LONDON — A Victorian Obsession is a touring exhibition of the largest collection of Victorian painting outside Great Britain: 52 works of consistently staggering technical quality and significance, owned by Mexican businessman Juan Antonio Pérez Simón. That many of these works have never been seen in the UK is a compelling draw by itself; the crowning piece, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Roses of the Heliogabalus,” is on display for the first time in London since 1913.
“Obsession” is an apt term here, for these Romantic works are characterized by a preoccupation with aestheticism — an emphasis on the visually stunning painterly surface saturated with brilliant color, rendered in intense technical skill, more often than not populated by beautiful, waif-like females — and a distinct and pervasive emotional earnestness and gravitas. Exceptional examples by the giants of Victorian painting are present in surprising volume, including Alma-Tameda, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and more. The works tend to be a mixture of faux classicist scenes of figures within landscapes or imagined interiors, or domestic scenes rooted in faux medieval scenery, all colored by a delight in the aesthetic effect; their subjects are either frivolous and inconsequential or more weighty, concerned with moral conscience. Although the collection has already been shown at the Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris, the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the London venue, Leighton House Museum, is the perfect complementary setting, both visually and thematically.
Built between 1865–95, the house was conceived by leading Victorian artist Lord Frederick Leighton as an embodiment of his artistic ideals and inspired by the opulent visuals he absorbed during trips to Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Damascus (many aristocrats of the day liked to display their cultural adventurousness by undertaking such travels). Leighton topped off the building with the grand, so-called Arab Hall, a 1877–79 extension modeled after a palace. Now a museum, the house demonstrates the visual richness that distinguishes the Victorian aesthetic sensibility. To add further strength to the connection, four of Leighton’s own works are present among Pérez Simón’s collection.
Replacing the permanent displays, hung throughout the house interior, the Obsession pieces present such a continuation of the buildings’s aesthetics, they look as if they’ve always hung here: the rich colors and emphasis on surface pattern seamlessly reflect the deeply colorful and extravagant textures of the interior furnishings. This marriage of collection and setting enables the viewer to truly understand the Victorian fashion at the time for spiritual adventure and painterly extravagance, with a touch of the exotic; you can imagine Leighton himself taking pleasure in displaying his worldly knowledge and enlightened tastes to bewildered guests.
That the works create the illusion of seamlessly blending in with the house is emphasized by the lack of captions or much curatorial intervention, with the result that only “themes and connections will emerge as you pass through the rooms,” according to the catalogue. This fittingly reflects the nature of the body of work itself, being vaguely thematic and geared more towards aesthetic pleasure than hardcore intellectual exploration. Indeed, among the assorted classical or medieval motifs, the sheer density of nudes artfully draped in generic robes renders them essentially a gratuitous presence, with expressions varying from mildly disinterested to contemplative to in vague peril. (There has been much criticism of this art movement for its lack of intellectual vigor.)
The mode of curation here reaches a peak with the show-stopping and suitably decadent “Roses of the Heliogabalus” (1888), Alma-Tadema’s imagining of the legend whereby the 3rd-century Emperor Heliogabalus caused the deaths of his guests by smothering them with an avalanche of rose petals for his own amusement. The painting is given its own room, filled with intensely sweet rose scent — a shrug of a curatorial touch as superficial as the work’s content, which is perhaps the point. What entirely justifies the piece is the consistently staggering level of technical skill, breathtaking in its intensity. Viewed in this setting, it’s difficult to think of a better way to appreciate these little-seen but exhaustingly vibrant paintings.
A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection at Leighton House Museum continues at Leighton House Museum (12 Holland Park Road, London) through March 29.