Sometimes you are looking at a work of art by a certain artist and you are suddenly struck by a theme, a pattern that runs through their art. It might be a colour, it might be a figure, but you have a sense of the person behind the art saying something to you so quietly that you never noticed before. It might be a reflection of how you are feeling in that moment, it might be that you had to feel that way to recognise it in the art of another. All of a sudden you see familiar paintings in a whole new light.
Why is everyone in Edward Burne-Jones' art always reaching for each other?
|Perseus and the Graiae (c.1875-90)|
Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration and as I will show there is a whole section of people who are in isolation, but a thread through Burne-Jones' art is the act of stretching, of reaching to touch another person, to hold them and find strength in the joining of hands. To start with the Graiae in his epic Perseus cycle, the three women, not old in his imagining, share an eye and reach and pass the eye between them. Their power is in their connection, but also they need each other, and their continuous movement, to exist. When Perseus, in his beetle-black armour, echoes them and interrupts their movement by removing the eye, he breaks the chain and the women will cease to move, to reach and connect. Does that mean they will cease to exist?
|Laus Veneris (1869)|
Stretching on its own tends to signify frustration and want. Think of the male figures on The Wheel of Fortune (1870), stretched against their will, yet waiting for the touch of the goddess. Venus in Laus Veneris stretches languidly as she awaits a lover. Without the presence of a lover she reaches round and ends up caressing her own hair, but her legs remain in contact with her handmaidens, all of whom invade each other's space in their various tasks.
|Dorigen of Bretaigne Longing for the Safe Return of her Husband (1871)|
|Pilgrim at the Gates of Idleness (1884)|
Often, Burne-Jones seems to show a longing for comfort and security in the touch of others, even if it is destructive. The Pilgrim in Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose is drawn to the beguiling figure of Idleness as she reaches for him. Her contact, her offer, is temptation as contact is surely the point of existence. When it is offered it begs to be reciprocated. The slightest reach is often the most tempting and Idleness knows that she does not have to try hard to bring the Pilgrim to her.
|The Garden Court from the Briar Rose Cycle (1885-90)|
Even in sleep, Burne-Jones' figures reach for each other. Briar Rose is filled with stretched out men and women, their hands brushing each other in sleep, together yet dreaming. Their sadness is that they are so close yet need magic to bring them to life and make that final move to be together again, to be conscious of how close they are to each other.
|The Golden Stairs (1880)|
If ever a painting personified the need for contact without fulfillment it is possibly The Golden Stairs. The girls mingle, touch, reach but remain separate. They are aware of each other, they flow together as one grey-white stream of movement down the stairs like a giant feminine slinky, yet do not actually hold on to each other. The only break comes between May Morris and her violin and the girl with the tambourine, otherwise they flow off together through the door to who knows where.
|Princess Sabra Drawing a Lot (1865-7)|
Possibly Burne-Jones saw strength in a train of women, or maybe that is how he saw women, united in an impenetrable line, a perfection of the merest touch. As Princess Sabra waives her safety to draw her lot, she becomes just one of the people and the same as her servants. They are a flow of young women, joined like a train in this moment of peril as the princess receives her fate. The girl behind her reaches for her and she takes her hand.
|Courtesy and Frankness in the Garden of Idleness (1880s)|
Again from the 'Garden of Idleness' series, two positive female personifications join their fingers in a delicate gesture of togetherness. When people join their hands in Burne-Jones paintings it is a moment of truth, of immense power and trust. It is always a considered gesture, thoughtfully and often cautiously bestowed and received with true meaning.
|Love and the Pilgrim (1896-7)|
The last major work Burne-Jones created was Love and the Pilgrim, showing the figure of Love drawing the Pilgrim out of Idleness and the brambles, towards an uncertain finale. The Pilgrim has to trust Love, to take the proffered hand and be drawn out into the landscape which does not seem promising.
|The Heart of the Rose (1890s)|
|Clerk Saunders (1861)|
The difficulty comes in anything more than gentle touches. Although the art of Burne-Jones longs for connection, hands that reach to touch, to brush and catch, there is discomfort in closeness. In Clerk Saunders May Margaret looks alarmed at the passionate embrace of Clerk Saunders. This is understandable as he has been killed by her brothers (much in the same vein as Isabella and the Pot of Basil). He embraces, she repels alarmed. He has died for her, she does not want him.
|The Tree of Forgiveness (1882)|
When Demophoon abandoned Phyllis, her loneliness and despair was such that she was turned into a tree. On his return, Demophoon embraced the tree in remorse and magically brought Phyllis back to life. His surprise is understandable, his horror possibly less so. Her hands are locked around his body and he is eager to escape. He felt guilt over his absence but her presence, so close to him, attached to him, causes him to flee once more. This time he is going to take her with him as he has no choice, she will not be letting go.
|The Depths of the Sea (1887)|
The epitome of this fear of total intimacy has to be The Depths of the Sea. The mermaid has caught her love, she will never let go but her love has killed him, her embrace and possession of him has destroyed the very thing she wanted. So what is it you want Edward Burne-Jones? You crave touch but not possession. You see security and strength through hands touching but destruction through bodies touching. In Love Among the Ruins the couple cling together in the ancient ruins, but it could be read that the man is trying to loosen the insistent embrace of his lover. Too close is too much. His works sing 'I want to touch you but be able to draw away. I want you there but not too close.' Love is a delicate balance of presence and absence, of reaching and touching but never claiming wholly. However, it is better than being alone.
|Danae and the Bronze Tower (1872)|
Standing apart in a Burne-Jones painting denotes extraordinary sadness. Danae watches her father build her prison where she imagines she will be alone forever. This is not the separateness of a portrait, of a single subject piece, this is the removal of a person from others, of someone standing apart because they are being disconnected or do not feel part of the whole.
|Venus Epithalamia (1871)|
Venus stands apart from the crowds in a very similar attitude to Danae, as people revel in the rooms beyond. It is her wedding day to Vulcan but she is unhappy. The spiral staircase of revellers seen through the doorway makes me think of The Golden Stairs as if Burne-Jones is hinting that this is where the musical young ladies are going, to play at the wedding. The sadness is in the detachment Venus feels to her own wedding, a supposed pinnacle of love. Love is a blind fool, weddings are meaningless, the bonds that bind us together leave us staring vacantly at our own lives from another room.
|Georgiana Burne-Jones (1883)|
What has Burne-Jones done? What has he shown us about the meaning of love and the importance of people? I don't think it is a coincidence that the woman who clings to the man so dearly in the previous pictures has the face of his erstwhile lover, Maria Zambaco. Her wholehearted, headlong rush into love with him ruined all in its path. If she is the woman in Love Among the Ruins, is it their love that has decimated the landscape and left them the only inhabitants? Burne-Jones saw the grim, relentless hold of love, locking its arms around you, wrestling you to your doom and he struggled to break free, or at least that is what he wants us to believe. It was the woman who pulled, the woman who lunged and clasped him. He strove for connection, for the brush of fingers and he provoked an onslaught of desire which dragged him under until he drowned. In The Depths of the Sea was he alluding to Maria's attempts to drown herself which he had to bodily restrain her from, did he fear she would drag them both under and the seductress would have claimed him forever?
Georgiana Burne-Jones sits alone, her children together in the next room, Margaret at Phillip's back as he paints. She is detached from them, isolated, alone, merging with the darkness. She is the flower pressed in the book, kept beside the illustration, detached from all context because of the actions of the fingers that plucked her and kept her, slowly drying and turning to dust.