Exhibitions come and go. Art is popular, so each and every exhibition at a big London museum enjoys a generous dose of preview publicity, and most receive enthusiastic reviews. But very few exhibitions really matter. A truly significant exhibition is one that changes opinions, revises tastes, reveals new or forgotten visual joys. One such event is The Cult of Beauty, which still has a few weeks to run at the V&A.
If you haven’t already seen this eye-opening excavation of the Victorian mind and are visiting London soon, try to get to the V&A. It is the most important art exhibition in Britain so far this year. It is not just diverting, but subversive and game-changing.
Every generation has to rediscover the Victorians, it seems. We have had a love-hate relationship with them since – well, since the later Victorian age itself, when the aesthetes celebrated by this exhibition were setting themselves against what they saw as ugly contemporary values. Nevertheless, they were Victorians themselves, and in the early 20th century a new age rejected everything “Victorian” as ponderous and repressed. That dismissive image of Victorianism has never gone away, and yet again and again, at regular intervals, Victorian culture is seen in a new, attractive light.