The Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A review

London’s Victoria & Albert Museum enjoys quite an enviable reputation. Widely thought to be the world’s leading museum of art and design, its permanent collection houses a treasure trove of artefacts drawn from fields as diverse as pottery and photography, fashion and furniture, architecture and sculpture. Whatever the artistic or design appetite, the V&A’s vast collection will cater for it.

Not content to rest on its laurels, the museum regularly complements its celebrated collection with a seemingly endless stream of temporary exhibitions. The prodigious output of a legion of curators has meant that the museum’s hallowed halls have seen a steady succession of widely popular blockbuster exhibitions in recent years. During the past year alone, the museum has played host to The Raphael Tapestries (which travelled all the way to the V&A from their regular home in the Sistine Chapel) and, with the cooperation of Monaco’s royal family, the iconic wardrobe of the late, great Princess Grace was showcased in the Grace Kelly: Style Icon exhibition. It is no surprise, then, that the V&A’s ambitious new exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860 – 1900 is one of this year’s most anticipated cultural events.

The Aesthetic Movement was borne out of a dissatisfaction with the prevailing trends in Victorian art during the mid-19th century. Art of the early Victorian period was viewed by many to be turgid and overly moralistic – it was used merely as a conduit for moral and religious messages. The Aesthetic Movement was a reaction, or indeed a rebellion, against this. The Movement, whose mantra became ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ insisted that art should exist for no other reason that to be beautiful.

Initially confined to a group of six or seven artists and writers who advocated the development of artistic styles which were the antithesis of all things Victoriana, the small underground movement was soon adopted by the mainstream, attracting many dedicated followers who became known as aesthetes. The Aesthetic Movement eventually became synonymous with all aspects of design, influencing everything from painting and sculpture, to furniture design and interior decoration.

Perhaps the most famous aesthete of them all was Irish playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde. The controversial writer quickly aligned himself with the Movement, becoming hugely passionate about aesthetic style. Wilde was a notorious iconoclast, and soon his persona became inextricably linked with the Movement. Unfortunately, while Wilde brought fame and recognition to Aesthetics, he also became one of the main drivers of its downfall. Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace in 1895 inevitably precipitated the demise of the Movement. As Wilde languished in jail after the infamous ‘gross indecency’ trial, Aesthetics wallowed under a cloud of disrepute -and this ultimately proved to be the death-knell for the artistic ideology Wilde had so vehemently advocated.

The V&A’s exhibition, the first of its kind to chart the rise and fall of Aesthetics, is comprehensive, to say the least. It brings together more than 60 paintings by leading artists of the period such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frederic Leighton, James McNeill Whistler and John Everett Millais. Other exhibits include sculptures by Alfred Gilbert, furniture by Lawrence Alma-Tadema and wallpaper designs by William Morris.

The installation is as lavishly beautiful as the art it is showcasing – muted background colours, projection images and a soundtrack which includes poetry by Yeats and Swinburne all combine to ensure that this exhibition lives up to the ideals originally propounded by the Aesthetic Movement.

If you only see one exhibition this year, make sure it’s this one.

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860 – 1900 review: 5/5

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860 – 1900 exhibition ran at the V&A between 2 April – 17 July 2011.

Review written by Sinead Fitzgibbon. You can read more of her work at