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“Art for art’s sake” and the movement that created it

Perhaps you’ve been to an art gallery or museum exhibit where you didn’t... fully understand the artist’s intentions. You know: “My kindergartener could do that” syndrome. Scottish philosopher David Hume put it this way: “When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing, concerning their merits or defects.” [Of the Standard of Taste, 1757] 

This was the reaction many people had to Great Britain’s Aesthetic Movement, which is explored in “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900,” now at the Legion of HonorMuseum in San Francisco. These artists – including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and James Whistler – had “an emphasis on everything except narrative,” explains Lynn Orr, curator of European Art at the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco. “And consequently, the polite Victorian society didn’t know what this new art was about.” 

Suddenly a painting no longer had to be a realistic impression “of a dead master with the dog licking his hand.” These artists chose to work with color, form, and patterns, for their own sake. About a third of this show is on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, with the rest coming from around 150 other sources around the world. 

Orr spent close to a decade bringing this exhibit to reality. It is considered the first major exhibition to explore the Aesthetic Movement. See it through June 17, 2012.