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Bénédicte Coste and Catherine Delyfer, eds., Aesthetic Lives: ‘New experiences, new subjects of poetry, new forms of art’

High Wycombe, Rivendale Press, 2013, 217 p., ISBN 978-1-904201-23-6
Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada
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Bénédicte Coste and Catherine Delyfer, eds., Aesthetic Lives: ‘New experiences, new subjects of poetry, new forms of art’, High Wycombe, Rivendale Press, 2013, 217 p., ISBN 978-1-904201-23-6

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esthétisme, art


aestheticism, art
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1This volume, edited by Bénédicte Coste, professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Burgundy, and Catherine Delyfer, professor of British literature, arts and culture at the University Jean-Jaurès in Toulouse, is an important contribution to the on-going revaluation of British Aestheticism. It is made up of nine articles which examine both non-canonical and canonical figures and productions. In their introduction, the editors’ scope is to study different subjective experiences and identities so as to reveal the tension between high art and mass culture which is at stake in Aestheticism. They also focus on the problematics of genres and genders, as this is at the core of that movement.

2The first part of the volume deals with examinations of visual art productions in the context of the new ways of seeing brought by Aestheticism. In ‘A Plaited Rope: Aestheticism’s Debt to Pre-Raphaelitism’, Pamela Gerrish Nunn shows how contemporary critics of Aestheticism pointed to its definitely Pre-Raphaelite ‘pedigree’. Such connection, Gerrish Nunn argues, is highly problematical, first of all because identifying Pre-Raphaelitism was becoming difficult in the 1870s; besides, the emerging Aesthetic sensibility did not imply the articulation of a nameable aesthetic project. However, the contemporary critical reception often characterized the new aesthetics of the painters associated with the Grosvenor Gallery as moody, morbid or decorative. This they explained by the artists’ Pre-Raphaelite heritage, despite the fact that ‘Aesthetic’ painters strongly diverged from the aesthetic agenda of the early Pre-Raphaelites.

3In ‘Materialising the Word: Aestheticism and the Art of the Book’, Lorraine Janzen Kooistra analyses how late-Victorian ‘beautiful books of verse’ provide new spaces for poetry making, not only because of the materialisation of the word in print culture but also because of the growing recognition of the poetics of format. Drawing on a Bourdieusian approach, Kooistra shows that such books have to be envisaged both as art objects and as commodities since they are situated at the crossroads of high-art aspirations and of the then-developing commercial mass-production. Focusing on the precise example of Laurence Housman, Kooistra posits that these Aesthetic art books develop self-conscious and individual commentaries on the conditions of their production, thereby acting as material productions that crucially underline the unity of art and life.

4In ‘The Aesthetics of British Pictorial Photography. A Case Study: James Craig Annan’s Portfolio Venice and Lombardy. A Series of Original Photogravures’, Gabrielle Bologna shows how the Pictorialists were deeply influenced by Aesthetic visual arts: while catering for aesthetically demanding consumers of photography, they also had to come to terms with the stakes of mass-reproduction. They therefore selected uncommon printmaking techniques and chose unique subjects, which secured the beauty of the crafted art object, while producing ‘multiple originals’ on a much larger scale. Moreover, the technology of realism was paradoxically used to produce works that are characterized by abstract and unreal qualities.

5The second part of the volume is devoted to the fashioning of the self and to the art of living and engaging with the world. Aestheticism is analysed not only through its artistic and literary productions but also through the studies of unique lifestyles, individual modes of self-fashioning or collective experiences.

6In ‘Paterian Interiors’, Lene Østermark-Johansen draws an analogy between Pater’s interiors rooms at Brasenose and his fictional spaces in order to highlight the dialectics between inside and outside in relation to the self. In his manuscript of ‘Aesthetic Life’, the gaze is directed inward and engages with the world in a plastic relation that implies the possibility for the interior to mould the exterior. This is also linked with a selective and aestheticizing process that underlines the dialectics between aesthetic and ascetic and the dialectics between surface and soul.

7In his ‘Oscar Wilde, E. W. Godwin, and the Role of Criticism in Aestheticism’, Richard Hayes, who draws on recently excavated archival material, examines Wilde’s friendship with architect E. W. Godwin, who devised the interiors of his ‘House Beautiful’ in Chelsea. Both Wilde and Godwin emphasize the crucial role of criticism in the creative task—a central idea of Aestheticism—while also establishing a distinction between autonomous writing and architectural design.

8In ‘The Aesthetic Self-Formation of Jane Morris’, Wendy Parkins revaluates her self-fashioning and creative role so as to reassess the role of female Aestheticism through the processes of female identity-building. Far from being an isolated spectacle and a mythic, sexualised icon constructed by male subjectivities, Jane Morris demonstrates a capacity for agency and for self-formation through creative or aesthetic practices, most of all through her sartorial style and dress construction. Thus, the distinctive modes of dress for which Aestheticism is famous for are not a masculine preserve.

9In ‘Ouida’s Pulsations: Sensation and Aestheticism’, Stefano Evangelista uncovers the numerous and fruitful paradoxes of Ouida’s artistic approach, such as her articulation of highbrow and popular—mostly sensational—cultures. Evangelista exposes the particular challenges women were faced with in the context of the new forms of liberation brought by a mostly male-dominated Aestheticism. Ouida’s fictional works and political essays enabled her to build a public self and an authorial identity as critic in a context in which transgressive public identities became a token of identity. Besides, because they rearticulate the ambiguous and highly mobile concept of sensation, her writings are paradigmatic of what Evangelista sees as the productive dialogue between Aestheticism and commercial literature. On the other hand, her non-fictional work paradigmatically draws on Aestheticism’s opening of new cultural spaces for women authors, for example through the devaluation of specialized criticism in favour of impressionist and lyric criticism.

10The third, last part examines later examples of the reception of Aestheticism. In ‘Wilde’s Aestheticism and Emergent Modernism in the New Age’, Joseph Bristow sets forth a detailed account of how the editors of that periodical, Holbrook Jackson and A. R. Orage, aimed at maintaining a critical examination of Wilde’s radical vision. In a context of varying and even diverging editorial viewpoints on Wilde, this periodical was unique insofar as it assessed Wilde regardless of any moral outlook. Mostly, it refused to make his homosexuality the pathological explanation for his downfall. Bristow therefore believes that the New Age is emblematic of the cultural and historical links between Aestheticism, Decadence, and the emergent modernism.

11In ‘Choose Your Camp! Or Angela Carter’s Feminist Use of Camp and Aestheticism’, Julie Sauvage analyses Angela Carter’s late re-appropriation and ‘camping up’ of Aestheticism. Carter adopts the ironic distance and theatrical stance of Aestheticism or of Decadence as part of a subtle revaluation of the complex notion of camp defined by Susan Sontag. Carter enhances the issue of power and the approach to gender; but instead of satirizing or destroying camp, Sauvage argues, Carter meant to ‘camp it up’ so as to integrate it into a feminist agenda.

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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada, « Bénédicte Coste and Catherine Delyfer, eds., Aesthetic Lives: ‘New experiences, new subjects of poetry, new forms of art’ »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2015, consulté le 23 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Florence Gillard-Estrada

Université de Rouen

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