In London, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, they called it “TheAesthetic Movement 1860-1900.” Now in San Francisco, at the Legion ofHonor, it’s “The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900.” It’s the sameshow, The Cult of Beauty, but subtitles must mean something.Have the Americans trumped it up, or were the Brits trying to play itdown?

“The Aesthetic Movement” might not sound like much to us, butEngland may remember it as a spasm of the national soul, and a periodin which the contradictory meanings of “Victorian” and “Avant-Garde”did indeed somehow co-exist. Infuriatingly to many critics, thisyielded a bumper crop of art whose moral position was its lack of amoral position. “Art for art’s sake” became the slogan, tellinglyborrowed from the French.

In retrospect Aestheticism seems like pretty nonthreatening stuff:peacock feathers and flowers everywhere, pretty women wearing comfyclothes and dozing off in armchairs, some arresting wallpapers. Fineart bends rapturously toward the decorative, and vice versa. Decadencebecomes defiance, or at least gets capitalized. Whatever it takes togratify the eye.

The Cult of Beauty sees a common hope, in Oscar Wilde’shedonism and William Morris’ Marxism, for society’s deliverance by wayof beauty. In other words a middle-class reassurance, with all theuneasiness that implies. It is a mark of shrewd curation that youdrift through this show perpetually expecting to round a corner andfind yourself staring at the picture of Dorian Gray.

This plays well in a city self-characterized by the queeny hauteurof fog-draped Victorian homes, its streets ever-clogged with yearningneo-Aesthetes. San Francisco of all places ought to know that dandyismnever can last in a brutal prudish world, but will always be worth itsown flourish anyway. Call it quaint if you like, but try leaving thegift shop empty-handed.

The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900 runsthrough June 17, 2012, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit legionofhonor.famsf.org.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor