“For Art’s Sake: The Aesthetic Movement in Print & Beyond” is the latest exhibition at the Grolier Club of New York (Jan. 25–March 11) from the Collection of Eric Holzenberg. It was also curated by Holzenberg, director of The Grolier Club, who writes in the exhibit’s catalog, “In its purest High Art form, Aestheticism was an elitist philosophy; but as a practical approach to art in daily life, it was remarkably ecumenical. Following precepts laid down by Christopher Dresser and others, and fueled by the groundbreaking pattern systems of Owen Jones and Auguste Racinet, the designers and manufacturers of “everyday art” developed a style of ornament, or family of styles, which borrowed indiscriminately from all periods and all nations, imitating nothing directly, but inspired by everything. Gothic ornament was one major influence.” I asked Holzenberg to talk about the origins and reasons for the movement and this curatorial opus.How was this collection assembled?
The collection grew out of an earlier (and ongoing) interest in 19th-century architecture and design. I started collecting books on the Gothic Revival when I was in graduate school in the 1980s. My interest in the Aesthetic Movement grew out of that collection, and I have been assembling Aesthetic-era books and decorative arts for about a decade now. I look everywhere: eBay, traditional auctions, used book stores, antique shows, antiquarian book fairs, and online book sites like ViaLibri.
What is the criterion for an Aesthetic Movement design, since much of this is consistent with certain Arts & Crafts and Victorian commercial decorative styles of the era?
I make a distinction between the Aesthetic Movement, which is what I collect, and the Arts & Crafts Movement, which followed Aestheticism. One important distinction between the two is that Aestheticism focuses on DESIGN, while Arts & Crafts focuses on CRAFTSMANSHIP. Aestheticism embraced mass production, as long as the design was good; the Arts & Crafts movement emphasized the individual artisan and his/her creative spirit.
In the continuum of design history, the Aesthetic Movement was anathema to modern minimalism. How do you analyze the Movement in relation to the post-industrial machine age aesthetic?
The Aesthetic Movement was very much allied with the machine age, both in theory and in terms of design vocabulary. That vocabulary combined an evolved, almost abstract “Modern Gothic” with motifs and forms derived from Japanese and Islamic art to produce a distinctive “grammar” of Aesthetic ornament. Christopher Dresser, considered the first true industrial designer, is an iconic figure of the Aesthetic movement; his designs anticipate Art Deco and Art Moderne by half a century.
What is the determining characteristic of the Aesthetic Movement that distinguishes the type and typography from what came before?
Print culture is conservative. Typefaces don’t change quickly, or radically, because if they did we would lose the ability to transmit culture from generation to generation. So “fashion” in the books arts is manifested primarily in illustration, layout and binding, and secondarily in decorated “display fonts.” Illustration and binding in the Aesthetic period drew heavily from Modern Gothic and Japanese design conventions to produce specific effects. I needn’t tell you what an enormous influence Japanese woodblock prints had on the Impressionists; but before Manet and Degas, ukiyo-e and manga completely revolutionized the work of Aesthetic-era artists like Walter Crane. Japanese design conventions are also at work in layout: asymmetric title pages, illustrations overlaying text, or otherwise interacting playfully with text.
What do you hope this exhibit will impart?
I hope, first of all, that the exhibition will clarify the very real difference between the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Aesthetic Movement. Aside from that the show—which is part of an annual series of exhibitions at the Club highlighting the personal collections of Grolier members—addresses a series of questions, as part of an exercise or experiment in book collecting: Given a passionate interest in a particular period of decorative arts, and given certain budget limitations, how does one go about surveying the entirety of (say) the Aesthetic Movement in print? Where/how did the movement originate: What are the foundational theoretical works? How do you trace precursors and influences? How do you define a “Grammar of Aesthetic Ornament”? Who are the major Aesthetic designers, and what pattern books best illustrate their influence? What did the popular press think of the Aesthetes and their enthusiasms? How does Aestheticism manifest itself in different genres of print? I hope to answer all these questions in the show.
[All images courtesy of the photography team of Robert Lorenzson and Dominique De Meijer, except the Pugin Floriated ornament title page by Eric Holzenberg.]
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