The current retrospective exhibition of the work of Edward Burns-Jones at Tate Britain is the first major exhibition of his work since 1933, also at the Tate. It is a reminder of the extent to which the reputation of one of the most celebrated of late-Victorian painters collapsed during the C20. It is an exhibition which will inevitably sharply divide opinion as to his importance and worth.
Burne-Jones was not a natural or instinctive artist. He never attended an art school, nor studied in the studios of other artists. Born in poverty, he was extremely bright and used his intellectual gifts to obtain a place at Oxford where he made jointly with William Morris a considered intellectual decision to commit his life to art and design. It was a commitment forged in revulsion with the mass industrialisation he saw all around him and in search of a purer beauty that he believed could be found in medieval and early Renaissance art and literature. His was an intellectual quest that required him to master art and design, rather than the harnessing of an innate artistic talent. As Elizabeth Prettejohn says in her fascinating introduction to the exhibition catalogue “Burne-Jones’s unorthodox formation as an artist places him at an extreme of avant-gardism; in his intellectual habits, he is more like a conceptual artist of today … than his like a studio-trained practitioner of the mainstream western tradition. On the other hand, his artistic development was also deeply embedded in a history and tradition with which he was fascinated from the start and in which he became impressively learned: the Renaissance tradition in which the artist aspires to the status of intellectual”.
The challenge of this focus on art as an intellectual endeavour is that can strip the resulting art of emotional content. And it seems to me that this is a challenge to which Burne-Jones has succumbed. The work is sterile and emotionless. He manages to construct images which tell narrative stories based on the great medieval and mythological legends from which all the fear, anger or humour has been stripped out. He paints languid young women in various stages of undress whilst completely sublimating any sensuousness in the resulting image. In short the work leaves you cold. The narrative may be interesting, the composition may be carefully considered but the result does not engage.
Furthermore, every character looks the same. You have to laugh when the catalogue informs you that in a work like The Golden Stairs that individual figures can be identified as specific people, because they all look the same. And the figures in the The Golden Stairs look exactly the same as in every other picture, including the small selection of portraits that he was commissioned to do. He formed a strong view of what beauty looked like at the very start of his career, and the evidence it that it never changed. In fact only once in the whole exhibition did I spot a little bit of human reality creep in; the enigmatic smile of the mermaid in The Depths of the Sea, as she drags the seaman down to his watery death.
The last room in the exhibition focuses on the use of his designs in the production of stained glass and tapestry and this room most effectively brings Burns-Jones into focus. He was a designer not an artist, mining his own perception of medieval and early Renaissance beauty and heavily focused on the intellectual integrity and focus of his work.
That he was held in such high esteem at the time of his death tells us a great deal about the Victorian establishment who so admired him. Whilst they were happy to grow rich as a result of mass industrialisation, all their instincts told them to distance themselves from ‘trade’ and to value some sort of pre-industrial English arcadia. Whilst many were happy to involve themselves in surreptitious ‘affairs of the heart’, they demanded a veneer of sexless chastity. Perhaps indeed these pictures are the narrative equivalent of the ‘stiff upper lip’; interesting in an anthropological sort of a way, but stifling, confining and backward looking. It wasn’t the future then, and it certainly isn’t now.