Met Presents Burne-Jones in a Ludicrous Revival

To mark the centenary of the artist’s death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has organized the first retrospective exhibition that any American museum has devoted to the English painter, illustrator and designer Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). This is said by the Met to be “the most comprehensive assessment ever of this master’s oeuvre ,” and one can easily be persuaded that this is true. Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer is a show that seems to go on forever, as one bathetic clinker after another defeats first our curiosity, then our sense of humor, and finally our patience with the perpetrators of this extravagant folly. What remains to be explained, however, is why we should now be treated to such an exhaustive survey of such a negligible and often ludicrous career.

Perhaps it can be blamed on the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which has conspired with the Met to bring us this dispiriting exercise in cultural nostalgia. As every visitor to the Musée d’Orsay is made vividly aware, its administration has from the outset shown itself to have a hearty appetite for the inanities of 19th-century French academic painting. It may thus be understandable that an institution favoring work of this persuasion would welcome an opportunity to demonstrate that in the latter decades of the 19th-century France was not alone in countenancing such a woeful descent into artistic decadence. For such a dubious purpose, the art of Sir Edward Burne-Jones is indeed an appropriate object of scrutiny. But this would still not explain why the Met has been so eager to lend its prestige to this morbid attempt to disinter a reputation that is beyond retrieval.

One possible clue to the muddle that has animated this preposterous event may be found in some lines from the foreword to the oversize catalogue of the show. I refer to the passage in which the claim is made that “it is now, one hundred years after his death, possible once again to admire Edward Burne-Jones as the greatest British artist of the 19th century, after Turner and perhaps Constable.” What nonsense! It would be a lot closer to the truth to say that the entire Pre-Raphaelite movement, of which Burne-Jones was a particularly gruesome representative, was the greatest blight to be visited upon British painting in the years following the high achievements of Constable and Turner–a blight, I dare say, from which British pictorial art has in some respects never fully recovered. From the perspective of that protracted blight, the vogue of Gilbert & George in the 1990’s is remarkably similar to the vogue of Burne-Jones in the 1890’s. Plus ça change …

Notwithstanding the Met’s claim that “upon his death a century ago, [Burne-Jones] was widely considered the most important painter in Europe,” the greatest critic of 19th-century European art at the turn-of-the-century–the German writer Julius Meier-Graefe–took quite a different view of this pathetic figure. “He should never have sat down to paint,” wrote Meier-Graefe. “[William] Morris rescued what was best in his friend when he forced him to draw. This delivered us from the salamander-hues of [Burne-Jones’] female nude figures, which even in photographic reproductions sometimes make the observer’s flesh creep.”

Meier-Graefe correctly saw that “English Pre-Raphaelitism, posturing before the Italian painters, was a wild aberration,” and he has left us a summation of Burne-Jones’ characteristic pastiche which has never been improved upon: “He displays a Madonna by Perugino nude, or clothes her with the draperies of Mantegna, puts in an angel from the fragment of a primitive nimbus and makes a background of an English village church, some conventional foliage à la Botticelli, or a piece of Renaissance architecture. The influence of Rossetti is manifest throughout and to him Burne-Jones owes the predominant type of his faces. These are, of course, almost exclusively female; men become women when he paints them.”

To which Meier-Graefe added: “This is mere handicraft,” and the same may accurately be said of the entire exhibition at the Met, which numbers some 170 paintings, watercolors, drawings, tapestries, embroideries, stained glass, ceramic tiles, painted furniture, illustrated books and jewelry. Except for one or two portraits–particularly the portrait of the artist’s wife Georgiana–the paintings, alas, are tiresome beyond endurance, crowded as they usually are with acres of that inert drapery, gaggles of facial expression borrowed from the formulaic emotions of Victorian melodrama and versions of the medieval past that are pure comic opera. Much of the rest of the exhibition has the look of an elegantly installed flea market.

As for the claims made in Burne-Jones’s defense by some of our own contemporaries, a very telling one is quoted in the catalogue from the memoirs of Sir John Pope-Hennessy. Sir John was, of course, one of the greatest authorities on the Italian masters, but he was not a writer generally regarded as a connoisseur of modern painting. This is what Sir John wrote about Burne-Jones in recalling the exhibition of his work in 1977 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, of which Sir John was then the director: “A cartoon for a stained-glass window by Burne-Jones of the Good Shepherd had been acquired not long before by the Victoria and Albert, and the figure, with its silky, over-shampooed hair, its sensual lips, and its glassy, introspective eyes, corresponded very closely with the models for male fashions shown in the window of Harrods in the Brompton Road. If this was what the young wanted to look like, they would, it seemed to me, be ripe for Burne-Jones. This proved to be the case.” In other words, the show proved to be a smash precisely because of its “relevance” to the shallowness of contemporary taste.

Sir John’s words may not be the single most cynical observation ever to be recorded by a 20th-century museum director, but I, at least, know of nothing in the literature of modern museology that quite matches its cavalier combination of insouciant condescension and cynical complicity in the market mentality. H.L. Mencken once famously stated the same principle with his characteristic candor: No one ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American public. Apparently the same may now be said of Britain and France as well. The exhibition remains on view at the Met through Sept. 6, after which it travels to the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, Birmingham, England, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.