Dream a little dream

Burne-Jones and Dali delved into the imagery of the unconscious. One of them left something to the imagination. By Tom Lubbock
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
But I know what I like. "A beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light ever shone... and the forms divinely beautiful." That's what I call a picture. Or rather, that's what Edward Burne-Jones called a picture. Today it seems an incredibly remote attitude; almost too remote to mock. Even the appropriate insult, "escapist," sounds dated. Due for a comeback?

Who knows? With Burne-Jones, the wheel of fortune has turned spectacularly. When he died a hundred years ago, aged 64, his name - once enormous - was already on the wane. Now, after a period of neglect, not to say hearty scorn, he's risen again to favour, and not just with the poster-buying public. "Edward Burne-Jones - Victorian Artist-Dreamer", showing at Birmingham City Art Gallery, began its tour at the Met in New York and goes on to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. It's official.

News to me, actually. I was happily going around, eyeing the odd reproduction of The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Staircase, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid or The Tree of Forgiveness, and taking a view that was dim to the point of blindness. Knights, damozels, faeryland, blah blah. But showing the pictures in quantity, and in no company but their own, does them a power of good. They begin to cast their elusive, insinuating spell.

Burne-Jones is absolutely artificial. A late flower of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, he has none of the Brotherhood's original passion for historical authenticity and exact observation. He began as an imitator of Rosetti. His borrowings from earlier (often Italian) art are frequent and flagrant. His scenes are studio-bound, overtly constructed. Being unlifelike, not of this world, was his point.

But the artifice isn't self-conscious nor especially outre. He can't easily be reclaimed as a master of camp (like his follower Beardsley), or a manifest weirdo (like some of the foreign Symbolist painters he influenced). His vision is placid, sober and, in a way, impersonal. It has no hidden agenda, it leaves no funny tastes, it offers no obvious footholds for sniggers or diagnoses. It's all there on the surface - a serene, composed, depthless mystery.

For instance, Burne-Jones is full of curious stories, but it's very hard to get interested in them. Few fans of King Cophetua or The Tree of Forgiveness know what's going on (from an old ballad and Chaucer, respectively), nor feel the need to. You don't. You need only to breathe an air of myth and legend. The action, after all, is minimal: where not static, then soundproofed and slow motion. Burne-Jones's protagonists are generally half awake, their gestures languorous. His trademark eyes, deep-sunk and dark-ringed, are sleepy eyes. They wear a dappling of muscle which hardly flexes. Faces make no psychological contact.

Again, Burne-Jones is crowded with nudity, but it's virtually invisible, a symbolic property, far removed from nakedness, amorous sometimes, never erotic. You can find his chastity slightly absurd. And there can be a gratuitous lack of sex, as in the a four-picture sequence on the Pygmalion story, where the interesting business of stone turning to flesh under the sculptor's hand (which is in Ovid) is neatly elided; the statue comes alive in Scene Three when he's out of the room. But what you don't feel is that this purity is under strain.

The physical is muffled, only vaguely tangible. His scenes are bathed in an even light so things are clear but not in sharp relief. Textures are hardly differentiated; you don't sense hard against soft, rough against smooth, wet against dry. Space is shallow. The two most striking compositions in the show involve sensuous dramas that don't quite happen. In Romaunt of the Rose: Love Leading the Pilgrim, the pilgrim is being led out of a mighty thicket of thorns, while his guide is surrounded by a dense flock of little birds. But you aren't made to feel the thorns as vicious, or the birds as flittery-clustery. It's kept, precisely, a vision.

In The Perseus Series: The Doom Fulfilled, the hero struggles with an astonishing writhing and coiling sea-monster, which circles round him several times and at one point actually zooms up between his legs. The effect is saved (only just) from the most massive innuendo by the calm neutrality, the low tactility of Burne-Jones's world.

In other words, the pictures are what they mean to be: dreamlike. Not in the surreal sense of a display of private psychic pressure, but in the sense of a dreamland which you can enter; not bizarre, enchanted; not disturbing, inviting. As I say, it's now a very odd idea of painting, this constructing of public fantasy worlds, of visions that viewers can make their own (or rather, we leave that to movies and computer games). Burne-Jones's version can certainly become boring, an occupational hazard of an art whose incitements are hypnotic, not to say soporific. But it still works, that's the amazing thing. It's an achievement too rare not to be admired.

Compare, contrast: Salvador Dali. His fame is currently at a slightly different point in its cycle. A large public likes his work. The highbrows mostly don't - in fact, when you're learning to be a highbrow, he's the first artist you learn not to like. This puts galleries in a peculiar position, because normally with a modern artist, it's the wider audiences you're trying to win over, but with Dali it's the narrower ones.

Hence, perhaps, "Salvador Dali - A Mythology" at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool. This is a rather select showing of paintings and drawings from the late 1920's and 1930's, and the stress is on Dali's intellectual credentials. Inspired by his reading of Freud, he developed his own psycho-myth-world, and filled his pictures with a repertoire of home-made symbolism. He casts his father as William Tell and Lenin, his wife Gala as Leda and the Madonna; he does "paranoid-critical" versions of Millet's The Angelus. It is all very informative.

I should declare here an almost complete non-belief in psychoanalysis. So, to have Dali present as an avid student and emulator of Freud doesn't - for me - make his pictures seem much better. But it does illuminate one of the ways in which they normally seem awful.

The trouble is, Dali aspires to be both Freud himself and a Freud case history. He wants to play the interesting nutter and the brilliant analyst too. It's a difficult combination to pull off, and in Dali it leads to an abiding air of contrivance - the laboured weirdness, the cultivated obsessions, the forced visual puns (in Metamorphosis of Narcissus it takes a lot of smooth pictorial fudging to make a hand holding an egg look like a crouching body). Dali's studied vision leaves nothing to the viewer. It's very far from other surreal work, Magritte and Ernst say, whose laconic staging makes for mystery and dry humour. Only one picture here catches that deadpan tone, the Landscape with Telephones in a Dish, Dali's phantasmagoria are without wit or atmosphere. Everything must be spelled out (that's really a penis, she's really a cannibal).

But even though the image-mongering is dull, it's not, of course, (for those of us who don't like his pictures) the big problem. The main taste barrier is they look so dreadful with their high-gloss, bubble-gum photo- realism, their soft air-brushy dissolves, and their lurid colours. This is the real resistance, and the show doesn't tackle it at all. But on this score the psycho-analytic angle might pay dividends.

For you could well argue that Dali's slick, slithery surfaces and his sickly hues are deliberately disgusting, and that of the surrealists Dali alone retains the power to discomfort. True, there'd still be a problem, because the people who like Dali think his painting is positively nice, neat and not disgusting at all. Anyway, half the time it isn't disgusting, it's just dead boring.

But I agree that taste changes in funny ways. Pleasure and interest suddenly prick up and you can't say why. I wouldn't be surprised to find this happening with Dali one day. But monitoring my responses to the present show as candidly as possible I have to report: nothing yet, not a flicker.

`Edward Burne-Jones - Victorian Artist-Dreamer': Birmingham City Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square; to 17 Jan, daily; pounds 5, concs pounds 3.50. `Salvador Dali - A Mythology': Tate Gallery Liverpool, Albert Dock; to 31 Jan, closed Mon; pounds 5, concs pounds 2.50