Exhausting the sense of the beautiful

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The idea that beauty can be made to serve some other purpose — selling some product or idea for example — is naturally repellent to many of us. There seems to be in the human heart an inherent belief that beauty should exist for its own sake, or at least be free from practical considerations.

This was the premise of the Aesthetic Movement, a loosely defined tendency in 19th-century European art, which operated under the slogan of “art for art’s sake” and believed that beauty was the end, not the means.

It is ironic, then, that “The Beautiful: the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900,” an exhibition at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum dedicated to the British aspect of this movement, should be sourced and organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum, because the original impetus behind the creation of that illustrious institution was the exact opposite of art for art’s sake.

When it was founded in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of 1851, beauty was cast as the means to the end of selling more British-produced goods. The museum was intended to serve as a “design arsenal” to help improve the quality of British products, something implied by its original name of the Museum of Manufactures.

Improving manufacturing, however, turned out to be a laborious process — literally. The key role of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement ensured this by turning away from automated production and emphasizing the handmade. None of Morris’ work is included, but there are plenty of close associates, such as the artist Edward Burne-Jones, represented here by several works, including a large tapestry made by Morris’ company.

Works like this and the other decorative items Morris’ company produced, such as stained glass and patterned wallpaper, could only be afforded by the rich. This was something that chafed with Morris’ socialist convictions.

Gradually, however, by a process of “trickledown,” some of the aesthetic ideas favored by the Arts and Craft movement found their way into the mass-manufactured items that adorned the more humble Victorian home.

This exhibition complements the Pre-Raphaelite show now on at the Mori Arts Center Gallery as the two movements were interconnected. This overlap is evident in the fact the exhibitions share an artist or two, such as Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

While the former is renowned for his allegorical themes, the latter is famed for his depictions of a certain type of female beauty, with which both the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements became associated. This type is a rather thick-necked and long-jawed woman with somewhat masculine features, softened by luxurious hair and a rather wistful or coy expression.

“She” can be seen in paintings such as Rossetti’s “The Loving Cup” (1867) and Albert Moore’s “Midsummer” (1887), and points toward the more obvious androgyny that later came to characterize the Aesthetic Movement as it morphed into the late 19th century fin de siècle Decadent Movement, typified by the likes of Oscar Wilde in literature and Aubrey Beardsley in art.

Decadence, in a sense, is the logical outcome of pure aestheticism. An obsession with beauty-in-itself may easily wear itself out, with the palate becoming jaded and the eyes dulled, therefore leading to new “refinements” bordering on perversity.

The interesting point about Beardsley’s drawings is that he mixes the beauty of his sinuous lines with ugly elements —corpulent, misshapen figures, demonic leering faces and the like. This creates an odd chemistry and aesthetic kick that reminds us of the experiments of the contemporaneous Art Nouveau movement, where designers incorporated “ugly” motifs, including lizards, beetles, frogs and flies into jewelry and glasswork designs.

The Decadent Movement was preceded by the rise of the aesthete, the oversensitive individual who devoted his life to a fey enchantment with beauty.

The section of the exhibition dealing with this is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the show. In a number of cartoons from the satirical magazine “Punch” the aesthete is shown as a lank-haired, pretentious character ridiculously enthralled by the “utter beauty” of such humble objects as a vase, flower or fan.

One cartoon, “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot” (1880), by the French-born cartoonist George du Maurier, shows a newly married aesthete couple looking dreamily at an unremarkable oriental teapot as the husband says, “It is quite consummate, is it not.” To which the wife replies, “It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it.” The sexual innuendo of the frustrated wife points to the effeminacy with which the aesthete was associated.

Such gentle and even affectionate caricatures gave way to a sterner attitude when Oscar Wilde, the archetype of the aesthete, was convicted for “for gross indecency” in 1895 and a moral backlash set in. This effectively marked the end of the movement in Britain and the beginning of an age when other values rose to replace an exhausted sense of beauty.

“Art for Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900″ at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum runs till May 6; open 10 a.m.-6p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www.mimt.jp/beautiful