Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Burne-Jones and the Aesthetic

She lived to welcome in the Russian revolution,’ we read of Georgiana Burne-Jones in Fiona MacCarthy’s superb 2011 biography of Edward Burne-Jones, a grand ebullient portrait which, amongst its vigorous evocations of the artist’s eerily otherworldly paintings, love for Italy and endless appetite for flirtation with little girls and married women, unsurprisingly gives us some memorable glimpses of Morris too.

Who, after all, has written about Morris’s handshake before, which was apparently less impressive than we might have hoped?  ‘William Morris’s handshake, Burne-Jones noticed, had no pressure.  It was “like a pad for you to do what you will with”’.  In this it contrasted notably with Rossetti’s: ‘But “Gabriel was different – if he loved you his fingers bent round and round yours and each one pressed and he never hurried to take it away”’.  One wonders if Burne-Jones didn’t get some faint homoerotic pleasure from such a manly grip, since, a hundred pages later, MacCarthy cites him on his Polish musician friend Padarewski: ‘a hand that clings in shaking and doesn’t want to go’.  However, as she shrewdly reminds us, ‘There was always a hint of class resentment in his attitude to Morris,’ so perhaps this colours Burne-Jones’s account of his friend’s handshake, just as it does some of his sharper cartoons of the portly Morris.

With MacCarthy’s global comparison of the two men (which she has certainly earned the right to, after producing marvellous biographies of both of them), I find myself less convinced: ‘creatively Burne-Jones was more than Morris’s equal.  He was the greater artist although Morris was unarguably the greater man’.  What is crucial here is the underlying definition of the aesthetic that shapes this judgement.  If you construe the aesthetic as a realm of intense privileged interiority, cutting away from the bustle and struggle of the social, then yes, of course, The Rose Bower from Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose sequence is a ‘greater’ work than, say, Morris’s ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’, just as Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gipsy’, in its cultured melancholy and stylistic local graces, would be ‘greater’ than Arthur Hugh Clough’s epistolary poem Amours de Voyage.

But if you feel that artistic ‘greatness’ (if we must use such a term) lies precisely in works that break out of such traditionalist definitions of a narrow, hermetically sealed aesthetic realm, which cross a ‘river of fire’ towards the social, then the Morris and Clough poems I have just cited are in an altogether different league from the Burne-Jones and Arnold works, even if they lack the consummate ‘finish’ of the latter.  Fiona MacCarthy herself is fully aware that nothing could be more contentious than debates about the ‘aesthetic’; in the paragraph that follows her global judgement she notes ‘a political debate that still continues.  What precisely is an artist for?’ 
It sounds as though Georgiana Burne-Jones herself may have been weighing these matters up in the six years of devoted work she put into composing the two-volume Memorials of her husband; for in these later years, as MacCarthy notes, ‘Morris was more than ever on her mind, while Burne-Jones appeared to be receding just a little’.  Georgiana preached socialism to the local craftspeople, ‘became more revolutionary in her outlook’ and welcomed in the Russian Revolution

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

Glad to see that my 'William Morris in Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-95' (Illuminati Books,2007) gets mentioned in a couple of MacCarthy's footnotes on p.572!