Sunday, 17 April 2011

On beauty, portraiture and "The Cult of Beauty" at the V&A

So, I am in search of beauty; that much has become clear. I thought I might understand more about what it is by visiting The Cult of Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a new exhibition about the aesthetic movement bewween 1860 and 1900.

Midsummer by Albert Joseph Moore

The aesthetic movement artists sought to create a new kind of art, freed from cultural ideas and moral or religious codes; in other words "Art for Art's sake". They created art that existed only in order to be beautiful, with no moral point or stories behind the work. Artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris were members, and the V&A museum opened in 1857 at the beginning of the movement.

Paintings contained women whose looks, and lifestyles, were at odds with conventional Victorian ideals of demure beauty; they created entirely new types of beauty. The artists brought together architecture, painting, china and furniture, describing how a complete room should look, in a description of " the house beautiful". They defined "taste" and "cultivation" as a way of living, and from this modern interior design and taste has developed. The aesthetic movment was the first "lifestyle revolution".

Oscar Wilde joined the group and became a the celebrity associated with aesthetic ideas. The choice of women models for paintings re-defined "beauty" and changed the way that women wished to be viewed. Flamboyancy in mens' clothing was described as "peacock dressing", a feature that re-emerged in the 1960's with a new style of dressing in a flamboyant way. The peacock, the lily, and the sunflower are the three motifs asociated with the movement.

Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

By the end of the 1800's red hair was established as a "beautiful" feature, thanks to artists such as Rossetti.

Sibylla by Rosssetti
So it seems that beauty was re-defined by the movement, a fact that fits with my experiences on this course; culture and history play important parts in defining what one individual or group sees as beautiful. Currently most photographers are using all white backgrounds for their websites; this will no doubt change in a few years time. Portrait photograhers have  moved from busy backdrops to simple white studio shots.  In North East Brazil, what counts as a beautiful portrait is very different to current British studio portraits.

Photo Paintings from North East Brazil © Collection Titus Riedl. Courtesy of Nazraeli Press
as seen at Brighton Photo Biennial 2010
There are very few photographs in the exhibition, but I was interested to see works by Julia Margaret Cameron, whose  illustrating her friend Tennyson's poem "Idylls of the King". I came across her work earlier when I first started researching books and poetry.

 These photographs are designed to look like oil paintings from the same time period, including rich details like historical costumes and intricate draperies. Nevertheless, Cameron saw these photographs as art, just like the oil paintings they imitated. The image below shows her maid dressed as a tragic heroine of Arthurian legend, with an excerpt form the poem as it's title.

Call I follow, I follow, let me die!
Julia Margaret Cameron, "Call I follow, I follow, let me die!" (Mary Hillier), c. 1867, albumen print, The Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England

I will talk more later about the effect of the movement on interior design and architecture. I found the china, furniture and paintings generally heavy and over ornate; a clear indicator that I live in a time when beauty is defined in a different way, with light and simplicity taking preference over ornate decor and rich colours.
I wonder how this affects nature photography; I am not yet sure that I know how I define beauty in nature. I need to explore this area, possibly by starting with what I find ugly.

I will leave you with a portrait and some flowers that remind me of all the blossom I have been capturing in suburbia. Notice also her red hair, the oriental vases and soft drapery that all defined beauty at that time.

Albert Moore "Azaleas" 1867

Algernon Swinburne, a critic at the time said
"the meaning of the painting is beauty: and its reason for being is to be"

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