Art for art’s sake
The so-called "aesthetic" movement arose in Great Britain in the middle of the 19th century. It affected not only painting but also literature, fashion, architecture, and decorative art. Contrasting the pompous Victorian conservatism with the desire for beauty and self-expression, aestheticism rejected social and moralizing tendencies and proclaimed the idea of creating "art for art’s sake". The supporters of the art movement relied on the works by the , medieval geometrical patterns, as well as on the pictorial traditions of Japanese masters. Wishing to make art a part of everyday life, the craftsmen invented new approaches to the manufacture of household items, such as dishes, furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, and carpets.
The aesthetic movement began with the Great Exhibition of Industrial Work of All Nations,
which was held in London in 1851. Organized by the representatives of the royal family,
this grand event was a turning point for both the design industry and the visual arts. The samples of crafts and paintings that were presented at the Great Exhibition mostly demonstrated rather superficial and conservative attitude to design,
typical of Victorian standards. As noted by the artist and critic John Ruskin
, this testified to the "dehumanization of design", its predictability and repeatability. Art served rather moral and social goals,
and academicism in painting created irrespirable atmosphere,
in fact. And there were artists who decided on an aesthetic rebellion.
The vanguard of aesthetics was a group of artists who called themselves the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites
. This society appeared a few years before the Great Exhibition,
and put at the forefront the aesthetics of the Middle Ages,
its visual concepts and rich colours. Ten years later,
the works that were created by the members of the Brotherhood became very popular; the ,
became the first European .
After the collapse of the Brotherhood,
a new group of young masters formed around Dante Gabriel Rossetti
, which included William Morris
and Edward Burne-Jones
. They supported Ruskin’s ideas about abandoning the industrial production of decorative art in favour of craftsmanship,
raising craftsmen to the status of artists,
creating affordable handicrafts. Portraits by Rossetti that were depicting delightful red-haired women with huge eyes,
dressed in light dresses,
hailed new ideals of beauty and defied Victorian stiffness.
A great influence on the development of aestheticism was also exerted by trade with Japan, and, as a result, a large number of Japanese products and paintings that appeared on the British market. The Anglo-Japanese style became very popular after the 1862 International Exhibition in London, where the Japanese exposition was presented. Both artists and consumers were fascinated by rounded geometric patterns and stylized natural motifs, simplicity, elegance and completeness of forms. Japanese screens, fans, umbrellas, prints, porcelain, furniture became objects that were admired and collected. British artists, e.g., James Whistler, began to include the objects of Japanese design as the subjects in their paintings, they used Japanese aesthetics in their compositions and costumes of their sitters.
Aesthetic artists attached great importance to the compositions. At the same time, they refused the narrative storyline, and their works were designed to evoke a certain mood in the viewer with the help of colour harmonies and exquisite detailing. They loudly proclaimed their motto "art for art’s sake", which, according to some of them, originated from the novel by the French critic and poet Teofil Gauthier "Mademoiselle de Maupin" (1836), and according to others, from Algernon Swinburne’s essay "William Blake" (1868).
Based on various sources, such as ancient Greek, Japanese and medieval art, proponents of aestheticism believed that art should be evaluated on the basis of its own criteria, and not the value of the depicted object or the veracity of the image. The English essayist and art critic Walter Pater became one of the most important voices of the aesthetic movement, advocating for the primacy of the aesthetic experience of the viewer in art, describing his views in his Studies in the History of the (1873).
Grosvenor Gallery. Engraving 1877. Source
Speaking of aestheticism, one cannot ignore the enormous significance that the London Grosvenor Gallery, founded by Sir Kutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche, played in this movement. Opened on Bond Street in 1877, the gallery provided artists with the opportunity to present their works to the public, when they mainly opposed against the classical canons of the Royal Academy of Arts. Exhibitions in the Grosvenor Gallery have played a significant role in the careers of aestheticist artists such as James Whistler, Albert Moore, George Frederick Watts and Edward Burne-Jones. Not only the artists represented in the gallery were progressive: the Grosvenor halls were lit by electric lamps (for the first time in gallery practice), and intervals appeared between the paintings, in contrast to the tapestry hanging covering the entire wall, which was usual for exhibitions of that time.
The works that were exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery shocked not only the respectable Victorian public, but also aroused the indignation of critics. Even John Ruskin, who initially welcomed the aestheticism movement in every possible way, was angry with the works of Burne-Jones and James Whistler at their exhibition, which opened the gallery in 1877. Describing Whistler’s picture "Nocturne: Blue and Gold — The Old Battersea Bridge" (1872−1875), Ruskin used many harsh words: "I have seen and heard a lot of cockney’s arrogance so far, but I never expected the viper to ask for two hundred guineas to throw a pot of paint in the face of the public…" Then Whistler filed a lawsuit against Ruskin, which made bad influence on the critic’s popularity. We note that Whistler painted his Nocturne under the influence of the art of his idol, the master of ukiyo-e Katsushiki Hokusai, and approximated the picture compositionally to the Japanese work "Mannen Bridge in Fukagawa".
Whistler. “Nocturne: Blue and Gold: The Old Battersea Bridge”. 1870s
Katsushika Hokusai. “Mannen Bridge in Fukagawa”. From the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series 1830-1834
Thanks to the aesthetic movement, designers have gained recognition: interior design has become a separate activity. The first person to write "designer" in the "profession" column was William Morris. As Rossetti later recalled, "one evening we got together, talked about how artists in the old days developed all kinds of décor and furniture, and someone suggested — as a joke — to chip in five pounds and organize our own company." So, the friendly feast has become the birthplace for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (later Morris & Co). The company was determined to implement Ruskin’s ideas and reform the British consumer attitude to production, as well as to offer customers decorative handmade goods affordable to the middle class.
Around the same time, Christopher Dresser, Walter Crane and Edward William Godwin began their careers. They all tried to bring to life the writer and playwright Oscar Wilde’s ideas about the "beautiful house", whose interiors inspired and gave aesthetic pleasure to its inhabitants.
The Red House of William Morris
For William Morris and his fellow artists, the first serious design project was the Red House of Morris himself, built in collaboration with his friend and architectural mentor, Philip Webb. At the end of the construction work, Morris’s Oxford friend, artist Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgiana, as well as a teacher and associate, artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his artist wife Lizzy Siddal arrived at the Red House. All of them took part in the interior design of the house: they painted frescoes on furniture, walls and ceilings, and Morris created his first sketches for wallpaper, fabrics and tapestries.
The front door to the Red House — inside view. Photo: Tony Hisgett. Photo Source
Many years later,
Morris became the head of the Arts & Crafts creative association,
which was finally formed in 1888. It included representatives of two previously established associations — young architects from the Art Workers' Guild,
as well as members of the Group of Fifteen led by designer Lewis F. Day and illustrator Walter Crane
Morris & Co interior at Witwick Manor, Wolverhampton, England
By the end of the 19th century, aestheticism has invaded into multiple stores that offered the public exquisite furnishings. Women left corsets in the past, and to please them, fashion houses began to offer loose light outfits decorated with delicate flowers and embroidery. Velvet jackets, soft silk ties and breeches appeared in the dandy’s wardrobes. One of the brightest fashionistas and admirers of the aesthetic movement was the writer and playwright Oscar Wilde, who was often ridiculed for his extravagant outfits. Both he and his colleagues introduced aesthetics into literature, composing poems and prose permeated with sensual passages that were often ridiculed, in particular, by the popular Punch magazine, and were even played by Gilbert and Sullivan in the Patience comic opera.
The idea that art has its intrinsic value freed aestheticism from the obligation to have moral or historical significance. The rejection of classicism and academicism with their historical and mythological themes has become vital for artists. Aestheticism brought new ideas into the art that the artist should have the freedom to choose the way to express his creative thoughts.