Olivia Ward-Jackson reviews Tate Britain’s homage to British Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones.
Beautiful art has rather gone out of fashion, but it has attempted a comeback with the new Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at the Tate Britain. Burne-Jones was among the last of the pre-Raphaelites and a reveller in the aesthetic movement, advocating art for art’s sake through his lifelong commitment to beauty.
The Industrial Revolution was in full swing at the time Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was painting. England was changing profoundly – this was the time of railways and smog-choked cities, of desperate inequality and religious decline. Burne-Jones offered the ultimate antidote to this industrial whirlwind – a nostalgic dream-world of classical legends, medieval romances and gothic fairy tales.
It is easy to lose yourself in the escapist glut of heroes, beasts, damsels and nymphs that is the Tate’s Burne-Jones exhibition. The Wine of Circe, with its deep orange tones and classical style, depicts the sorceress Circe preparing an evil potion to give to Odysseus’ men. The ten-part Perseus Series includes a depiction of Perseus grappling with Poseidon’s terrible sea monster and winning the heart of the enticing Andromeda, whilst the Briar Rose Series, based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty, portrays four different groups slumbering amongst the thorny roses – knights, ladies-in-waiting and princesses all included.
Yet, this fantastical narrative becomes stale and the superficiality of Burne-Jones’ art soon becomes obvious – his paintings lack a sense of humanity, his expressionless characters are seemingly void of emotion. Moreover, all his women look identical – Burne-Jones couldn’t even bring himself to paint an ugly Medusa!
Even the most romantic of Burne-Jones’ scenes have no real substance, such as his most famous work King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. According to the Elizabethan ballad, King Cophetua thought himself incapable of love, since he had never felt desire for a woman, although he was introduced to many attractive noble ladies. However, one day he encountered a penniless beggar maid and fell instantly in love with her, marrying her despite her lowly status.
The ecstasy of this moment fails to come through in Burne-Jones’ depiction of a brooding King gazing at a beautiful, semi-clothed beggar maid. For all its loveliness, the painting is soulless; it lacks energy, warmth and human interaction. The maid could easily pass as an exquisite statue – a paragon of pre-Raphaelite women, whom the viewer is invited to stare at alongside the King.
It is for this reason that Burne-Jones has been condemned in The Guardian as ‘a stupid artist’ who ‘proves how boring beauty can be’, and the exhibition described as ‘a good show about a bad artist’ in The Times.
Nevertheless, the Victorians lapped up Burne-Jones’ kitsch, melodramatic style, and so, for all his artistic faults, the exhibition offers a certain insight into late-Victorian popular culture. A widespread sense of nostalgia for an idealised, pre-industrial past certainly contributed to Burne-Jones’ popularity.
In fact, what the exhibition really emphasises is that Burne-Jones was a highly commercialised artist. Besides paintings, he produced decorative art of many different mediums – tapestries, stained glass, book illustrations and even an elaborate grand piano, adorned with sickeningly cute putti.
Indeed, Burne-Jones’ focus on decorative art turned the pre-Raphaelite movement into a commercial brand. This becomes obvious when looking at his copious work for Morris & Co, a successful furnishing and decorative arts retailer specialising in stained glass windows. Today, in churches all over England, you can find Morris & Co stained glass designed by Burne-Jones.
Maybe Burne-Jones would be taken more seriously if we accepted him as a commercial artist, dancing to the tune of popular culture. We could compare him, for example, to the likes of Alphonse Mucha, a commercial graphic artist influenced by the pre-Raphaelites, instead of to his ground-breaking contemporaries such as Cezanne or Monet. Burne-Jones produced art that was mystical, scandalous and sexy – and it sold.
If you are looking for an exhibition that portrays the painful, ugly and mundane realities of life then steer well clear of Tate Britain this winter. If, however, you want your spirits lifted on a cold day by a giant of Victorian popular culture then I certainly would recommend a visit.
Featured Image: Laus Veneris, 1873-78.