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The Cult of Beauty exhibition wows at the Palace of Legion of Honor

John Spencer Stanhope, Love and the Maiden, 1877, tempera, gold paint and gold leaf on canvas. photo: FAMSF

This is the first major exhibition that explores what the British Avant-Garde was doing to rattle the restraints of the Victorian Age from 1860–1900. The Palace of Legion of Honor is the only American venue for this show.

The Aesthetic Move-ment — really a small group of painters, sculptors, architects, photographers, and even dress designers — was a mixed bag of insurgent talents. The Aesthetes were considered decadent by respectable English society. The painters used models with lush, red hair, or long, raven tresses that evoked passion and sexual adventure.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler and Edward Burne-Jones and designers E.W. Godwin, William Morris and Christopher Dresser created works of everlasting beauty, flowing with a longing that was surely outside the boundaries of good taste. Rossetti, like Wilde, led a life that was a piece of art in itself. The motto of the Aesthetes was “art for art’s sake; beauty for beauty’s sake.” This was considered too salacious, too bawdy. Surely it was all mischief invented by libertines.

The Cult of Beauty: Palace of the Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue (at El Camino del Mar); Tuesday–Sunday through June 17; (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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