We continue looking at the cycle of Perseus paintings by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) inspired by William Morris (1834-1896) and his book The Earthly Paradise (1896).
Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham, the son of a frame-maker. His mother died he was only six and he was raised by his father and the housekeeper, Ann Sampson. Despite these humble beginnings, Burne-Jones was able eventually make his way to Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied theology. (He earlier studied art at the Birmingham School of Art from 1848-1852). It was while at Oxford that he first met Morris. Both were poets and deeply interested in the Middle Ages, or, rather, a Victorian idealized vision of that period. Burne-Jones also became deeply affected by the Arthurian legends at this time – further crystalizing his artistic vision into a fabulous past that never was.
Both men were to come under the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who was instrumental in both men becoming artists. Burne-Jones left Exeter before receiving his divinity degree and Morris, of course, went on to secure his reputation in arts and crafts and poetry.
Yesterday, we saw The Doom Fulfilled, where Perseus battles the Kraken, a hideous monster about to kill Andromeda. The Rock of Doom is the prequel to that painting, created in 1885, showing Perseus appearing before Andromeda. It includes all of Burne-Jones’s signature strengths.
Perseus appears in his armor, approaching Andromeda with arms outstretched. Indeed, he removes his helmet so that Andromeda can see him; and his countenance is as open as his body language. His sword is placed rather suggestively before his pelvis, and his hands and feet are bare. (And though this may be beating the point, I would venture that the rock to which Andromeda is chained has a distinctly phallic look.) His armor, however, is detailed with a large declivity running down the front of his chest, bisecting a larger circle, as if to draw attention to his heart. Over his arm is the sack containing the head of Medusa, the gorgon who could turn men to stone with a glance.
Andromeda, nude and chained to the rock, looks down, rather than at, Perseus. It is not improbable to think that she gazes at the sword, entertaining dual thoughts of eros and thanatos. Unlike Perseus, her arms are behind her body and, for all of her nudity, her body language is closed off, unlike that of Perseus. And though a certain amount of idealization is expected in the female nude, the Andromeda of Burne-Jones has the unreal, glacial beauty of a statue come to life.
What is most fascinating to me about The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled is how spatially equal both Andromeda and Perseus are. This is particularly marked here – both figures occupy the foreground on equal terms, and both have the most distinctive coloration in the picture. With his cool blue armor and she with her warm flesh overpower the dreamlike landscape that surrounds them. From body language to the language of art, each figure compliments the other.
Burne-Jones is not interested in painting landscapes that can be found in the everyday world, but, rather, dreamscapes. His people have the placid beauty and balletic grace of dream figures. This is the core of his art and what makes it so distinctive and valuable: Burne-Jones did not need the fripperies of surrealism or post modernism to escape the everyday. Though we can see birds over the surf in the distance, the waves do not seem any different in size of scope from the ripples of water around the feet of both figures. Foreground and background become one, as is often the case in medieval pictures, but here through a trick of perspective rather than a flaw in it. The buildings on shore look more like organic mounds, parts of the earth rather than homes in which people live. The whole picture is, in short, a perfect synthesis of Burne-Jones’ mastery of style and intent.
More Perseus tomorrow, but for now, here is the passage in Morris that so inspired Burne-Jones:
Now hovering there, he seemed to hear a sound
Unlike the sea-bird's cry, and looking round,
He saw a figure standing motionless
Beneath the cliff, midway 'twixt ness and ness,
And as the wind lull'd heard that cry again,
That sounded like the wail of one in pain;
Wondering thereat, and seeking marvels new
He lighted down, and toward the place he drew,
And made invisible by Pallas' aid,
He came within the scarped cliff's purple shade,
And found a woman standing lonely there,
Naked, except for tresses of her hair
That o'er her white limbs by the breeze were wound,
And brazen chains her weary arms that bound
Unto the sea-beat overhanging rock,
As though her golden-crowned head to mock.
But nigh her feet upon the sand there lay
Rich raiment that had covered her that day,
Worthy to be the ransom of a king,
Unworthy round such loveliness to cling. . . .
Then unseen Perseus stole anigh the maid,
And love upon his heart a soft hand laid,
And tender pity rent it for her pain;
Not yet an eager cry could he refrain,
For now, transformed by that piteous sight,
Grown like unto a God for pride and might,
Down on the sand the mystic cap he cast
And stood before her with flushed face at last,
(And grey eyes glittering with his great desire
Beneath his hair, that like a harmless fire
Blown by the wind shone in her hopeless eyes.
But she, all rigid with her first surprise,
Ceasing her wailing as she heard his cry,
Stared at him, dumb with fear and misery,
Shrunk closer yet unto the rocky place
And writhed her bound hands as to hide her face;
But sudden love his heart did so constrain,
With open mouth he strove to speak in vain
And from his heart the hot tears 'gan to rise;
But she midst fear beheld his kind grey eyes,
and then, as hope came glimmering through her dread,
In a weak voice he scare could hear she said,
"O Death! If though hast risen from the sea,
Sent by the gods to end this misery,
I thank them that thou comest in this form,
Who rather thought to see a hideous worm
Come trailing up the sands from out the deep.