"… to the poet, all times and places are one; … no theme is inept, no past or present preferable. The steam whistle will not affright him nor the flutes of Arcadia weary him: … there is but one time, the artistic moment; but one law, the law of form; but one land, the land of Beauty - a land removed indeed from the real world and yet more sensuous because more enduring."
Oscar Wilde, The English Renaissance of Art, 1882
The 19th century Irish playwright of The Importance of Being Earnest and author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is remembered in film and journalism largely as one of the Victorian era's most famous dandies—an urbane aesthete, acerbic wit, and scandalous felon. What Wilde is less recognized for are his short stories for children, first published in 1888, including "The Happy Prince", "The Nightingale and the Rose", "The Selfish Giant", "The Devoted Friend", and "The Remarkable Rocket".
And it is even less known that these stories belonged to an inclusive aesthetic that established Wilde as one of the major figures among the Symbolists, the pervasive fin de siècle European literary and art movement that flourished from c. 1885 to 1910. Its emerging avant garde eschewed the Renaissance restriction of art to objective truth grounded in nature, advocating in its place the subjective criteria for beauty arising from the artist’s inner vision. That inner vision ranged from a world-weary escapism into religious mysticism and Romanticist rumination on evil and death, to naïve fantasies or pursuit of dreamy, sensual languor and aesthetic refinement, to morbid reveries replete with exotic or erotic themes and eclectic subject matter—all popularized by the likes of Orientalists, Symbolist poets, animaliers, illustrators, and designers working within the highly decorative ambient of Art Nouveau.
In England this attempt to rejuvenate art emerged by century’s end as the new “Renaissance in Art,” as Wilde described it in his lecture tour across America in 1882—the English version of Art Nouveau with roots in England’s mid-century Pre-Raphaelite movement and the earlier mystical visions of Romantic poet-artist William Blake, for whom imagination was everything. It achieved its wide dissemination through lesser artists and writers whose recourse to popular culture and art forms invested the decorative arts and illustration with the new aesthetic.
Just as Oscar Wilde’s stories for children popularized this late 19th century movement and its reassertion of art in contemporary life, its impact upon the early 20th century is reflected in the likes of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (1926), and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings trilogy (1949).
Perhaps surprisingly, this aesthetic is represented in the permanent collection of the Harwood Museum of Art. In concert with the Symbolist recourse to inner vision, Wilde’s “Renaissance of English art” opened a world of fantasy that would capture the imaginations of six independent and massively talented female artists living in Taos, New Mexico. Stella Snead, Barbara Harmon, Frieda Lawrence (b. 1879), Gisella Leoffler (b. 1900), Ila McAfee (b. 1897), and Millicent Rogers (b.1902) were, if not all friends, contemporaries. The world of make-believe, fairies, unicorns, birthday cakes, Victorian window dressings, anthropomorphic kittens, dreamscape scenes of handsome princes and checkerboard floors and orientalia seemed to have little to do with the traditional western landscape! Yet these women were all drawing from the aesthetic legacy of Art Nouveau and the Symbolists. Hardly in tune with their time and place, for them there was “but one time, the artistic moment;… but one land, the land of Beauty–a land removed indeed from the real world and yet more sensuous because more enduring. ... And so it comes that he who seems to stand most remote from his age is he who mirrors it best, because he has stripped life of what is accidental and transitory, stripped it of that 'mist of familiarity’ which makes life obscure to us.” (Wilde, The English Renaissance in Art).
Jina Brenneman, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions