A Victorian Obsession, offers a rare opportunity to see paintings by famous as well as lesser known Pre-Raphaelites, in one of their natural habitats: Lord Leighton’s exquisite and opulent former live-in-work space, a mansion which was turned into the Leighton House Museum soon after his death. Some of the paintings on display were actually produced there, and thus are returning to their birthplace, whilst others are on show in the UK for the first time in nearly a century. This is thanks to Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican collector, who has lent part of his vast collection of Victorian art to a touring exhibition in Europe – Paris, Madrid, Rome, and London as the final stop.
Being obsessed with Victorian art myself, back in January I hopped on an early Eurostar train to Paris for the day, just to see A Victorian Obsession when it was on at the Musée Jacquemart-André. Whilst the Paris edition of the show was outstanding, the intimate exhibit at Leighton House Museum is unique due to the correlation between work and space: the paintings resonate with the surroundings perfectly. Senior Curator Daniel Robbins and co-curator Véronique Gérard-Powell have managed to thoughtfully display the pieces as to parallel elements in the paintings with those of the furnishings. Even when the hanging produces a sense of over staging, the theatricality of the work ensures a dialogue between set up and content.
Amongst the lesser known artists is John Melhuish Strudwick, who was Burne-Jones assistant for a long time. Highly skilled, he paints with precision and meticulousness, poetic and delicate images, which call for reflection upon existential matters. Passing Days visually discusses the perpetual human dismiss in relation to the importance of the present moment, whilst Elaine romanticises the drama of love rejection and the development of madness.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, very rarely displayed in London (I can only recall two of his works being displayed at the RA when Andrew Lloyd Webber had his collection exhibited, ten years ago), is the star of the show, stealing the scene from his host Leighton. The Roses of Heliogabalus has a rose-scented room of her own, and is in town for the first time since 1913. This painting enthrals the viewer with its intricacy, convolution and sheer amount of detail. It depicts the moment sadistic Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (203-222 AD) smothers his unsuspecting dinner guests with rose petals. One tends to forget the cruelty, pain and death inflicted when admiring the impeccably painted marble, adorns, and silverware even though the sense of suffocation is certainly depicted. Works of art, which subvert atrocious and violent historical or mythological events, were, however, made well before Tadema – one has only to think of the many ‘Rapes of Europa ‘there are, but in particular, the one by Francois Boucher, on display at the grand stair case at the Wallace Collection, where Europa sits pretty and smiles, surrounded by nymphs and flowers. Boucher does not even hint at the fact that she is about to be raped by Zeus in the form of a bull. Both paintings leave a lot to the imagination of the viewer, who can choose to engage with the ugly truth, or remain safe in shallow aesthetic observation.
It is impossible not to raise an eyebrow when looking at The Finding of Moses by Frederick Goodall, where a black slave assists the Pharaoh’s daughter, who is depicted as a white woman, in an Aphrodite or Venus like semi-nude pose. In fact, nudes, semi-nudes, and implied nudes, such as Crenaia by Leighton, Pyrrah after her Bath by John W. Godward, and A Bathing Place as well as Shells by Albert J. Moore, invariably allude to Praxitele’s Aphrodite of Knidos, and present variations on the Pudica Pose. Whilst beautiful to look at, such paintings inevitably stir critical feelings and thoughts in those who are not impressed by the objectification and idealisation of women, and struggle with the nineteenth century pervading dichotomous postures towards femininity. They make me think there is certainly a missing chapter in Idols of Perversity by Bram Dijkstra: one perhaps to be entitled ‘Forever bathing women; The Perfect Shameful Pose; Fetishism and the sin, which cannot be washed away’. The show certainly offers enough material for it to be written, and to make viewers embark on critical thinking – or simply delight themselves in a voyeuristic art experience.
Edward Poynter’s ‘Andromeda’ is the only nude painted in an almost non-idealised manner: her pubic hair denotes realistic femininity. Scandalous for the time, Poynter does get the credit for being the first to paint a woman as nature intended. I actually thought he was following up Klimt’s ‘Nuda Veritas’, but no! ‘Nuda Veritas’ was painted in 1899, whilst Poynter, well ahead the game, painted Andromeda in 1869, thirty years earlier. Still, Andromeda and her naked truth are chained, and will remain passive and under control, like all Victorian women ought to be.
The Pérez Simón Collection is infused with decadence, nostalgia, drama, and sensuality. It gives us insight into the paradoxes and anxieties of British fin-de-siècle and the years leading up to WWI. The obsession with female beauty and the resistance to female intellect may sound cliché, but it is so present, it feels like being suffocated by rose petals: it is wonderful and horrific simultaneously.
‘ A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection’, Leighton House Museum, London, until March 29, leightonhouse.co.uk
Words: Ilua Hauck da Silva © Artlyst 2014 Photo: Right: A Victorian Obsession: The Perez Simon Collection. Dining Room, Leighton House Museum. Photo credit Todd White Photgraphy