Review: Aesthetic Lives


Aesthetic Lives: ‘New Experiences, New Subjects of Poetry, New Forms of Art,’ eds. Bénédicte Coste and Catherine Delyfer (Hugh Wycombe: Rivendale Press, 2013); ISBN 978-1-904201-23-6); 217 pp.

We seem to know much about the Aesthetic movement of the 1870s-1890s: Wilde’s blue china, Pater’s hard gem-like flame, the “House Beautiful,” The Yellow Book, but “seem,” perhaps is the key word: this thoughtful collection, nicely produced by Rivendale Press, a leading independent publisher of research on the 1890s, takes us beyond the clichés and sheds light on the less-known aspects of the movement, its influences, collaborations, and intellectual, artistic, and social consequences.

Three sections comprise the volume: “Looking into Aestheticism, “Living Aesthetically: Fashioning the Interior, Designing the Self,” and “Representing Aestheticism.” The essays can be divided into three thematic categories, roughly corresponding to the three sections: the antecedents of aestheticism, material cultures and the making of the aesthetic self, and the twentieth-century echoes of the Aesthetic Movement.

The volume starts with Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s examination of the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and the visual arts of the Aesthetic Movement. Instead of separating these schools artistically and chronologically, Nunn suggests that establishing a direct link between the two enriches our knowledge of each period and deepens our understanding of the origins of Aestheticism. Lorraine Janzen Kooistra’s and Gabriella Bologna’s contributions smartly link close readings of fin-de-siècle material objects to Aestheticism’s fundamental commitment to challenging social, artistic, and generic boundaries. Kooistra examines the work of the book designer Laurence Housman, who “conceptualised the book…as formative power” (39), and whose design “is also a profoundly social act” (41), while Bologna uncovers the photographer James Craig Annan’s little-known Venice and Lombardy portfolio, in which the artist unsettles the photography/painting binary and challenges the idea that photography is a “lesser” art form.

Lena Østermark-Johansen, Richard W. Hayes, Wendy Parkins, and Stefano Maria Evangelista all address the ways in which both central and (ostensibly) marginal figures of the Aesthetic Movement engage in complex and artful acts of self-fashioning. Building on the material-culture research of the preceding section, their essays suggest that such constructions of the self inevitably take material forms. Østermark-Johansen offers a persuasive reading of Walter Pater’s Oxford rooms in conjunction with his writings, concluding that the “Paterian Interiors” remain ever elusive spaces, in which the aesthetic and ascetic collide, reflecting their inhabitant’s equally elusive selfhood. According to Richard Hayes, the relationship between Pater’s disciple and master of self-invention, Oscar Wilde, and E. W. Godwin, the architect who designed Wilde’s home in Tite Street, goes beyond a simple business transaction. The two artists see criticism as a vibrant art form.

It comes as no surprise that self-fashioning, while a difficult task for the male founders of the Aesthetic Movement, demands an even greater effort from their female counterparts. Parkins explores Jane Morris’s artistic agency and “active participation in the construction of a unique identity…” (151), while Evangelista presents the novelist Ouida (Maria Luisa de la Ramée) as both an active partaker in the creation and maintenance of her public image in the press and, according to Wilde, a vital voice of the Aesthetic Movement, in which Paterian sensations and sensation fiction form an unlikely but fascinating alliance.

In the first essay of the concluding section, dedicated to Aestheticism’s impact on the twentieth century, Joseph Bristow shifts the focus back to Wilde. His superbly researched essay discusses a hitherto obscure early-twentieth-century British journal, New Age, which is responsible for bringing Wilde back to the public eye at the time when his very name was still subject to pillory. In New Age, “Wilde is understood as a presence whose cultural, political, and international significance cannot, regardless of whatever indignation members of the public might harbor towards his memory, be repressed on morally prescriptive grounds” (Bristow 185). Julie Savauge’s analysis of Angela Carter’s uses of camp, which at once question Susan Sontag’s classic definition and build on Aestheticism’s identitarian ambivalence, concludes the volume. The link between Carter, Sontag, and Aestheticism is not seamless enough to be entirely convincing, but the essay is nonetheless a valuable testament to the endurance of aesthetic (after)lives.

In the words of the book’s editors, “…the legacy of Aestheticism to post-post-Modernism, neo-Victorianism, or steampunk is another story” (16), of which Aesthetic Lives is a significant first chapter.

by Helena Gurfinkel, October 2013

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