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!”