Greek myths and Arthurian legends are colourfully brought to life in Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, Edward Burne-Jones.
At a recent Paul Mellon lecture on landscape at The National Gallery, London, Professor Tim Barringer of Yale University began by exhorting his audience to see what he felt were the two most important exhibitions of the year, Tate Britain’s Edward Burne-Jones and The National Gallery’s Mantegna and Bellini. Though he did not intend to make specific art historical connections between the two, he set up potential resonances between them which might not have been apparent at first. Centuries apart, these artists’ works allow viewers to become immersed in sensuous colour and meticulous crafted form. Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) responded to Renaissance experiment, using art ‘to find out what is beautiful’ (Elizabeth Prettejohn, exhibition catalogue, p.15) and eschewing the usual path of training at an art academy he learnt instead from his mentor Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Like Mantegna, he followed the precepts of his teacher’s method. Unusually for a successful artist, Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford University and took his subjects from more obscure Classical and Medieval narratives which lends an academic rigour to his work and requires some intellectual engagement of his audience. It is this perhaps which explains the successive waves of enthusiasm and indifference as each generation discovers what excites or bores them in his painting.
A revival of interest in craft and the fashion which defined the free spirit of alternative youth culture in the 1960s and 70s meant that those who encountered Burne-Jones at the 1975 Hayward Gallery exhibition recognised sympathetic values in his work. Current responses centre on the shifting gender roles and sexual ambiguities of some of his subjects which chime with contemporary debates. Recurring compositional features of Burne-Jones’ work resonate with adolescent sensibilities. His languid heroines are often some of the first to be absorbed into personal female visual repertoires where emotional fantasies are played out and self-representation is constructed. His women are beautiful, delicate but strong, their eyes focused on an inner life inaccessible to the heroes and lovers who gaze and question – or indeed to us as viewers. They often recount mythic and literary tales as a community of women, interacting in characteristic horizontal or elongated vertical tableaux, their long limbs flexed and poised under sinuous robes. They inhabit chimeric landscapes with ease and resolve, move with muse-like grace or caress the strings of musical instruments in sorrow for doomed knights and broken promises. They seem to be ever waiting, accepting and unquestioning.
But not all are passive. One of the most beautiful and compelling compositions on show which is from a private collection and thus unfamiliar is The Wine of Circe (1863-9). It is watercolour and bodycolour on paper with the depth and texture of oils, something typical of Burne-Jones’ investigation into the qualities and limitations of different media. Its rich xanthic golds, blacks and greys depict the determined figure of Circe, the witch from Homer’s Odyssey, as she pours drops of her transformative potion into an amphora ready for the imminent arrival of the ships seen through the window. Her tame jaguars stand guard while the heavy heads of sunflowers loll in their pots, seemingly observing Circe’s preparations to seek their meaning in her dark arts. They do not face the sun to trace its movement through the sky which was the fate of the nymph Clytie when Apollo deserted her, or represent faith and spiritual strength which would be more traditional interpretations, but point more clearly to the aesthetic movement and unsettling Symbolist iconography which emerged during the late nineteenth century.
Of course, Burne-Jones may have chosen them for their colour or simply to contrast with the small orange tree on the right of the painting. He exhibited this work at The Old Watercolour Society in 1869 and it was immediately condemned as perverse, the jaguars particularly singled out as bizarre elements of the composition. And yet the restraint of the colour scheme indicates the artist’s interest in pattern and structural balance which is more obvious in his stained-glass designs. The Wine of Circe exemplifies the concerns which occupied Burne-Jones throughout his career, but its rejection alongside a public scandal caused by his affair and suicide pact with artist and model Maria Zambaco led to his retreat from exhibitions for several years.
Tate Britain has always had their large oil paintings, King Cophetua and the Beggar maid (1844) and The Golden Stairs (1880) on display, but these have become absorbed in the exhibition among a huge number of canvases and other media, many of which compete with them in scale. The current exhibition carefully traces the development of the artist’s career through exquisite drawing studies and early attempts to explore techniques. The visitor is almost exhausted before reaching the most spectacular displays. These are The Briar Rose (c.1785-1890) and the unfinished Perseus series (begun 1875). The Briar Rose (see four of the panels below) selects one dreamlike moment from Grimms’ Sleeping Princess tale and through four large canvases and ten adjoining panels captures imagined scenes of the sleeping Court held suspended in stasis, spellbound and awaiting the moment of change. The series normally hangs in the Saloon at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire. Alexander Henderson, 1st Baron Faringdon bought the series in 1890 when it was first exhibited at Agnew’s Gallery in Bond Street. After Burne-Jones viewed the canvases at their new home he painted complementary side panels and extended the gold frames to incorporate the paintings in a total decorative scheme for the room. The main paintings are often reproduced but the side panels are usually omitted. In the exhibition, these take on an independent life. They resemble the hinged doors of altarpieces, separate but anticipating the central representation, providing additional commentary and enriching detail. They show the objects of everyday life left behind when the spell emptied the palace chambers and courtyards of its bustling life. They have the stillness of Dutch interiors, a glimpsed world of activity arrested with the briars forcing through the cobbles and the undecayed hangings still on their rails. We might imagine the panels as shutters which could close the sleeping courtiers forever away from the world of action.
Burne-Jones’ Medievalism was less problematic than his friend William Morris’s determined pursuit of a Socialist dream of equality and craft revival, one irrreconcilable with the cost of producing his Arts and Crafts products. The exhibition includes magnificent tapestries and a piano which the artist painted for Frances, the daughter of his patron William Graham. Burne-Jones romantic attachment with Frances and, as Tate points out, a shared passion for Mantegna, is clear in the depiction of the Orpheus and Euridice myth. Burne-Jones wrote to Frances. ‘If ever they would look at me as I have looked at Mantegna, what a well-rewarded ghost mine would be.’ (quoted in catalogue, p.208). Under the lid, a nude Mother Earth is surrounded by cavorting and playful putti. How this image was received when Frances performed on the piano can only be guessed.
Tate includes a photograph of Andy Warhol beside the piano when it was part of the Hayward Gallery exhibition. This points to the undeniable importance of Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites generally for future artists which was long unacknowledged by those reacting against Victorian art. Hints of Art Deco design, sculptural forms and mixed media which excited Henry Moore and the psychological complexity and use of myth, which continue to be important to artists, are all part of this comprehensive and essential exhibition. However, a fortifying cup of coffee might be necessary before undertaking the journey.
Edward Burne-Jones will be shown at Tate Britain until 24th February. Click here for more information. If you’re between the ages of 16-25 you can join Tate Collective for free and receive tickets for £5 for all current exhibitions.