Oscar Wilde, living up to his China

16 May 2011

I went to see The Cult of Beauty - The Aes­thetic Move­ment 1860-1900 at the V&A on the weekend, and very en­joy­able it was too. The idea of the Aesthetic Movement seems to be that art need not have a purpose–whether it be di­dac­tic or moral or social–it need only be beautiful. And so its prac­ti­tion­ers went about paint­ing beau­ti­ful pictures, making beau­ti­ful furniture, and wearing beau­ti­ful clothes. As you might expect, a Vic­to­rian move­ment that not only lacked in­tel­lec­tual depth, but as­serted it unnecessary, at­tracted a good deal of satire and parody.

Indeed, one sug­ges­tion for the cause of the movement’s decline was that “satire and parody over­whelmed the movement”–a pos­si­bil­ity that is damning even in its “could be true” form. Gilbert and Sul­li­van went to the trouble of writing an entire comic opera in this spirit (Patience, but I par­tic­u­larly like the efforts of Punch. The cartoon below, “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot” is George du Maurier’s re­sponse to Oscar Wilde’s remark to vis­i­tors that he finds it “harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”

The Six-Mark Tea-Pot

Aesthetic Bridegroom. “It is quite consummate, is it not?”

Intense Bride. “It is indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”