Aestheticism was an artistic movement that emerged against the traditions and rigid norms of the Victorian era. In this historical framework, art was considered under the prism of its obligation as a transmitter of moral or sociopolitical messages. Aestheticism breaks with all that idea and cries for the freedom of expression of the artist against Victorian restrictive conformity.
The very heart of aestheticism is “art for art’s sake”. It is a search for beauty, sensuality, creativity and an exaltation of good taste. He focused on the exploration of color, composition and form to look first of all for beauty. What looked like an artistic movement was actually a revolution in the world of ideas that expanded beyond what was considered art until then.
Aestheticism flooded painting, sculpture and architecture. But it also moved in its purest essence to the everyday world: fashion, ceramics, the decoration of houses, furniture and literature. Relevant figures of the moment, such as Oscar Wilde, adopted aestheticism as a way of life and lived their lives according to their principles of free expression of beauty.
It was a rebellion against materialism, ugliness and Victorian industrialism. Aestheticism ruled out industrial products, with impoverished designs, created as consumer goods and made by “soulless” machines.
He rejected the Victorian artistic elements of delicate, curvilinear shapes and their abundance of ornament. He bet on a return to craftsmanship in the creation of all artistic expression. Geometric designs, simple linear shapes and subdued colors took center stage.
Background and principles
The aesthetic movement began in 1851 after the Great Exhibition of visual arts of Great Britain. This was an event that showed the world great innovations, especially in photography. But the result of industrialization, the art presented in the exhibition was dehumanized in its design.
Predictable and repetitive works that created an asphyxiating environment for artists who saw their possibilities of artistic expression reduced. It was not long afterwards that a group that called itself pre-Raphaelite artists began to use a different aesthetic expression in their works. They made it simpler, inspired by the intense colors and intricate designs of medieval art.
Esthetics came out of this group. Younger artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones joined forces to create a “cult of beauty” that would lay the foundations of the aesthetic movement. They developed a new idea of feminine beauty that confronted Victorian moral ideas about sexual debauchery.
Japanese art entered the British market with force at that time as well and had a great influence on aestheticism. Their geometric patterns, circular designs and stylized and simple organic motives contrasted with the crowded Victorian aesthetic and aestheticians began to incorporate these elements into their works.
The expression of aestheticism in its different branches
Painting was the base from which the aesthetic movement began. It was undoubtedly the easiest way to develop the adage of “art for art’s sake”: the function of his works could only be aesthetic and without more utility than beauty. Peacocks, fans, vases, feathers and simplified forms began to fill the canvases.
The architecture deviated from the classical tradition and compiled disparate ethos to create the structural designs. They began to combine Renaissance, Oriental and Italian references. Characteristic of the architectural aesthetic movement was the replacement of the traditional British lobby by what they called the “Arab hall”. A room in the shape of a vault that hosted different design styles of the Middle East.
Within the aesthetic movement, the figure of the designer began to have relevance. Artists who designed furniture, textiles or ceramics began to be known for their work. Aestheticism argued that the interior of a house should be as beautiful as possible in order to provide continuous inspiration to its inhabitants.
Fashion was also very influenced by this movement. We appreciate it in the gradual abandonment of the corsets, the use of lighter fabrics and more bohemian and unstructured designs. Men incorporated the characteristic element of aestheticism, the peacock, into their personal aesthetics.
The literature had Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne as top representatives of aesthetic expression. His works moved away from moral and social messages to create poems and prose full of sensuality. Literature got rid of the open statements and opted for the suggestive.
The aesthetic enjoyment
It meant a revolution of ideas against ugliness and materialism. This movement postulated the isolation of the individual from society to find inspiration in itself through the personal search for beauty and the emotions it seeks.
This artistic movement has been studied from philosophy and psychology. Although the concept seems somewhat abstract, the truth is that it marked the slow beginning of the validity of the idea of introspection and beauty as pathways of inspiration. One of the most important premises of the aesthetic movement was to live life intensely, having beauty as its only ideal and as if all life were an immense work of art.