EDWARD BURNE-JONES | London, Tate Britain

One of the key figures in Victorian art, and the last major figure associated with the pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones was world-famous during his lifetime, and his trademark style is still instantly recognisable today.  The first major retrospective of his work to be held in London for over forty years, this sumptuous show is not to be missed.

We learn that Burne-Jones was “committed to an ideal of beauty”.  His early
fascination with the religious led to a preoccupation with the supernatural and the mythical, and he is known for depicting the characters haunting poetry and legend.

For example, Burne-Jones’ strengths are clearly shown in ‘The Briar Rose’ (based on the story of Sleeping Beauty): the languid limbs of the sleeping figures are surrounded by gnarled brambles depicted in fearsome detail; the qualities of heavy sleep and passing of time are perfectly captured; the beauty is almost painful to witness.

Although controversial at the time, Burne-Jones’ work often depicts men in thrall of their desire for women, who are often ascribed sinister or bewitching roles. In ‘The Wine of Circe’, a sorceress is seen adding a potion to the wine she will offer to Odysseus and his men, which will turn them into pigs. This was called “perverse” when first shown, but the bright colours and the strangely contorted, elegantly furtive woman, waited on by a pair of panthers, is nothing short of fascinating now.

His work is simultaneously epic in scope and finely detailed — this show includes a room with small-scale drawings in pen and ink, including unfinished studies and even occasional humour, offering a welcome counterpoint to the show-stopping pieces.

In addition to the paintings, there are other marvels from Burne-Jones’ later work as a designer: beautiful stained-glass windows; large tapestries with swirling boughs; an ornately decorated piano; intricate book illustrations that look too fine to have been drawn a by human hand. This is a breathtaking show that dazzles the eye and courts the imagination.

Tate Britain is “committed to an ideal of beauty” until 24 February 2019.

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