The Cult of Beauty

On Saturday we had a day-trip to London to see ‘The Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A, before it closes (on July 17th so not long now if you haven’t already seen it!) It’s had some amazing reviews, and everyone seems to have seen it, and I’m glad we made the effort to go. I can’t remember ever seeing such a remarkable collection of objects in one place, and the exhibition, true to the V&A’s approach, provided a fascinating mixture of objets d’art, paintings, furniture, books and other appropriate items (such as this marvellous William de Morgan dish).

I won’t write a detailed review, since there are so many out there (see this in The Guardian, for example, which suggests that this exhibition could revise our view of Victorian art and culture, or this glowing report by Waldemar Januszczak), but in my opinion the exhibition mostly lived up to its reputation. The exhibition is devoted to the work of the Aesthetic movement, the hedonistic offspring of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The exhibition therefore builds up to the apex of Aestheticism: beginning with Pre-Raphaelitism, some earlier Rossettis, some Burne-Jones, Rossetti’s bedroom, etc; then moving towards the Arts and Crafts movement with Morris and Burne-Jones furniture (so beautiful I wanted to stroke it – but resisted), with its morality and integrity combined with its beauty (summarised in Morris’s famous line “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”). Finally we reach the apex of Aestheticism, culminating in the hedonism of Oscar Wilde’s “art for art’s sake”, the designs of Beardsley, and the paintings of Moore and Whistler. By now, meaning and morality have vanished in a backlash against the earlier Victorians, and a modern, sleek aesthetic has replaced the more realist designs of the earlier artists.

This exhibition is not just a celebration of beauty, it is also a journey through the changing tastes of the Victorians. It’s a riot of colour and exuberance, and does credit to the designs and paintings of the nineteenth century, and will, I think, deservedly revive interest in them. The V&A website includes an interesting blog on Creating The Cult of Beauty if you want to find out more, or if you missed the exhibition.


The Earthly Paradise

Last Saturday was the premier of a new work by composer Ian McQueen: ‘The Earthly Paradise’, based on extracts from William Morris’s massive poem of the same title. The Barbican ran a study afternoon at which Morris scholars Clive Wilmer and Fiona McCarthy spoke, as well as McQueen himself. It’s certainly exciting that Morris’s poetry is being used in new creative works, especially a poem as little read as the Earthly Paradise. The poem itself (longer than the Aeneid…) tells the story of a band of 14th century Norsemen fleeing the Black Death and searching for a land ‘where no-one grows old’. It is, as Wilmer suggested, a poem of happiness, but not of ease; the happiness is always under threat. Morris’s contention is that we have a paradisical world to live in, but that it is humans that threaten it – a very contemporary idea for Morris but also for us (the music has been described as an ‘environmental scherzo’). E.P. Thompson described the poem as the ‘poetry of despair’ – and this is also true; it is despair with the world in which we live.

Ian McQueen found Morris through an interest in the Hammersmith area, and has clearly done some considerable research into his work, and is clear on what he sees as the importance of Morris to us today. The work he produced was just over half an hour of orchestral and choral music arranged around four extracts from the poem: The Doomed Ship, O Dwellers on the Lovely Earth, The Hill of Venus and Iceland First Seen. Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, it’s a work which really seems sympathetic to the poetry, working in biographical elements, as McQueen explained. The motto from Red House, “Si je puis” (If I Can) is worked into the music as a reminder of Morris’s own quest for how to live his life.

McQueen is enthusiastic about Morris’s work as ‘art for the people’, and feels this can be related to his own experience of getting people involved with music. Interestingly, in the case of ‘The Earthly Paradise’, it was the power of the images Morris creates, rather than his language usage, which inspired McQueen, though the ‘lovely melodic shape’ of the poems helps. The four pieces, ranging from the environmental to the personal, should help to bring Morris to a wider audience, since the short extracts, set sympathetically to music and with such a good advocate as McQueen, will appeal to a wide range of listeners. The Radio 3 blog has some great behind-the-scenes posts about The Earthly Paradise if you’re interested.

News from Nowhere

Finally, I have got around to reading News from Nowhere, William Morris’s 1890 vision of a socialist Utopia, and it was well worth the wait; ‘Nowhere’ is remarkably appealing, despite its flaws. It tells the story of a man, William Guest (disillusioned with the nineteenth century, he is possibly modelled on Morris himself), who one day wakes up in the future, in 2102 – a pastoral future, post-revolutionary, which is an ideal Communist state. Guest travels around London, meeting people who tell him of the history of the revolution which caused this way of life to begin. Ideas of capitalism and indeed of money are things of the bad old days, and humans live in harmony with each other and with the earth, not owning property themselves but holding all things in common. Indeed, in these recession-hit times when we all try to be a bit greener, now is the time to read Morris.

In many ways, New from Nowhere looks back as much as forward; though all hierarchies have been done away with, and beauty and truth are everything, it is nonetheless a remarkably medieval ideal, as the image of the Kelmscott edition (left) shows. Yet this is not a prediction of what will come to pass, merely a dream, or vision; the intro to the Penguin edition, by Clive Wilmer, rightly suggests that Morris’s work “encourages us to dream for ourselves”, which is very true; I have certainly been dreaming up my own Utopia. A striking feature of the book, I found, was that as I read it, I would find myself thinking, “How does this work?”, “How did that happen?” and “This does not take human nature into account”, yet as such queries arise, Morris answers them. The question of human nature is difficult; the general goodness and enthusiasm of the inhabitants of Nowhere does seem unlikely, but Morris explains that our humanity has been corrupted by the corrupted system in which we are trapped: “[W]hat human nature? The human nature of paupers, of slaves, of slave-holders…?” We are so enslaved by the systems created by a politically-motivated and greedy society that we have become unable to make appropriate judgements.

The chapter on politics is a delight – about 150 words long, it basically says that the society of Nowhere has no politics, nor needs any. Yet there are some surprises: the educated Morris suggests there is no need for schools, and even seems to reject books and learning other than that provided by the natural world. Also, although this is essentially a secular Utopia, it is interesting to note the parallels with Isaiah 65: 17-25, where the “new heavens and new earth” are described:

19And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.

 20There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.

 21And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them.

 22They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

Re-working myths

The Baleful HeadYesterday I went into BMAG to have a look at Burne-Jones’ Perseus Series, currently on loan from The Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. This is the first time the whole cycle of paintings has been on display in the UK, and here it’s shown alongside 3 additional studies for the series, plus some works featuring the Persues myth by other artists. Burne-Jones was commissioned by Arthur Balfour in 1875 to provide a series to decorate his home, but the choice of subject was left to the artist. Burne-Jones was inspired by “The Doom of King Acrisius“, a version of the Perseus myth from Morris’ The Earthly Paradise.

The series depicts the myth in eight large paintings, but they do more than simply tell the tale. Burne-Jones’ interest in the male figure in action and the depiction of the female classical nude is prominent here. With the exception of The Baleful Head, above, in which Perseus shows Andromeda the head of Medusa against a Morris-type verdant background, the paintings focus on the figures set against sparse and unobtrusive landscapes. Looking around the room in which they are displayed, only the luminous flesh of the figures stands out against largely monotone backgrounds.
There is something strikingly modern about Burne-Jones’ figures, despite their obvious referencing of the medieval style and of classical nudes. This is particularly apparent in The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled, the paintings which show Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda and which bear a resemblance to the Pygmalion series. In the earlier pictures here, it is the composition of figures in the landscape which is paramount, however; how they fill the space and are placed and posed, particularly in Perseus and the Sea Nymphs.
The series is not just interesting for its visual qualities, but also for its use and reworking of myth. Though Burne-Jones uses Morris’ version of Perseus, he also draws on other sources, such as the version of Apollodorus, and he brings the figures to life in a way that is often unexpected. Moreover, the exhibition notice comments that: “Burne-Jones believed that Perseus represented the creative impulse in the fight against evil. The hero is the prototype of the artist who gains knowledge and skill to pursue his battle against the forces of materialism symbolised by the Gorgon whose deadly stare turns everything to stone. Andromeda represents beauty and truth saved from destruction.”
The exhibition is on until October and is well worth a look. If you want to read more about the Perseus cycle there is a commentary here on the Victorian Web.