The East Will Set Us Free: Review of “The Cult of Beauty” at the Legion of Honors, SF

By Your Salonniere

After missing The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum whilst tripping in London last summer, happily the impressive collection from Britain’s Aesthetic Movement, in all its long-haired and fair-skinned beauty, made a second stop at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, after showing in Paris. What was most surprising and most pleasing about the show wasn’t necessarily the abundance of curves on lovely limbed ladies nor the proliferation of flowers and all things romantic and delicate, but the emphasis on transculturation that framed the exhibition from start to finish.

The curators of the V&A took great lengths to emphasize and reiterate the origins of the Arts & Craft movement, the genesis of the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, and the inception of the Decadent Era by stating loud and clear these artistic schools were borne from Britain opening trade with China, Japan, and Muslim countries.

Here’s an excerpt on the history of trade from the V&A website:

The Victorian vision of China and Japan

Buying souvenir goods was an important part of any trip to the East. Back home it was exhibitions that gave people the opportunity to see objects from East Asia. In 1842 when the first British treaty was being signed with China, there was a exhibition of Nathan Dunn’s ‘Chinese Collection’ in London. It was certainly the most comprehensive show yet seen of Chinese material culture –

Trade with China and Japan inspired a flourishing of paintings, crafts, sculpture, and prints from artists featured such as Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, Frederic Leighton, Albert Moore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, American expatriate James Whistler, and Aubrey Beardsley, who each fully embraced the form and beauty found in Asian art.

Bringing the exotic home, The Arts & Crafts movement, we could argue, are much like the capsule collections promoted by Target through Isaac Mizrahi linens and Michael Graves kitchenware or Crate and Barrel’s Marimekko Collections. In the same vein, these Victorian artists helped educate the middle class on what is “Art.” Training the eye and the spending habits of those who could afford fine china, lacquered cabinets, and batik-styled textiles. The Arts & Craft movement encouraged families to appreciate art, proving that everyone can enjoy fineness at home in their every day living space.

We tend to think of beautifying ourselves and our environment as superficial, but perhaps that’s because our twenty-first century definition of “Beauty” is devoid and divorced from Divinity. Steeped in secularization, we forget that the Pan Hellenics believed the human form sacred.

Most likely, because Whistler or Leighton and friends couldn’t penetrate the cultural, historical, or critical meaning of the Asian works they encountered and emulated, they had to rely on the aesthetic experience. Hence, we might guess, the Aesthetic Movement, is based on loose association of meaning, relying less on defined signs and symbolism that permeated earlier art schools. The sensory experience of beauty and form is the heart of the Pre-Raphealites aim. With this kind of thinking, we can easily see how art theory led to the deconstructionism. What typically anchored and lent purpose and meaning to art, sculpture and decorative crafts before the Pre-Raphealites no longer tethered artist and audience. The East will set us free, might be what Dante Gabriel Rossetti thought.

The work is stunning no matter the context, and through the the continual Eastern frame of reference, we are able to see just how truly innovative, daring, cosmopolitan, and globalized these Victorian artists are.

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