The Aesthetic Movement
By Lionel Lambourne
240 pp., $59.95
"The Aesthetic Movement," wrote James Laver in his 1930 book about the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, "is one of the most curious and complicated phenomena of English social history."
Lionel Lambourne, in his close-packed book "The Aesthetic Movement" (a movement that flourished in the 1870s and '80s), has taken up the challenge of this complexity.
The difficult thing is to strike the right balance between the deservedly satirized absurdities indulged by some of the "movement's" camp followers and the perfect seriousness at its root.
Perhaps it was not really a movement at all, but more of a confluence of individuals who looked, to outsiders (not always sympathetic), as if they had certain fads and foibles, tastes and fashions in common.
The latter part of the 19th century was a web of interwoven proclivities. The "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," which chronologically precedes the aesthetic period, was a comparatively close association of painters with a shared aim. The Arts and Crafts movement brought together working idealists. The Aesthetic Movement was as much a period as it was a style, and it manifested itself not only in paintings and poetry but also in such fashionable things as clothes, house decoration, even "collectibles."
Mr. Lambourne might have emphasized a little more the distinctly urban character of aestheticism. They liked flowers (well, sunflowers, lilies, and maybe poppies), and they liked birds (well, peacocks), but one feels that they saw nature as something for bumpkins and possibly for children, or for children's books, at any rate.
Artificiality (or at least artifice) walking hand in hand with a delight in the theatrical was the aesthetic credo. It is summed up in the clich, "art for art's sake."
Oscar Wilde said that he felt "an irresistible desire to wander and go to Japan, where I will pass my youth, sitting under an almond tree, drinking amber tea out of a blue cup, and looking at a landscape without perspective." It is hard to take his sentiments at face value. Was he being funny, deliberately preposterous? Why was it that the deadly serious had to be presented through the clever defensiveness of wit all the time?
What Lambourne's story most successfully conveys is the fragility of aestheticism, and the sensitive, ironic awareness of this felt by its more notable figures like Whistler and Wilde.
Both of them were caught up in famous trials. Both were exceptional wits and skilled self-promoters. Both could laugh at themselves when it was advantageous. When Whistler was satirized in a play (during the run-up to the trial in which he sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel for accusing him of being a "coxcomb" and "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face"), he actually cooperated with the production. And when Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera "Patience," which poked silly fun at all the aesthetes, was about to open in the United States, Wilde did an American lecture tour that publicized "Patience" as much as "Patience" publicized him.
Lambourne's description of this American tour shows Wilde at his most sincere. He delivered messages about crafts, for instance, that were not only meant seriously, but taken so - in spite of his caricatured press persona of "arrogance, elitism, and socialism."
The architect, furniture designer, and theatrical designer E. W. Godwin is given a whole chapter in this book. He is much less known today than Whistler or Wilde (who sometimes criticized each other devastatingly), partly because he appears to have been an elusive character. But elusiveness is a hallmark of the aesthetes.
Godwin was a friend of Whistler and Wilde. Japanese art, which Godwin translated into remarkable pieces of furniture, was one of the linchpins of their friendship. His love of Japanese design expressed itself (as Whistler's had in his Peacock Room in a London mansion) in a wall decoration in Dromore Castle, Ireland. In what looks today like a strange contradiction of styles, the building is Gothic. But it seems that Japanese art and architecture struck the 19th-century European artists (who first encountered it in 1853, when trade with Japan was opened up after 200 years of embargo) as similar to the art of their own medieval period.
WITHIN the Aesthetic Movement there were divergences of opinion as wide as shared tastes were close. Whistler was all for the complete independence of the artist and opposed to the socialist/idealist ideas that Wilde took from Ruskin and William Morris. And it seems unlikely that Whistler would have agreed with Godwin's architectural aim "to reconcile the decorative and constructive, to work for a greater harmony and unity of thought in the surroundings of modern life."
Whistler was far too egocentric - and too much of a decorator - for such noble purpose. He made (beautiful) art for no other purpose than to make it.
In the century that followed, both attitudes reappeared within the boundaries of "modern art" and "modern architecture and design." The notion of self-sufficient art belongs distinctly to the 20th century, but its roots are in the Aesthetic Movement of the 19th century.
And Godwin's harmonizing of the decorative and the constructive in architecture and design (in order to bring about some kind of social improvement) has exercised not a few leading 20th-century designers and architects.