Dungeons and Dragons

What escapism looked like back then.

“Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
June 4-Sept. 6

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It has always been easy to make fun of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), the English Pre-Raphaelite painter and designer. How could a serious European artist, a contemporary of Degas’ and Manet’s, spend his time filling medieval ghost towns with somnambulant knights and maidens? Who are these anorexic figures with their stoned expressions and “over-shampooed hair” (as Sir John Pope-Hennessy once quipped)? The Metropolitan Museum of Art, never much of a showplace for British art, has mounted a Burne-Jones exhibition that in its sheer size and comprehensiveness–there’s always one more room than you thought, including a dining room decorated by the master–asserts the artist’s importance. But you’ve got to be in the mood, for this is an art that, like Wagnerian opera or sumo wrestling (both wickedly caricatured by Burne-Jones), requires a suspension of ordinary impatience. Henry James, who reviewed a key exhibition of 1878, wisely advised his audience to approach Burne-Jones “good humouredly and liberally [since] he offers an entertainment which is for us to take or to leave.”

It is easy to laugh at Burne-Jones. It is harder to understand him. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it exceedingly well. “I mean by a picture,” he wrote, “a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be–in a light better than any light that ever shone–in a land no one can define, or remember, only desire.” It is the piling on of negatives that is significant here, for Burne-Jones was a profoundly reactive artist. The Impressionists have trained our eyes to see the modern world of work and leisure in a certain way and in a certain–natural–light and to think that it is a good thing to banish myth from modern painting. But Burne-Jones hated that light and that world, inventing another one from Arthurian romances and early Italian paintings. “The more materialistic science becomes,” he boasted to Oscar Wilde, “the more angels shall I paint.”

B orn in Birmingham, the stronghold of British industrialism, Burne-Jones was the son of a gilder and framer whose handicraft traditions predated the Industrial Revolution. His mother died within a week of his birth. The theme of recovery–of his father’s craft ethos, of a mother’s soothing presence–runs through Burne-Jones’ career. At Oxford he met William Morris, another middle-class dreamer in flight from the modern world. They took rooms together in London in 1856. Their idols were the Pre-Raphaelite ideologues John Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose passion for medieval Italian art before the individualizing tendencies of the Renaissance (hence “pre-Raphael”) they shared. Burne-Jones studied briefly with Rossetti, and his early work, with its intense floral patterning–the flowers on the ground blending with the flowers in the maidens’ costumes–could easily be mistaken for Rossetti’s.

When Morris and his associates launched a design firm in 1861, Burne-Jones joined up as a founding member. The two close friends form an interesting contrast. Burne-Jones, rail-thin and reclusive, had a single-minded devotion to the visual arts and especially to drawing. The overweight Morris, caricatured in several of Burne-Jones’ witty sketches and nicknamed “Topsy,” applied his capacious mind to every aspect of culture and society: literature and art, economics and politics, architecture and city planning. He was one of the towering figures of Victorian Britain and remains a force–he’s a darling of the Labor Party and the academic left–in its intellectual and political life. Morris wanted to work out the nuts and bolts of an actual socialist society to replace the capitalist, industrial society he so hated.

B urne-Jones hated it no less, but there’s little of the social critic in his temperament. He was content to accept commissions and to leave the arguments to Morris. He was the brilliant medieval craftsman envisioned by Morris, turning out extraordinary designs for just about everything–not only such Morris staples as tapestries, stained glass, tiles, furniture, and book illustrations but also jewelry, fans, and embroidered shoes. All but the shoes are on view at the Met. The Morris emphasis on the handmade, the rough-hewed, and the handed-down–what Thorstein Veblen, a year after Burne-Jones’ death, wickedly called the “exaltation of the defective”–did not reverse the Industrial Revolution. (Machines, after all, make things more cheaply.) Like the Bauhaus and other utopian schemes to redesign the world, however, it left a lasting and positive imprint on international taste.

In his paintings, Burne-Jones almost never portrays the world of the artisan (except in a caricature of Morris, his fat ass as wide as the loom at which he works). His languid figures lined up across the canvas do almost nothing; they can sometimes work up the energy to idly pluck a lute, or to roll the dice on a backgammon table (see, at the Metropolitan). Burne-Jones prefers stasis to activity; he likes to paint people asleep, turned into stone or trees, or chained up (like the maiden waiting to see if the dragon or King George gets there first). In the story of Briar Rose (or Sleeping Beauty) he found a perfect theme, with knights and maidens and kings and queens all asleep amid the flourishing underbrush. Burne-Jones’ lovers seem always in freeze frame, like the frustrated couple in that Pre-Raphaelite touchstone, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal.” The beautiful (1868-77, also at the Metropolitan), where the mood is so lulling that even Cupid has drowsed off, is Burne-Jones’ idea of bliss.

W hen his women unexpectedly wake up, like Galatea in his “Pygmalion” series or the spurned lover emerging from the almond tree in (1881-82, Merseyside), it’s often disconcerting, and the men look as though they should have let sleeping maidens lie. The culminating image in this vein is (1873-74, Merseyside), in which Burne-Jones found biographical resonance in the scene of the magician lured to his doom by the femme fatale Nimue. The model for the temptress with snakes in her hair was Maria Zambaco, a sculptress of Greek background who was in turn Burne-Jones’ pupil, studio assistant, and lover before he broke with her in 1869 and returned to his long-suffering wife. Modern women with their sexual appetites remained in his mind a threat as great as modern machinery. In a bizarre late painting called (ca. 1891-98, Ringling Museum of Arts, Sarasota, Fla.), an armored boat with oversize phallic anchors looms in a harbor, the banks of which are lined with scantily clad women. Burne-Jones explained, with characteristic vagueness and paranoia, that he had depicted “a sort of Sirenland–I don’t know when or where–not Greek Sirens, but any sirens, anywhere, that lure men on to destruction.”

By 1890, Burne-Jones was among the most famous painters of Europe; his reputation, thanks to international exhibitions and traveling critics, was as high in Paris and the United States as in Britain. He who had painted so many knights accepted a baronetcy in 1894. Two years later, Morris died, within a few months of the publication of his Kelmscott Chaucer, which had illustrations by Burne-Jones–one of their greatest collaborations. Two years after that, Sir Edward died of a heart attack. He had spent a lifetime imagining solemn and ritualized occasions. The Prince of Wales arranged a memorial service in Westminster Cathedral–the first time a British artist had been so honored. It was the one scene in his life–the right mix of ceremonial and stasis–that Burne-Jones himself might have found visually appealing.