The Aesthetes: When Kitsch Was Avant-Garde

We may sneer at the Victorian aesthetes, but is the sloppier, more cynical art of today any healthier?

Art Western Europe
Sensuality washed away by naturalism: detail of Edward John Poynter's "Andromeda", 1869 (Studio Sebert Photographs)

What are we now to make of the Victorian aesthetes? They meant only to give pleasure; but they give the serious viewer more problems. Some visitors to A Victorian Obsession, the exhibition at Leighton House, Kensington (until March 29) of the collection of Juan Antonio Peréz Simón, look at the paintings trustingly and quietly pronounce them beautiful. They take the paintings just as they were meant—their faith must be blind. Some other visitors laugh to themselves. We too might want to laugh; but we should not sneer, for these works are full of good intentions and great efforts.

To call them “kitsch” can be a form of sneering. “Kitsch” is often a dismissive term, and, disappointed, or even offended, we tend to look away from kitsch as soon as we recognise it. Modern artists devised primitivist and brutalist tactics to get around this problem, and to make us look. But they only avoided the problem; they did not confront it. With these Victorian paintings—exemplifying just what the Modernists first recoiled from—if we now force ourselves to look, we have the opportunity to question our reactions to find out, maybe, what has gone wrong in artworks that we recognise as “kitsch”.

For example, why is Edward John Poynter’s Andromeda so feeble, and so preposterous? Is it any more preposterous than Titian’s Andromeda in the Wallace Collection? Or is it just that its feebleness makes the preposterous conception matter more? Accidentally, the exhibition guide gives us a useful clue, noting that though Poynter was “certainly influenced by Titian”, he “puts aside all the narrative elements . . . and transforms the classic nude through naturalistic touches”; thus the artist has overstated his debt to his sources, constricting his own expression; he has neglected to treat his subject-matter; and he has muddled over style, making his art incoherent. The sensuality of Andromeda, and the drama of her struggling in chains against the rocks—all of which was captured by Titian—have been washed away by Poynter’s fiddly “naturalistic touches”. His pedantry was typical; and pedantry is of course an obstacle to conveying drama and sensuality. Painters like Poynter were too much in love with art, both in theory and in practice. Old artworks were their idols, and their own painting practice was a tribute to those idols—art for art’s sake.

Greek art served cults; it was not a cult in itself. If the bodies of Greek statues were beautiful, and their bearings noble, it was because they represented heroes and gods. The form followed the idea; the idea, and the conviction, was fundamental to that beauty. Poynter, in putting aside the narrative elements, only demonstrates how banal—and how vulgar—any form may seem as soon as the cause of its refinement has been forgotten. It is wrong to call such works “idealised”; “prettified” would be more accurate. Those hints of naturalism ultimately confirm how Poynter was not convinced by the old ideal, and they wrench Andromeda out from the glorious world of myth and right into the studio so that she becomes a naked English girl, bored, holding herself still.

For all these Victorian painters’ devotion to feminine beauty, they could not paint that beauty. They sought out girls who were already pretty enough, then lengthened and strengthened their noses to be more Greek. And then they went completely astray in rendering the eyes, always, with sopping pools of paint. Shallow pools, though—no doubt these big dark shiny eyes were meant to be tragically expressive; but the tragedy is in how little they express. It is as if the young models’ eyes have melted away; the painters smudged horribly around them, losing all definition—the painters became coy and backed off just where it mattered, because they had no conviction, no real idea.

It is not that Victorian taste in female beauty has gone out of fashion (on the contrary, it has rather influenced fashion photography). And these images do not fail to show beauty only because they fail to show heroines or goddesses. The problem is simpler. They fail to show women at all—these painted figures are devoid of character. The naturalistic touches, coldly observed and dotted across the bodies, are superficial, attesting only the physical facts of women as painters’ models; then that contradictory smudging towards the classical form attests only a desperately mistaken idea of art’s sake. The forms are empty; since they contain no character, there can be no femininity.

That explains the feebleness. In choosing to paint Andromeda, Titian, no less than Poynter, had been motivated principally by a desire to treat the female nude. But even if Andromeda was a pretext for Titian, he was still excited by the scenario, and he excited us with it. She was, after all, a pretext for him to paint dramatically as well as sensually. Not only did Titian keep the figure of Andromeda in character, he managed to fill her with character—and this despite the fact that Titian’s forms were both less naturalistic and less formulaically classical. Perhaps Titian’s Andromeda has character precisely because she is in character, because he painted her as Andromeda and not as a model. It was not Titian’s most serious work, and there is even something cheap about the nudity. But we can enjoy it sincerely for what it is, and for what it was meant to be—for its drama and its sensuality. The same cannot be said for Poynter’s painting.

There are other paintings in this exhibition with dramatic themes, and some of the painters sincerely attempted dramatic representation. But almost always there is a problem with the faces. These typically Victorian facial expressions do not relate well to artistic expressions. In Edwin Long’s Queen Esther, or in Alma-Tadema’s The Architect of the Coliseum, the figures appear like hammy actors. Really bad acting blights much 19th-century narrative painting, but something else altogether is also going wrong: in these painted faces we find such distracting incidentals, caused by those fatal “naturalistic touches”. Despite the classicised features and the swollen eyes, these faces are somehow reminiscent of those we are used to seeing in photographs—they are paused between comprehensible expressions, and they are out of context. This style of painting coincided with the invention of photography, and the artists must have seen some potential in the faces frozen in photographs. And we might well sympathise with them because we still see what they saw and we continue to take for evocative what is merely unclear, and to take for important what happened only by chance. These paintings, like so many photographs, hint at emotion in the facial expressions, and promise emotion in the subject-matter; but they do not realise emotion. It is the failure to fulfil their promise that ultimately makes these paintings so disappointing. Millais’s The Crown of Love, illustrating a poem by Meredith, is admirably composed, paying tribute to Giambologna and Bernini, and the landscape is appropriately moody. But the princess’s facial expression, which is left to tell the whole story, is so vague; and it was deliberately made so vague, so transitory, in order to inspire our sentimentality. For all that, though, it ruins the picture.

The touches of naturalism, including the photography—like facial expressions—as much as the smudged classicism-only emphasise the awkward artificiality of the more complex dramatic pictures. So often they seem like snapshots of a costume rehearsal for a historical play, with the actors caught mid-thought, pondering their own performances. The painters were terribly literal-minded; they must have had such limited confidence in interpretative depiction, because they hardly ever went beyond simply imagining what the represented episode or event could have looked like.

Occasionally, in less ambitious works such as Alma-Tadema’s Returning Home from Market, this imagining could be successful, and quite convincing, and even charming—the artist’s boyish enthusiasm for everything to do with ancient Rome is evident, and his joyful addition of the “SALVE” mosaic in the open doorway gives us the sense of how he would have loved to have been welcomed across that threshold. No great drama is illustrated, and the faces do not seem so incongruous—indeed, the faces are rather well cast. The picture has its appeal as a scene of everyday ancient Roman life. But this is an artwork that aspires to not much more than archaeological reconstruction.

Still, there really is something fresh about this early work—and it does not strike us as kitsch because kitsch is always sickly. The qualities of Alma-Tadema’s painting are only descriptive, but he described every detail carefully, without smudging around his subject. Kitsch is, in part, a style, and that is how we learn to recognise it; and kitsch involves a technical error as well as a conceptual error: when a painter smudges around the eyes, his paint is as indistinct as his thought; and then he brings his paint into focus just where he shouldn’t, in meaningless incidentals. He fills in and shows off, distractingly, and he smudges out because for him art is all effect and no cause.

However, kitsch comes in varied concentrations; and even the kitschiest of these Victorian paintings are not all or only kitsch. If we dismiss them too quickly with ‘kitsch’, we are likely not to notice how surprisingly innovative they sometimes were. The innovation comes from an especially acute sort of observation, and it is to be found right there in those problematic naturalistic touches.  While the painters’ doggedness dulled the drama in their subject-matter, it also happened to give their work a new intensity, and even a new character. The lichen-covered rock-face that Poynter set behind Andromeda is far more interesting as painting, and as art, than the twisted cliché of Andromeda herself. The Pre-Raphaelite movement—and the best part of its legacy—now seems as notable for its insistence on the optical fact as for its stylistic arguments. Pre-Raphaelite painters, no less than the Impressionists, believed that their eyes alone would suffice in art, that beauty lay in “truth to nature”. As they looked so inquisitively at nature, they made the same discoveries as the Impressionists—they too went back to painting on white grounds; they too heightened the colour key and narrowed the tonal range so as to depict full sunlight; and they too brightened their shadows and filled them with rich complementary colours. It was not just Poynter; so many Victorian painters excelled themselves in the backgrounds—their conceptions were too often awkward and artificial, but when they looked at nature they could be more natural. Avant-garde and kitsch may not be as divergent as they once seemed—does Albert Joseph Moore’s pastel, A Bathing Place, really seem so far away from Renoir’s pastels? And is the sentiment in it really so different from that in Monet’s Woman with a Parasol? The Impressionists were affected by photography too, however vehement they were in their painterliness.

The centrepiece of this exhibition, Alma-Tadema’s The Roses of Heliogabalus, seems a grand summation of Victorian art’s predicament. It is such a feat of painting, and so exuberant, overflowing with observed details—there are surprising new colour harmonies; and the translucent marbles amaze us. There are the dopey facial expressions too; and all those details become distracting, weakening the composition, until their abundance overwhelms. But in a way—a different way—Alma-Tadema had actually meant to overwhelm us; we are supposed to succumb, aesthetically, to the mountains of petals he painted, in order to sense how Heliogabalus’s guests, trapped under the petals, had themselves succumbed. The choice of subject-matter explains a great deal: here is a scene of absolute decadence which allows for absolutely decadent painting. The exhibition guide suggests that the spectator will “gradually discover the cruelty hidden beneath the decorative beauty of the scene”.  And perhaps he will discover it, with some very generous imagining. For that cruelty is buried so deep beneath the decoration. The cruelty was less interesting to the painter—it was not really his subject. This is a picture of suffocation by prettiness, and it is presented as a Romantic dream. And there are baskets of real roses in the gallery, filling the air with their scent, matching the sickliness of the painting, and we feel ourselves suffocating too—not through beauty, which always provides vital relief, but through cloying aestheticism.

Romantic dreams have now changed. We may laugh at Victorian art; but is the art of today—with its cynicism and sloppiness—any healthier? The Victorian painters, however misguided, were unmistakably sincere in their ambitions. And they were far more serious than we are about the value of their craft. Those who sneer at them do so, perhaps, with not a little shame. If we are to laugh at the Victorians, we have also to laugh at ourselves. And there is a sadness in our laughter, for their lost talents and for our own.