From the archive
First, I found myself in the exhibition repeatedly trying to decide how seriously the fine artists of the Aesthetic Movement looked at the achievements of their applied art comrades; or, if the painter and designer were the same person, how the discipline of the decorative fed – in practice, ‘aesthetically’ – into the subsequent oil painting or bronze. Here is where the comparison with things French remains crushing. All through the show I could not escape the implacable shade of Puvis de Chavannes; he acted as a kind of anti-Lord Leighton for me (with Bonnard as anti-Albert Moore). And the lesson I learn from France is this. A great ‘decorative’ artist – a Puvis, a Hodler, a Matisse – always manages to convince us that the orderliness or simplicity that a body takes on in a painting, maybe in obedience to surface pattern, is an order and artifice that the body has in it. Albert Moore, by contrast, whom the V&A makes much of, seems to me to do the opposite. (Quite deliberately and brilliantly, no doubt, but brilliance and meticulousness have nothing to do with beauty.) In Moore’s Reading Aloud, for instance – a perfect foil for Burne-Jones’s Merlin – the tension between the felt muscular stretching-and-holding of the woman on the right and the figure’s adjustment to a two-dimensional scheme seems to me minimal to the point of vanishing. The one does nothing to the other. The ‘geometry’ is not affected by its being that of a body, and the body does not ‘disclose new aspects’ – aspects of itself – by being fitted into a formal order. My notion of beauty is stuck with the idea that form – the point of form – is the disclosure of new aspects.