It was such a pleasure to close last week with artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) that I decided to spend this week with him, as well.
We have established that the Victorian mind found solace, inspiration and identity in a robust nostalgia. This was not a personal nostalgia as much as a national depth of feeling: by looking at myths of the past, the Victorians sought to remake themselves in a more heroic manner.
Burne-Jones was commissioned to paint a series of pictures depicting the feats of the mythological hero Perseus by conservative politician (and Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour (1848-1930). Burne-Jones created several large-scale paintings in the series, but, alas, did not finish the entire cycle. The completed paintings can be found in Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie.
For inspiration, Burne-Jones turned to another artist: William Morris (1834-1896). Morris, aside from starting the Arts and Crafts Movement (and, hence, aestheticism), was also an instrumental force in the creation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris was also a poet and medievalist. His most celebrated work was The Earthly Paradise (1896), a collection of poems bound in a leather strapbound book. The Earthly Paradise chronicled a group of medieval wanderers who set out to search for a land of everlasting life. At length, they come upon a colony of ancient Greeks, still alive, who tell them a series of stories, including the myth of Perseus.
The Doom Fulfilled details a later moment in the sequence. As you may remember, Perseus rescues his lover, Andromeda, from a sea monster called the Kraken. Most artists go overboard in depicting this undersea threat, creating monsters 50 feet tall and looming like one of Ray Harryhausen’s creatures. (Indeed, Harryhausen had a crack at the Kraken himself with his Clash of the Titans in 1981 – one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made.) Here, Burne-Jones creates a Kraken that is more bejeweled anaconda than giant sea monster.
Let’s look at this remarkable picture. Burne-Jones had a wonderful and subtle gift – to render figures in action in attitudes of repose. Look at most of his corpus and you will find figures engaged in physical activity (or about to engage in it), but delineated in a manner that is almost dream-like. This gives much of his work an other-worldly quality, almost as if he were painting pictures first seen in our subconscious.
Burne-Jones stages his spectacle in a stony grotto, placing Andromeda on her own pedestal and creating a pyramid around Perseus and the Kraken in order focus attention on them. The cool blue of both Perseus and the Kraken keep them in the background, while the bright flesh tones of Andromeda push her closer to us. It is curious to me that both Perseus and the Kraken are the same shade of blue. Perhaps Burne-Jones thought, if Andromeda was merely a prize, that there was little difference between Perseus and the Kraken.
While Perseus cuts a heroic figure in his blue armor, Burne-Jones does not create a muscled man-god out of Michelangelo. Rather, the heroic contours of his body are created by the armor he wears. Perseus’ face is like many of those you will find in Burne-Jones’ work – introspective, intent, and locked in the gaze cast upon someone else. Look at The Beguiling of Merlin from last week – rarely has an artist ever been so effective in exchanging charged emotions between subjects through the power of a glance.
Andromeda is beautifully drawn and painted. Could she, too, have been modeled by his lover, Maria Zambaco (1843-1914)? Possibly. The Andromeda of Burne-Jones is not a screaming hysteric; instead, she watches the battle of Perseus and the monster with a cool detachment.
“Cool detachment” may be the perfect way to describe the Perseus series. I am filled with admiration for the mastery of Burne-Jones, but it strikes me as a cold genius. There is passion but no mess, lots of fire but little heat. It is a genius that chills the intellect – a wintry blast of virtuosity that is just what is needed in the dog days of summer.
Tomorrow – more of Perseus!