Morris (several spectacular examples of which are show highlights) and Frederick Hollyer, Thomas Jeckyll, Philip Webb, and Lewis F. Day, and later on the flowering of the greatest artist of the lot, James McNeill Whistler, two of whose “Symphonies in White” are on display along with a satisfying offering of work by artists and artisans already mentioned, as well as Whistler’s etchings (a deliciously sensual sleeping Venus rests permanently in the mind), and several of the famous Nocturne, Harmony and Arrangement series, not least the famous portrait of Thomas Carlyle.

One gallery is devoted to the influence of the newly discovered Japanese aesthetic and the ancient influence of classicism, now more frankly hedonistic than the usual nod to Roman virtue and Greek grace. Elsewhere there are small gatherings of photographs from the period, in particular the romantic portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Some of the furniture deserves special mention, including “The Seasons” cabinet, by Godwin, of mahogany, satinwood, brass and ivory, with painted and gilt panels (of medieval peasants in seasonal poses of sowing and reaping, possibly painted by Godwin’s wife, Beatrice); the masterly “Ladies and Animals” sideboard by Burne-Jones in trompe-Renaissance style; a tall folding screen, decorated with images of cherry blossoms and birds, by William Nesfield; and another piéce de resistance of pre-emptive modernism, a grand, black Mondriaanesque sideboard by Godwin.

In fact, the most satisfying artwork in the show tends to be in the domestic crafts: a pair of cast copper candlesticks by Philip Webb, of a kind of stout elegance, colored like honeyed gold, and originally designed for William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent; a black wall clock of ebonized mahogany and pained en grisaille; Morris’s big, shimmery, almost statuesque tile panel for Membrand Hall, Devon, richly colored in dark and light greens with pale-brown branches woven among them; a hanging fabric by Lewis Day of faded yellowish narcissi (a favorite flower, emblem and motif of the Aesthetes) against an almost-black background; a nobly subdued study of lilies by Hollyer; simple but elegant, and reportedly comfortable and affordable chairs by Webb and Morris, and a throne-like armchair by Alma-Tadema; and swatchbooks and “grammars of ornament” and books of designs for wallpapers and other domestic uses.

Not that the “high arts” are neglected: besides the Whistlers, there are some fine paintings, including Rosetti’s “Bocca Baciata”; a nude by George F. Watts that presents an Eros frank among the Victorians; Leighton’s study in serene sensualism, “The Bath of Psyche”; and John William Waterhouse’s sweet, if a little overly elaborated, masterpiece, “Saint Cecilia,” where two angels kneel, poised over their viols, wondering whether they should continue playing for the saint sitting in a chair across from them, asleep.

This wonderful exhibit is curated Dr. Lynn Federle Orr, of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Stephen Calloway, of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London (the exhibit was seen at the latter museum and at the Musée d’Orsay before coming to San Francisco, its sole U.S. venue).

After spending some time here, you may find yourselves agreeing wholeheartedly with the quote from Richard Jeffries: “The hours when the mind is absorbed in beauty are the only hours we live.”


Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco poet, critic and novelist (A Spy in the Ruins) and co-editor of Caveat Lector magazine (