Notes from an exhibition: the limits of Aestheticism.

Today I undertook the field trip I meant to have on my birthday but missed due to illness.  I went to the Palace of the Legion on Honor in San Francisco to see The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900. Other than a couple of significant missteps on my part (it is a long, expensive cab ride from the museum to the train station, and leaving my phone in said cab means another long slog up to the city tomorrow to retrieve it), it was an enjoyable outing. Herewith, some brief notes from my outing — a bit on the incoherent side, scribbled down in very bad handwriting on the train home:

I have been a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites for years, mainly because their works are so pretty. But I think that may have been a phase I am outgrowing.  Today, some of the prettiness began to wear thin, and I spent a lot of time on the way home on the train mulling over prettiness versus beauty and what appealed and didn’t in the show.  There are times, such as this one, when I wish I were an art  historian so I could place what I see in a larger historical and social framework, beyond just what I read at the exhibit.

I find it interesting that the place where the Aesthetic movement succeeded, for me at least, was in what were traditionally crafts, rather than in painting.  The most appealing pieces were the work of E. W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser, which tended to have clean lines and be strong rather than simply pretty. And when it came to painting, the only painter in the bunch that truly engaged me was James McNeil Whistler.  (Whistler had an advantage going in: his Symphony in White #1, one of my favorite pieces of art  in the world, was in this exhibit. In addition, there was a piece I was unfamiliar with beforehand but nonetheless love,  Harmony in Gray and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander.)

In general I walked away from the paintings thinking “they were on the wrong track.” Beauty in and of itself does not make great paintings. Take Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work, for example: his paintings of his  mistress (and William Morris’s wife) Jane are idealized to the point of blandness — and as can be seen by photographs of her in the exhibit, Jane Morris was not a pretty woman. Striking, yes, but bordering on ugly. Edward Burne-Jones’s work is populated with ghosts: pale-skinned and perfectly proportioned, with faces as empty and smooth as marble, seemingly portentous but signifying nothing.

Inauthenticity was the hallmark of so much of the painting I saw today. There were a lot of pictures of beautiful women dressed in classical or medieval clothes, at odds with their period. It’s pretty, but it’s all surface.  I suppose that was the entire point of the  movement, but I like things to have a little more depth than that.

Whistler, though, painted real people. He did not tell their stories — you can make them up for yourself — but I got the sense that they had stories. His art encompassed life, not merely decoration. His work had a sense of connection to what we experience in the real world, even if it is only the experience of looking at a pretty girl. I’ve never seen people like those that Edward Burne-Jones painted; Whistler’s subjects look like you could go out to lunch with them.

I can picture the Girl in White (dressed differently, of course) riding on Caltrain, texting her boyfriend. The sulky Miss Cicely Alexander could be the pre-teen at the next table at Hobee’s. Burne-Jones’s maidens, on the other hand, could be funerary statuary.

Maybe it’s an uncanny valley problem: abstract forms engage the intellect and emotions, but since they are abstract they do not invite personalization the way that human forms do. Burne-Jones’s people fall into a gray area: concrete enough to demand personalization, abstract enough to defy it. They come across as simply eerie and flat, in much the same way that Gauguin’s Tahitian women do. Yet Gauguin’s women nonetheless feel authentic in ways that Burne-Jones’s people, with their classical or medieval dress, do not.

I think as I am getting older, beauty that is only skin-deep, lacking in other interest or personality, is beginning to pall for me. Maybe as pretty as Rossetti’s pictures of Jane Morris are, it would be so much more arresting and moving to see her painted as she was, bug eyes, metaphorical warts and all.

I suppose, in the end, I keep feeling that life is not pretty, and the notion that we can lift ourselves to a higher plane by mere aesthetics seems naive.

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