Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting.

Author:Poe, Simon
Position:Book review

Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting Elizabeth Prettejohn Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 35 [pounds sterling], ISBN 978-0-300- 13549-7 This is a wonderful book, to be rushed through in a first careering excited read then explored again with more care, and with relish. There are regrettable omissions--I shall return to this--but the best of books has to end somewhere. Before finally going to press--as Elizabeth Prettejohn tells us herself-Art-for-Art's Sake had been work-in-progress for over a decade. When it was begun, the period 'after the Pre-Raphaelites' (the title of the essay collection she edited for Manchester University Press in 1999) was in almost uncharted territory, marked 'here be dragons' on such maps as were available to explorers. Aestheticism was understood as a phenomenon primarily of literature and the decorative arts. Prettejohn acknowledges that the ground for the scholarly study of Aestheticism in painting was first broken by her fellow student Hilary Underwood, in her MPhil thesis for the Courtauld institute of Art (Theory and Practice in the Art of Watts, Leighton, Burne-Jones and Moore, 1982), and remembers numerous conversations between the two of them as being among the significant influences on her own thinking. But the slow process that began with those student wrangles has come at last to splendid fruition in this book. Moving painting from the margins to the centre of debates on Aestheticism, and consequently having to shift attention from the last decades of the 19th century to the 1860s, brings us up against a problem that has baffled many historians. If there really was an Aesthetic Movement in painting, that is, should it not be possible to point both to an identifiable membership and to a coherent artistic project? But it has never seemed clear that there was ever either such thing. Prettejohn cuts through this Gordian knot with every appearance of ease and an insight startling and delightful in its simplicity. I must quote her at length, because I find that I cannot summarise the passage without diminishing its incisive clarity, and it seems to me to be the crux of the book. 'The cohesion among the various art practices described,' she says, does not involve 'a shared style, a shared range of subjects or a shared set of political and ideological concerns.' Rather it is a matter of exploring a shared artistic problem, which 1 shall argue is precisely...

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