A new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris offers an overview of the British ‘aesthetic movement’, a group of artists who reacted against the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution with a new style that put beauty and nature centre-stage. Freed from the constraints of Victorian morality, these artists were also free to express sensuality in their work in a radical new work, covering a period from the 1860s through to the last year of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1901. They were often so daring that many of their earlier exploits were condemned as decadent and immoral.
‘Art for Art’s Sake’
The motto’s rallying cry was ‘art for art’s sake': the artist’s only job was to be produce beautiful objects, not depict reality or tell stories. This held true not just for paintings and drawings, but for furniture, ceramics and wallpaper, too. What use being an asethete if you can’t fill your home with beautiful things?
The decorative arts that flourished during the period are represented, alongside fashionable clothes and jewellery. The aesthetic movement extended beyond the visual arts into literature (which is why Wilde’s name pops up in the French title), and some examples of gorgeous first editions also form part of the exhibition.
Rather than restricting themselves to Classical sources, aesthethes like Swinburne, Rossetti and others found inspiration in Islamic and Eastern Art, with a special role for Japense prints, which had only begun arriving in Europe a decade or so earlier.
The exhibition started out at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where it was called ‘The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900′; here in Paris the official English title for the French leg of the show is ‘Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde’, which doesn’t quite have the same ring.
It’s well worth a visit in its own right, of course, but the exhibition will also give you a chance to visit the newly-renovated galleries that house the permanent collection at the Musée d’Orsay, home to art from 1848 to 1914. After several years of work, the much-loved Impressionist gallery on the fifth floor finally re-opened.