The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 – The Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This exhibition is a project between the V&A, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, which demonstrates current trends in collaborative exhibition curating.
As its name suggests, the exhibition is centered around beauty, for visual and tactile
delight. In its slogan “Art for Art’s Sake”, not only paintings, but also furniture, clothing, items and home decoration pieces are included in this idea of perfection, in which every piece must be flawlessly designed.
A clear example of this is the Red House of William Morris, a true display of references from the past. He retained the notion of home-spun production, using ordinary objects as if they were precious. This emphasises the role of fine workmanship and looks back to renaissance models, in an effort to rethink the role art really played in industrialised societies.

The exhibition follows a chronological order in a 30-year range from 1860 to 1900.
I am aware that the Aesthetic Movement was a phenomenon based in England. However,
in my opinion, the exhibition could have been further enhanced by looking at related
artists outside England who may have been influenced by this movement, such as the
work of The Vienna Secession, the stairs of Victor Horta, the Glasgow School, and even
some work by Alphonse Mucha, in which you can truly admire beauty. The great
international fairs of the 19th century played a really significant role in disseminating
these artistic and design ideas. It’s my humble opinion that these ideas are closely
connected to this exhibition, as they had an amazing impact on the artistic sphere.
Another observation I’d like to make is in regard to how the exhibition is displayed. The first room you enter is devoted to paintings of women by different artists. It is interesting to note that these women were, for the most part, the lovers of the artists themselves. I noticed a provocative and erotic tone in these paintings to such an extent that it reminded me of John Berger’s essay “Ways of Seeing”, where he writes about the role of women, saying that “the ideal spectator is always assumed to be male, and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him”. Thus, the woman in the painting is immortally portrayed in praise of the artist. Berger also observed that “it is true that sometimes a painting includes a male lover, but the woman’s attention is very rarely directed towards him. Often, she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who she considers to be her true lover – the spectator-owner.”

This exhibition defines the Greek term ‘kalon’ as “worthy to see and its destiny is to be seen” as Gadamer describes in his book “The Relevance of the Beautiful”. It is hard to put our finger on why we feel an idea or concept is beautiful, especially when it is
universally acknowledged as beautiful but has no objective criteria or definite
application. I feel that this exhibition is an example of that.

As Plato wrote: “Beauty is what shines the most and attracts us to the visibility of the ideal”.

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