Exhibit of the week: Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the 20th Century

The arts in Edwardian England were far removed from the artistic revolution that was simultaneously rocking the Continent.

Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn.

Through June 2

The English Channel must have been very wide in the early 1900s, said Barrymore Laurence Scherer in The Wall Street Journal. Spend a bit of time amid this “sumptuous survey” of the arts in Edwardian England and you won’t be able to ignore the vast distance that separated the culture that produced these lush images and ornate decorative objects from the artistic revolution that was simultaneously rocking Paris. In some of the paintings, brushwork may loosen and figures may start to flatten as the influence of Japanese art creeps in, yet “no work here breaks radically with tradition or even hints at the transformative ideas of modernism.” The 170 or so works on display instead show Edwardian Britain standing firm against the changes taking place on the Continent.

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Those hoping to glimpse Edwardian society whole should look elsewhere, said Lance Esplund in Bloomberg.com. The leisure class rules this show: Its members peer out from Giovanni Boldini’s and John Singer Sargent’s “flamboyant” life-size portraits, and it’s their embrace of advances in servant summoning that explains the jewel-encrusted electric bell pushes created by Peter Carl Fabergé. Yet part of the era’s appeal is that its grandees “teeter on the precipice of time,” lapping up luxuries as the foundations of the old order erode beneath their feet. Surveying photographs of their lavish lifestyles is surely fun, said Sylviane Gold in The New York Times. But “this show also delves into what they thought,” and that “can be a less attractive proposition.” Faced with growing calls for social justice, the aristocracy took refuge in escapist art, including “elaborate renderings of Greek myths and medieval legends.” It was “a turning away from the real world in favor of a fantasy.”

Yet the gentry appear to have been aware that their sun was about to set, said Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe. They had a special love for 17th-century Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez that can’t be explained merely by his mastery and the “confident, aristocratic demeanor” of his work. William Orpen’s A Bloomsbury Family, from 1907, self-consciously references Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece Las Meninas with “its contingent of carefully arrayed little people and its somnolent family pet.” Its mood causes us to wonder if Orpen and his subjects “sensed the ground shaking beneath them, just as Velázquez seemed to have sensed that Spain’s 17th-century supremacy was destined shortly to end.” The change isn’t inside the room with this family; it’s happening outside the walls. The figures before us convey instead a sense of resignation to their own decline— “an ambivalent longing for night, sleep, and burial.”

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