The Cult of Beauty” at the V&A is an enlightening delight. It traces the aesthetic movement chronologically from its beginnings in the 1860s when it emerged as a product of an agreement among friends that art is the most important thing in life and that beauty is the key to how that life should be lived. It was a private reaction against the contemporary banality of The Royal Academy and more broadly against the crassness of a public taste that insisted that pictures should tell simple stories or point to obvious morals. These were to be supplanted by a concentrated, undiluted focus on the beautiful, often symbolized by the peacock with its pride in its own beauty. Subsequent rooms show how the aesthetic movement grew into a pervasive influence over all manner of fashion—the house beautiful, the furniture beautiful, the book-binding beautiful, and indeed the people beautiful in their beautiful clothes. What had begun as a reaction against ugly...


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