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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones