24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019
Standard ticket £18
If an artist proffers an agenda of social reform, to what extent must we read into their work the manifesto they say they are attempting to project? For Edward Burne-Jones, born in an industrialising Birmingham, his focus upon the need for art being accessible to the masses doesn’t particularly shine through in the exhibition at Tate Britain. Perhaps it was the focus on the classical, the mythical, the biblical, rather than reality, that exemplifies this gap between apparent agenda, and how the audience reacts to his work. The curators’ choice to exhibit an entire room of Burne-Joneses' foray into portraiture reinforces the idea that his other works seem a little too fantastical for a man initially dissuaded to take a baronetcy, and one who put emphasis upon creating works for churches in order to reach the expressive consciousness of the general Victorian public. How much the viewers can really buy this idea that Burne-Jones was a hardworking comrade of the people is somewhat ambivalent, I’m not sure how much I could believe in this myself.
With a largely chronological display, we get to see a depiction of Burne-Jones’ transformation from a fairly amateur, artistically untrained apprentice to the great Rossetti in the mid-nineteenth century, through to a consummate master of great technical skill and eye for the detail of grandeur. Seeing the individual studies of birds and plants in the room dedicated to his draughtsmanship, highlights the precision regardless of a focal point, as these detailed drawings later featured in his epic painting Love and the Pilgrim in rich oil paint, again showing his straddling of many different forms of media, and the mastery associated with such. This collection of his earlier conceptions of pieces, along with sketches and detailed graphite drawings also brought forth a lighter side to an artist often presented as epitomising the piety and reverence of the contemporaneous society. Featured were a collection of his caricatures and cartoons, including homage to his colleague and friend William Morris, showing this departure from a severe and serious approach.
This sense of derailment of the exhibition to a much softer, lighter side to Burne-Jones continued on with presenting various other conflicts within his artistic approach. A rather contentious relationship he seemed to have with the natural and the classical can be seen quite starkly between successive rooms. One a series of detailed frames of the story of Perseus, commissioned by the future Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour, the next a deeply Romantic depiction of a snapshot of the tale of Sleeping Beauty, a series entitled The Legend of Briar Rose. His ability to straddle both styles can be taken one of two ways - a carefully skilled artist, adapting to the demands of the day, or a Pre-Raphaelite with a sense of pretence, not quite knowing where he stands on the argument between conventionalism and naturalism, classical and biblical.
Not only does the exhibit follow a fairly strict timeline, as indeed a retrospective might, an interesting observation to note was the increasing sizes of his pieces. As his career and time progressed, or regressed in reference to his departure from the prestigious Society of Painters in Watercolour, his pieces incrementally became larger, more vast, adding increasing grandeur to each room. Culminating in an extraordinarily profound room of great tapestries, paintings, and stained glass window designs, the collaborative side to Burne-Jones coincided with his ability to create large masterpieces. Perhaps this is where his desire for a more socially-conscious form of art shines through - within his explorative approach to art being a collaborative and joint experience. The viewer gets a sense of art being a shared experience, in both reception and conception.
Despite the conflicting aura associated with Burne-Jones throughout, from his counterintuitive use of watercolour and oil paint; his social reform agenda, yet accepting a baronetcy; to his depiction of both classical and biblical or natural themes, a unifier throughout stays constant - the grandeur. Presenting his depictions of The Adoration of the Magi in both the first and last rooms, ties together this conflicted artist, and echoes his reverence to his art. From the recently restored triptych in the first room, dazzling in its collaborative beauty, to the tapestry presentation in the final room, featuring the craftsmanship of William Morris we see his evolution perhaps did not delve too far. Whilst there may be some pretence to his political motives, his personal expression shines through with the unfaltering attention to detail, disregard for stark reality, and overriding fascination with the vast, the great, the beautiful.