24 Oct 2018 -24 Feb 20192
Laus Veneris (1873-8)
Oil pant on canvas ll94x l803mm
Laing Art Gallery
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
A Review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Doubtless, many Art lovers are familiar with Burne-Jones’ (1833-98) most famous images as seen on greeting cards and stationary, but having taken in this comprehensive, revelatory exhibition, I’d say it’s a real possibility few know his true artistic trajectory and motivations.
‘Greatest of the second wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists’, as one exhibition curator noted, Burne-Jones joined The Brotherhood, 10 years after its inception, having travelled to London, after leaving Oxford, where he’d been studying Theology, for that purpose. Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who had founded the group with fellow artists William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, became his mentor, guiding Burne-Jones, overseeing his drawing, as it was obvious this latest member of The Brotherhood, who had had no formal artistic training then, was very talented indeed. Small wonder that out of all the Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones is now seen as the most forward thinking artistically, so much so that he is now regarded as one of the forerunners of the Symbolist movement. Though using known models in many cases, to lend figures presence, and aid at the outset from artist friends, he worked from imagination, drawing on Myth, Arthurian legend, Fairy-tale and Biblical themes, as well as Renaissance Art.
Enlightenment is enabled by the more or less, chronological arrangement of this exhibition, beginning with Burne-Jones’ church/altar piece related work, not readily available to him in a Protestant country, expanding into what is likely, given his prolific propensity, only a fraction of his multitudinous ideas for artworks, via mixed media drawings in Room 2, among them, widely reprinted example, Desiderium,(1873) an extraordinary rendering of a soft, feminine profile, in graphite on paper that given its classic style, defies its commonplace mediums.
That said, all of the aforementioned barely prepares you for the rapturous beauty of the large-scale paintings in Room 3, ‘Exhibition Pictures: 1877 – 1898.’ On closer examination, taking background information into account, their arresting images become dualistic, via reoccurring themes of bittersweet innocence, feminine power, role reversal and reflection. History of earlier art and artists may enable greater understanding, as to why, at one point in time, Burne-Jones chose to feature full frontal male nudity in a painting, and, considerably ahead of his time, male figure(s) who appear androgynous, as in his controversial 1870 watercolour Phyllis and Demophoon (1870), also featuring mistress/model Maria Zambaco. Burne-Jones’ unique propensity for creating watercolours indistinguishable from oil paintings and vice versa, unfortunately, led to the damaging of one of his most acclaimed watercolour paintings, drawing much admiration in this exhibition, Love Among the Ruins, (1870-3), necessitating repairs prior to a Paris view, crucial ones, thankfully, ably enacted by the artist himself.
Ever the social reformer, despite accolades reluctantly accepted later in life for the sake of his family, particularly son, Philip, namely, membership to the RA and a barony, Burne-Jones created a sensation at the Paris International Exposition with his painting, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), which the revolutionary French saw as the ‘Apotheosis of Poverty’ aka ‘a vison of a social hierarchy in reverse.’ This masterwork was inspired by Tennyson’s 1842 poem, The Beggar Maid; its writer, in turn taking his inspiration from an Elizabethan ballad.
Unlike many artists of his day, Burne-Jones did not believe in portraiture, viewing it as bourgeois and self-gratifying for those commissioning it from the likes of Sargent, instead preferring to render portraits of family and friends. This he engaged in several times, utilizing beloved daughter Margaret in her favourite colour, blue, seated with a halo like mirror as background and wife, Georgiana, in deeply evocative, individual portraits, the latter of which, showing son Phillip, himself a painter, and Margaret in the background, remained unfinished. Portrait of Amy Gaskell (1873) features the daughter of close friend, May Gaskell, posing in uncustomary black, rather than favoured white, at Burne-Jones request, foreshadowing 20th Century portraiture. Sadly, its troubled, young subject committed suicide in 1909 aged 36.
Portrait of Amy Gaskell (1893)
0iI paint on canvas
95 x 61 cm
Earlier on in the exhibition, letters from Burne-Jones to May Gaskell, whom he’d met in 1892, and quickly developed a loving, platonic friendship with, featured comic, hand drawn illustrations showing the artists playful side, in contrast to the seriousness of much of his work. The beautiful portrait he had composed of her beloved daughter must have offered comfort to Mrs. Gaskell, who died in 1940, in her later years. As if all the aforementioned works and insights into Burne-Jones life and process weren’t enough…
Then there are the large-scale cartoons, in gouache series, Perseus, commissioned in 1875 by stateman and arts patron Arthur Balfour, intended to become oil paintings, which Burnes Jones worked on for ten years, but never completed due to ill health. Also, on show for the first time, The Briar Rose series, drawn from the fairy-tale, Sleeping Beauty. Each series is figurative, yet abstract in their own ways, Perseus, in its later images, visibly foreshadowing Symbolist art to come, noted in Atlas Turned to Stone (c. 1878), Briar Rose, in Jungian fashion, featuring only dream like, nocturnally subconscious aspects of Sleeping Beauty, as the artist reasoned everyone already knew the happy ending, so there was no need for him to reiterate the easily imagined. This is the first time that both series have ever been exhibited together.
The seventh and final room of this comprehensive exhibition, ‘Burne-Jones as Designer,’ seems to sum up the joint philosophy of the artist and close friend and fellow creative, William Morris, who believed art had the capacity to ‘bring heaven to earth'. On show here is the decorated, Graham Piano, a gift for the daughter of Burne-Jones’ benefactor, William Graham, immense tapestries portraying the Quest for The Holy Grail, lent by Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin fame, reflecting on its collaborators joint love of Arthurian legend, colourful chalk on paper work ups for stained glass windows for Salisbury Cathedral and crowning tapestry, Adoration of the Magi (1894), with its humanistic figures, many, modelled on friends and family, featuring a magical seeming, star bearing Angel bringing light to Earth. As its curators suggested we might during the gallery tour of the exhibition, when I left, I felt elated!
Adoration of the Magi (1894)
2580 x 3840 mm
Manchester Metropolitan University
Burnes-Jones became one of the most influential British artists in his lifetime, and there is much to be considered and, appreciated in his work. On one hand, this is a contemplative exhibition, one through which much can be learned about the artist, his process and time, when moving at a slower, absorbing pace. That said, it would also be an enjoyable experience for those going to view works they’ve long admired, as there are many iconic pieces on show!
Much was happening in the wider artistic world during Burne-Jones lifetime that would be of significance in the vast scope of artistic progress in years to come, though its importance in the place of things would have been, in many cases, underestimated in its own time. Burne-Jones was one of those rare artists who came to be appreciated and thus, well regarded in his own lifetime, but then, as is often the case, fell out of fashion somewhat, as Impressionist Art gathered momentum, though, his importance to the vast timeline of Art, in terms of development and innovation, is by all accounts, in our day and age, most certainly, a certainty!
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