words Charles Holland
A “design guru’s” pick of the V&A’s collection reveals a compelling psychosis but not much about beauty.
“Beauty is a way of editing the world,” writes Stephen Bayley in the introduction to this exhibition at the V&A. Yes, but who would want to edit the world?
I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen Bayley ever since he suggested that Nicholas Serota had no right being the director of the Tate because he drove a Volvo. It was camp nonsense, but it was funny. This exhibition, however, suggests that Bayley may not have had his tongue anywhere near his cheek.
Ostensibly, Beauty is not really an exhibition at all. It’s a trail through the V&A’s permanent collection. You pick up a catalogue at the front desk and follow the pink arrows around the museum to objects that Bayley has picked out as representing ideals of beauty. Following this trail to the letter, and ignoring everything else on the way, results in an excitingly random crash course in art history. The most obvious enjoyment, though, is in challenging Bayley’s choice and, thus getting to the nub of his own agenda. Such an approach pricks some holes in his wafer-thin notion of beauty and the usefulness of such a term to start with. For, surely, it is ultimately taste – not beauty – that is being celebrated here and, in particular, Bayley’s own hyper-urbane, “darling-one-simply-must-have-the-right-corkscrew” kind of taste.
So off, and skipping some items, we go. Item 1 is Canova’s Sleeping Nymph, which, Bayley informs us, has a “cold beauty” that is “intensely erotic”. Which is another way of saying that Steven Bayley himself finds cold beauty intensely erotic. Personally, I find Kimberley Walsh from Girls Aloud intensely erotic but I’m not sure it constitutes a manifesto. Moving on, we get to admire a genuinely magnificent Chinese imperial throne and a Samurai sword but ignore a splendid Fisherman’s Celebration Robe, enjoy a Japanese tea ceremony set, take in Michelangelo’s David, by-pass Metalwork in the Netherlands entirely, stop off to admire Donatello and arrive, oddly, at a photo of Brigitte Bardot by David Bailey. The suggestion that a sword, a tea set and Brigitte Bardot all contain some elusive yet transferable quality is unnerving to say the least.
Moving on, we find, unsurprisingly, that Bayley has little time for Victorian Silverware and thus misses out a truly magnificent eight-armed silver plated fruit bowl and picks some elegant glassware instead. After this, there are a couple of Arts and Crafts items and we are off into The Modern Era. Swatch watches, leather trousers and Katherine Hamnett’s “Stay Alive in ‘85” T-shirt don’t make the grade but Olivetti’s typewriter somewhat boringly does. I completely missed Dieter Ram’s Braun radio, so I chose the Inter 6 Transistor Folding Portable Radio – which folds into a “space bracelet” that, you have to admit, is pretty cool – instead.
There are no items from Marquetry 1650-1700, and we zip through South Asia without a “by your leave”. In the Elizabethan paintings section, Bayley highlights a picture entitled Young Man Among Roses, which sounds a bit like how he must have felt when they asked him to curate this show. Finally, we end up in the vast room containing Raphael’s cartoons.
Along the way we learn little about beauty but quite a lot about the contents of Stephen Bayley’s head. Many of his selections confirm a pretty orthodox idea of both beauty and value, but the desire to mark out and hold things up as worthy is the compelling psychosis underpinning the show. In his notes, Bayley provides us with some nebulous background as to what beauty might be. “Beauty is much easier to detect than to define,” he says. Philosophers have apparently “pondered” it. Well, that’s a help. When people are on thin ice they normally reach for the description “timeless”, and Bayley grabs for it here. Generally, it’s probably safe to assume that anything dismissed as superficial isn’t, and anything that claims eternal value is hiding its own insecurities. The concept of beauty here, then, is perhaps ultimately more about a fear of ugliness, or of bad taste, than it is a value in its own right.