Tuesday 1 January 2019

"All the afterwards": Edward Burne-Jones by Mary Hoffman

The Golden Stairs 1880

If you like the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the chances are you will enjoy the Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain in London, on till February 24th. If, on the other hand, you detest them, it will be anathema to you.

For Burne-Jones is the quintessential pre-Raphaelite: his paintings, tapestries, even his stained glass is intensely finished, his figures idealised, his subjects high-falutin'. And yet he wasn't one of the founder-members of the "brotherhood in 1848." They were Holman Hunt, Millais and Rossetti.

Burne-Jones wasn't even one of the four artists who joined the PRB a few months later. (William Morris wasn't one at all, much to my surprise). But Burne-Jones was only fifteen when the brotherhood was founded; later, under the mentoring of Rossetti, he became very much associated with their ideas and practices.

What linked them all was an interest in medieval literature, such as the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Malory, and the myths and legends that were the subjects of their writing, and more recent poets like Keats and Tennyson. They also shared a love of nature and wanted to depict it in great detail.

They longed to return to the simplicity of Italian painting of the 14th and 15th centuries, particularly the work of Sienese painters. That aesthetic which reached its apogee "pre-Raphael," (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino 1483-1520). And they, all young men in 1848, opposed the current aesthetic of the Royal Academy.

The Beguiling of Merlin 1872-7
This oil painting, now in Liverpool, but on loan to the Tate exhibition, is my favourite and I've known it for as long as I can remember. You can admire it as a skilled depiction of two figures in nature but, in order to understand it, you need to know that the nature depicted is a hawthorn bush in which Merlin the wizard is about to be imprisoned by Nimue, his lover and apprentice. What she is removing from him is his book of spells and with it his power to resist her. ("Beguiling" is a wonderful word to use here.) He has taught her all he knows and she now regards him as superfluous and dispensable.

(I like to think there is a sub-text of Burne-Jones liberating himself from his teachers and going to make his own way in the art world.)

In 1859, at the age of twenty-six, Burne-Jones made his first visit to Italy and discovered the work of Michelangelo. That might have counted as "late" to someone fixated on the earlier period of Italian art but it seems to have given him a lifetime's fascination with "contrapposto" in his depiction of the human figure.

Phyllis and Demophoon 1870

This picture was exhibited a year later, at the Old Water-Colour Societyand caused a scandal. It takes a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses about a nymph who has been transformed into an almond tree by her reluctant lover and shows her emerging from her transformation to fight back and reclaim her man. It was not just the androgynous figures and the obvious sexual relationship shown that shocked but the fact that Demophoon is presented as a full frontal nude. (Ignoring Burne-Jones' following of the Renaissance convention, observed by Michelangelo, of depicting male genitalia modestly and not life-sized).

He was asked to make an adjustment to the painting but refused and withdrew it from the exhibition, also resigning from the Society; clearly Burne-Jones had no truck with Victorian prudery.

The Tree of Forgiveness 1981-2
Here is the same subject ten years later, this time an oil painting called The Tree of Forgiveness. Now Phyllis is naked and her lover sports a modesty cloth (with no visible means of staying in place). Naturally, no complaints this time.

As well as medieval and classical subjects, Burne-Jones sometimes invented stories for his paintings, like The Golden Stairs and Love Among the Ruins. But he was also attracted to making series of images based on a single story, such as the legend of Perseus and Andromeda:

The Doom Fulfilled 1888
See Andromeda's contrapposto and the convoluted coils of the serpent. This is the typical "hero rescues female in jeopardy" story of so much of western culture.

But in the Briar Rose series, based on a version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, Burne-Jones is not interested in the fulfillment scene of the prince waking the princess from her enchantment; what fascinates him is the notion of stopped time and suspended animation.

The Rose Bower 1886-90
Here she is, sleeping peacefully among her waiting women, with no sense of any lack of fulfilment.

The Council Chamber 1885-90
 The king her father and his courtiers sleep too, unaware of their fate.

The Briar Wood 1874-84
The prince does arrive but he is an anomalous figure, the upright hero among the sleeping knights who have previously assayed a rescue. Hw seems almost to envy their sensual slumber.

Burne-Jones' wife, Georgiana, said his concept was: "I want it to stop with the Princess asleep and to tell no more, to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of people."

The Adoration of the Magi 1894
In 1861, William Morris had founded the decorative arts firm of Morris Marshall, Faulkner and co., with among its partners Rossetti, Ford Madox Ford and Edward Burne-Jones. When the firm was re-organised in 1875 as Morris & Co, Burne-Jones continued to contribute designs for stained glass and tapestries.

The one above seems topical, as we approach January 6th, Epiphany, the visit of the three Magi (or kings) to the infant Christ in his stylised stable.

Happy New Year to all our readers and Followers!


Marcheline said...


michelle lovric said...

Thank you for that tour of the exhibition. You are the very best person to bring out the Michelangelo in Burne-Jones, of course!

Unknown said...

Fascinating, Mary. Luckily we didn't overlap too much!