The Cult of Beauty: British and Japanese Influences on the American Aesthetic Movement

Hannah Sigur, Berkeley, CA

Saturday, June 9, 2012Mini-exhibit: 1:00pmLecture: 1:30pmGould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor
Legion of Honor
Japonesque Easel

American Japonesque display easel

American Japonesque display easel, detail

American Japonesque display easel, detail

Japanese design motifs illustrated in “Decorator and Furnisher”

Japanese design motifs illustrated in “Decorator and Furnisher,” an American publication

The Aesthetic Movement, and Japanese and British influences on its development in the United States, is in every way a story of the Industrial Revolution. The cross-cultural, dynamic phenomenon that arose from the clash of craft with mass manufacturing simultaneously sparked the dilemmas that led to the “cult of beauty.” The Industrial Revolution that created the conundrum, however, also manufactured its own solutions. The answers that emerged for the pictorial, decorative and architectural arts were exquisitely beautiful. Those answers were also transformative. Hannah Sigur’s presentation will explore those dilemmas and how the arts of Japan provided some of the answers.

For much of the 20th century, critics dismissed the Aesthetic Movement’s mantra of beauty for beauty’s sake. Even the velvet-and-lace-clad Oscar Wilde criticized the Aesthetic Movement as a superficial matter of rapidly changing fashion. The Aesthetic Movement, however, is now considered an inevitable, and profound, outcome of a certain moment in history.

Oscar Wilde’s sparkling wit and flamboyance cloaked brilliant trenchancy. His famous American tour of 1882 was enthusiastically received by urban Americans, as well as isolated, but enraptured, frontier settlers, so that that his tour was extended to 140 engagements across the continent. Clearly, the “cult of beauty” satisfied a deep need for Victorian Americans to make sense of their rapidly changing world.

Oscar Wilde’s lecture titles, such as “The Decorative Arts,” “The Relation of Art to Other Studies” and “The House Beautiful,” provide the framework for Hannah Sigur’s exploration of links between Britain and the United States at the end of the 19th century. Oscar Wilde’s lectures also explain how the home, and its décor, came to be viewed as the answer to fundamental social issues of the period.

The “Japan Craze,” an expression coined by British art circles in 1872, was also initially dismissed as a mere fad. The fascination that had trickled into American design became a flood during the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. From that experience onward, every aspect of American visual culture?—?from advertising to wallpaper?—?was touched by new motifs, colors, compositions and materials that completely upended conventional wisdom regarding good taste.

Hannah Sigur’s educational background in Asian arts enables her to distinguish how much of Japonism was truly Japanese. Her inquiries are not easily resolved because Japan was itself undergoing even more rapid and transformational change than the United States in the late 19th century. Ms Sigur will lead us to the conclusion that the Japan Craze was not merely a short-lived, exotic vogue; it was, in fact, the catalyst for all that has come since then. The Aesthetic Movement and Japonism provided the first glimmers of what we now call modernism.

Hannah Sigur earned her bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University with a double major in English literature and studio art. She studied Korean art history and language, as well as East Asian religions, at Ehwa University in Seoul, Korea. She also studied Japanese language and Chinese painting at the University of California at Berkeley. Her master’s degree from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University emphasized East Asian art. Ms Sigur is a doctoral candidate at New York University. Her doctoral dissertation topic is “The Lingua Franca of Modernism: How Japan’s Official Architecture at Worlds Fairs in America Changed American Domestic Architecture, 1876–1915.”

Ms Sigur wrote The Influence of Japanese Art on Design (2008). She also contributed “How Did the World’s Columbian Exposition Change America?” to Events that Changed America in the Nineteenth Century (2010), edited by John Findling and Frank Thackeray. Her understanding of design blossomed in her contribution to A Master Guide to the Art of Floral Design (2002) with Alisa DeJong-Stout. Ms Sigur’s publications also include “Japan’s Mark on American Art Pottery” in Style 1900 (Spring, 2009). She has lectured on Japonism in regard to wallpaper, Louis Comfort Tiffany and decorative arts of the Gilded Age.

Hannah Sigur teaches at San Francisco State University and the University of California at Davis. She has previously taught at the University of California, Berkeley Extension, Ohlone Community College and the College of New Rochelle.

1:00pm mini-exhibit

Bring your Aesthetic and Japanese objects in metal, porcelain, paper and textiles. Share your craze for Japan.


Gould Theatre, Palace of the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, San Francisco. Enter at the west side lower level near the café, or through the main entrance for day-time events.