Edward Burne-Jones, “The Golden Stairs”(1880), oil paint on canvas (image courtesy Tate Britain)

The last major artist to belong to the Pre-Raphaelite milieu, Edward Burne-Jones is distinguished among them for his embrace of Renaissance aesthetics. While retaining the medieval influence that was so crucial to the Pre-Raphaelites, many of Burne-Jones’s bodies draw from Renaissance study. Kenneth Clark wrote of his affinity with da Vinci, and, save for the androgynous face, his Demophoön could be a Michelangelo. He made several trips to Rome; in 1871, he spent an entire day in the Sistine Chapel looking at the ceiling through opera glasses.

For Burne-Jones’s current exhibition at the Tate Britain, curator Alison Smith does an admirable job of tracing that development, and the artist’s range — his oeuvre included painting, stained glass, tapestries, illustrations — is well demonstrated. But one of the exhibition’s unspoken projects seems to be the rehabilitation of Burne-Jones’s status. Little, if anything, sheds light on his long identification with so-called Decadent art and its close relative, the Aesthetic movement. His reputation as a decadent is long overdue for reassessment (he never actually identified himself with the Aesthetic crowd). Yet the exhibition does not directly reassess much of anything. Probably the most famous observation ever made about Burne-Jones is by Octave Mirbeau, who said of his faces: “The rings under the eyes… are unique in the whole history of art; it is impossible to tell whether they are the result of masturbation, lesbianism, normal love-making, or tuberculosis.” A wall text in the Tate show, however, calls Burne-Jones “in essence a decorative artist.” Placing this assertion immediately after some of his most famous paintings may be a subtle challenge to the hierarchy of the decorative and the “higher” fine arts. Yet those who want to elevate his work — and I’m one of them — won’t succeed by making it appear value-neutral.

Burne-Jones penned two essays as an undergraduate that give a clearer picture of his artistic direction. The first was an analysis of the fourth part of the third volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, a defense of the Pre-Raphaelite school. The second was a positive review of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1855 novel The Newcomes, in which he also remarks upon contemporary illustration. He singles out the work of William Holman Hunt and, especially, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose The Maids of Elfen Mere he names the most beautiful illustration he has ever seen.

The most striking aspect of The Maids of Elfen Mere is that all three maidens have the same face. It’s no surprise that the illustration made such a lasting impression on the young artist; lookalikes will come to haunt every genre of his oeuvre — most dramatically in “The Golden Stairs” (1880), one of the largest paintings in the show. Eighteen identical women descend a winding staircase, and the image suggests more may be outside the frame. They seem to be making their way toward another room with a colonnade, and, indeed, the women are as indistinguishable from one another as a row of Corinthian columns. Likewise, in “The Wheel of Fortune” (1883), male triplets, bound to Fortuna’s wheel, look exactly the same except for incidental identity markers. Only one appears to notice Lady Luck. The other two flex their muscles and shut their eyelids, a masturbatory posture ignorant of anything beyond the self.

Burne-Jones Edward, “Wheel of Fortune” (1883), oil paint on canvas, 102 x 60 inches (image courtesy Musée d’Orsay)

These self-propagating personae lend themselves to a decadent aesthetic. One negative review of the retrospective derides the paintings as “Halloween” material. If inadvertently, this description contains an insight into the link between horror and decadence. In a 1990 essay, Jane Duran says: “Horror is the result of a violation of categories along the continuum of life/death … [decadence] is the result of category violations along the lines of ideals of personal conduct, whether of a sexual, interpersonal relational, or obligatory nature.” Horror and decadence converge in a feeling of unnaturalness. In “The Golden Stairs,” something is wrong. The women will keep on multiplying until the house crumbles into an archaeological ruin. They obliterate categories of sex as it relates to its base purpose, reproduction.

In “The Dream of Sir Lancelot at the Chapel of the Holy Grail” (1870), the knight lies asleep, his helmet cast aside. Inside the chapel, a heavenly light shines, in sharp contrast to the dead of night outside. Legend has it that in the dream, Lancelot learns he cannot reach the grail within because of his affair with Guinevere. Because his quest is over, his armor is useless. His shield rests, entangled in dead branches, which appear to be grasping onto it. How did it get there? We can imagine the branches snatching the shield from the ground a moment earlier. Rendered cinematically, the branches would be writhing. The absence of vegetation magnifies the horror — a dead life form plundering a protective tool from the living.

Edward Burne-Jones, “The Morning of the Resurrection” (1886), oil paint on wood (image courtesy Tate Britain)

“The Morning of the Resurrection” (1882) is rare in Burne-Jones for its Christian subject. Though three women are in the painting, it’s also known as “Mary Magdalene at the Sepulcher,” accentuating the feeling of a single multiplying persona. In the Biblical narrative, the women encounter a man who informs them of Jesus’s resurrection. The figure here appears to be Jesus himself. While the other two sit with guarded expressions, one woman stands transfixed at the risen Jesus. The living dead in “Lancelot at the Chapel” was plant matter. Here, it is Christ. Burne-Jones’s decadent signature, lookalikes, comes head to head with the cynosure of Christianity. Artistic vision reaching religious heights may contradict or supersede dogma, no matter how pious the artist. Each of the women hugs her robe in apprehension. Now it is Burne-Jones himself stranded outside the chapel, lost in his own dream world like the men in “The Wheel of Fortune.” The Gospel of Mark’s version of the scene depicted here concludes: “They fled from the sepulcher … neither said they any thing to any man … they were afraid.”

His wonderful Briar Rose (1885-90) and Perseus series’ each get their own rooms. Of the former, the artist said: “I want it to stop with the princess asleep … to leave all the afterwards to the invention and imagination of people.” Early Aesthetic Movement painters depicted sleeping figures in order to avoid narrative. The artist has it both ways in Briar Rose. The final room is devoted to his work as a designer with his friend William Morris’s company. I would have appreciated a greater connection to Art Deco and Art Nouveau, the latter of which Burne-Jones is the primogenitor, although it’s hardly a gaping omission given the amount of material on display from the artist’s own life.

For some reviewers, Burne-Jones’s somnambulistic repetition is monotonous and superficial. But in his engagement with folklore, myth, and religion, he treads on a fine line between decoration and introspection. Though the decorative arts portion is crucial to the exhibition, saving it for last is the closest the show comes to making a provocative point — that the decorative Burne-Jones is paramount. Yet in overemphasizing Burne-Jones the decorator, the show offers nothing psychologically about its subject. By the curator’s lights, he may as well be an anonymous Byzantine mosaicist.

Edward Burne-Jones continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, London) through February 24, 2019.

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Ben Shields

Ben Shields is a writer of fiction, poetry, and criticism. He lives in New York City.

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