The old Italian term sprezzatura means making difficult things look easy. The painter Edward Burne-Jones makes the difficult look difficult, and depending on your expectations his art seems either laboured or sublime. Among art critics he has sharply divided opinion from the day he started painting. Recently, Waldemar Januszczak flatly called him a “bad artist”, but he has also been praised as one of England’s three greatest painters, by the distinguished art historian John Pope-Hennessy. Which is to say, there is pressure to choose a side. And judging by an exhibition currently on at Tate Britain in London, there is good reason to argue that Burne-Jones’ time has come again.
It is tempting to roll oneself up in the Pomona tapestry (1885; linen embroidered with silk) hanging in the huge Burne-Jones show, because it looks luxuriant and inviting, but security won’t permit it. It also seems enticing to sit at and run your fingers over the Graham piano, which Burne-Jones decorated inside and out. (Like his good friend, the design genius William Morris, he would have felt the impulse to decorate the floor and walls around it as well.)
Burne-Jones and William Morris, Pomona, 1885 (Credit: Private collection)
For the price of the ticket, gallery-goers should surely be allowed to feel their way along the sensuous relief panel that Burne-Jones created as part of a complete redesign of the drawing room in Arthur Balfour’s grand London house in 1878. And it would be a thrill to stroke the binding and pages of the deliriously overgrown Kelmscott edition of Chaucer, but someone has thoughtlessly put it under glass.
There is no half way with Burne-Jones – and his creations aren’t best served by being collected together in a gallery. The opulence dial goes into the red (and smouldering orange). His work is sensual in both conception and execution, and he was a great believer in context – and, here’s a shocker, in social reform. He is anti-elitist. He has the artisan’s love of surfaces, textures, and materials.
Laus Veneris by Burne-Jones, 1873-8 (Credit: Laing Art Gallery – Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)
Maybe this is why his work has always played so well with the crowds? Because despite his high-flown neo-classical subject matter, he is a popular painter; he somehow welcomes you in. The splashy colours and the fractal level of detailing are an unambiguous enticement to engage. No two flowers and no two folds of drapery are the same, and Burne-Jones and his Pre-Raphaelite cohort took this to heart. They challenge you to put your nose up against the canvas and really open your eyes.
Out of time
Depending on your bent, Burne-Jones is either one of the last Victorian dinosaurs or one of the first modernists. His paintings have an undeniable surrealism; they manipulate Renaissance themes and styles in a self-conscious and ambiguous way, turning them into an archetypal fantasia, a dreamscape. Burne-Jones was admired by the young Picasso. There is a famous photo of Warhol taking to the Graham piano at a 1975 exhibition, which isn’t as unlikely as it might seem. Both Burne-Jones and Warhol were ‘total artists’; they were as likely to spill beyond the frame, and into other media, as stay within it. They were both obsessed with surfaces.
Andy Warhol with the Graham Piano at the Burne-Jones exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, 1975-1976 (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum)
It is true that Burne-Jones pushes the Renaissance nymph thing to its limit. His women palely loiter. They are often barely distinguishable; their exquisite robes are more interesting than they are. Never mind the superlative décor around them, which often threatens to overwhelm, if not digest, them. The Golden Stairs (1880), one of his most loved (and hated) paintings, took a number of young society beauties of the day as models. They look rather the same, in a Botticelli way – it could be one person floating down the stairs in stop-motion photography.
The Golden Stairs by Burne-Jones, 1880 (Credit: Tate Britain)
He was forever philandering with, and fixating on, his pretty young models, with little regard for his long-suffering wife
The art critic Laura Cumming calls his style “classicism refrigerated”, and regards his “narcotised beauties” as sinister. He was forever philandering with, and fixating on, his pretty young models, with little regard for his long-suffering wife. (She stares out sadly and wistfully from his uncharacteristically frank 1883 portrait of her, with their children in the background.) She had ambitions to be an artist that were subsumed into her family and her husband’s career. After his death, she wrote a two-volume biography of Burne-Jones that glossed over his infidelities. One doesn’t yearn to be a Victorian woman.
Portrait of Georgiana Burne-Jones by Burne-Jones, 1883 (Credit: Private collection)
Another of his famous paintings, The Mill (1882), has no particular meaning, although it is ostensibly inspired by a Lorenzetti mural painted in Italy around 1340 (which it looks nothing like). The three young women dancing (or involved in some ritual?) are people Burne-Jones knew; he was having an affair with one of them at the time. They look the same. The complicated structure in the background is supposed to be a mill, although he seems to have been overcome by a compulsion to keep adding to it. There also just happen to be naked men in the background, swimming in the mill pond. The background is beautifully reflected in the water. It is a little bizarre.
The Mill by Burne-Jones, 1870-82 (Credit: Alamy)
Burne-Jones was a more complex person than his paintings might lead one to believe. He came from an impoverished background and was essentially self-taught as an artist. He went to Exeter College at Oxford University to study theology and there met his lifelong collaborator, William Morris. By the time they left the university, they had decided to ditch the church and take up art as a social vocation instead. Morris was an out-and-out Marxian socialist, but both men were on a mission “to make beauty and art available to all people”, as the art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn notes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Here we have the germ of their commitment to aestheticism and accessibility.
Burne-Jones [left] and William Morris, 1874 (Credit: Frederick Hollyer/ National Portrait Gallery, London)
Burne-Jones always maintained that he preferred to make art for public buildings or churches. He saw himself as both an intellectual and a craftsman. The creative output of the two men was huge, and in addition to their private commissions, together they completed innumerable designs for stained-glass windows and mosaics. The body of Burne-Jones’ work is so large that it has never been completely catalogued.
It is also the case that not only do Burne-Jones’ women look like each other, but they look like the men as well. To his contemporaries, he seemed suspiciously to be blurring the boundaries between the genders. (See for example The Briar Wood, 1884, a realisation of an episode from the Sleeping Beauty myth, in which soldiers languish prettily.) In his day, his work was constantly accused of unsettling effeminacy, or censured for being ‘entirely opposed to the originative masculine temper’.
The Briar Wood by Burne-Jones, 1874-84 (Credit: The Faringdon Collection Trust)
His hero, the great 19th-Century English art critic John Ruskin, suggested that Burne-Jones’ fantastical approach, his avoidance of reality, was essentially feminine. This probably wasn’t meant as a compliment, exactly, but it can be seen as subversive. It could be argued that one of the strengths of Burne-Jones’ work is its ability to tap into the unconscious through legend and symbol. The visionary nature of his art turns something loose. The enigmatic surfaces are only a way in, or out, of the mind.
Burne-Jones has always resonated with the public, and he is bound to find a new audience among millennials and post-millennials
Some people think Burne-Jones’s art is dead and should be put in storage, but there is something contemporary about its fluid identities and stylised images. It was clever of the Tate to mount a comprehensive and intelligent exhibition of his work now. Burne-Jones has always resonated with the public, and he is bound to find a new audience among millennials and post-millennials. We live in an age that is more concerned with the hyper-reality of beautiful images than ever, and with the escape they offer, and yet we are also bedevilled by thoughts of what meaning, if any, runs underneath it all. The people languishing in Burne-Jones’s paintings only need to be holding smartphones to complete the analogy. His double-edged daydreams of beauty are a message to the future, and they were painted for us.
Edward Burne-Jones is at Tate Britain until 24 February 2019.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.