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'Unfashionable' Victorian art enjoys revival

Cruel, enchanting and dangerous, John William Waterhouse's red-haired femme fatale pours poison into a cup in one of the once-feted Victorian artist's best known works, The Love Philtre.

art and culture Updated: Sep 23, 2013 18:35 IST

Cruel, enchanting and dangerous, John William Waterhouse's red-haired femme fatale pours poison into a cup in one of the once-feted Victorian artist's best known works, The Love Philtre.

Looking straight ahead, the bare-shouldered woman with slanting eyes and a long, angular face pauses, as if inviting the viewer to witness what is about to happen. Part of a rarely-seen private collection, the work is among dozens included in an exhibition of once unfashionable Victorian art due to tour Europe nearly a century after falling out of favour with the British public.

Dismissed as recently as 2003 by one British art critic, Jonathan Jones, as lifeless and bad taste, however brilliantly lit, curator and Sorbonne professor Veronique Gerard-Powell, however, stresses Victorian art's, technical perfection, and believes it is worthy of the renewed interest it is receiving.

Many of the works have not been exhibited in Europe in living memory. "People are interested again," she told AFP in an interview in Paris, adding that the interest tended to have a "non-European... world dimension". "Pure Victorian art fell out of fashion very quickly during World War I," she said.

"It was really a movement that started after the Pre-Raphaelites and went on because the personalities were very strong (Frederic) Leighton, (Edward) Burne-Jones, (Albert Joseph) Moore. "But with the death of each one -- Waterhouse was the last -- World War I was a big cut-off point," she said.

The Desires & Sensuality exhibition at Paris's Jacquemart-Andre museum draws around 50 works owned by Juan Antonio Perez Simon, a Spanish-born businessman based in Mexico City. Taking as its theme, the cult of beauty, the exhibition features nudes as well as women depicted as femmes fatales and heroines from Antiquity or the Middle Ages.

'He is not afraid of his taste'
Some of the best known works include, The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Greek Girls Picking up Pebbles by the Sea, by Leighton, The Quartet by Moore and Andromeda by Edward Poynter. Also a collector of Spanish art, Perez Simon began collecting Victorian paintings around two decades ago, picking up works for a fraction of their price today. His entire collection numbers around 3,000 works.

"Perez Simon has a strong Spanish taste because he comes from Spain and he loves Spanish art but he is also close to America which means he is not afraid of his taste," said Gerard-Powell. "He likes Victorian art because it is hugely decorative, (with) lovely women. He has it hanging in his house," she added.

Fresh interest in the Victorian painters began in the US in the mid-1960s and continued to build throughout the 1980s and 1990s, according to Gerard-Powell. Many works were originally owned by "nouveau riche" Liverpool shipowners who thrived during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and bought art works to adorn the walls of their recently-acquired mansions.

But as tastes changed, the works languished in the hands of families who saw them as of little or no value or even destroyed them. "Some of the paintings (in the exhibition) were just known by photos (for many years) because they were in families and the exhibitions (that there were), were mainly about Pre-Raphaelite art.

"So this exhibition is part of a wave of growing interest, partly due to the collectors and partly due to the scholars. Now it is evident that the Middle East is very interested. "He (Perez Simon) now has a lot of competition because new markets are emerging. The latest one was bought not even a year ago." Gerard-Powell hopes that the exhibition will be seen by the British public after planned stints in Paris, Rome and Madrid.

"Because it is time now for it (Victorian art) to be known better (and) for the British public and scholars to see paintings they have never seen before," she said. Desires & Sensuality runs in Paris until January 20, 2014. It opens in Rome on Feb 15 and in Madrid on June 23.

First Published: Sep 23, 2013 15:40 IST