Exhibitions: Home is where the art is

Tim Hilton
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:01

Coming to Light

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Burne-Jones Birmingham Gas Hall Aubrey Beardsley V&A, SW7

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has never looked better: recent acquisitions, including canvases by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Caulfield, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley and John Walker are helping the gallery to catch up with other regional museums. But the Walker is an adventurous purchase. This vast, yearning and rolling painting, which depicts an Australian aboriginal necklace and includes bits of writing by Byron, is an allegory of separation and timelessness. The necklace beads become figures in a primeval dance and the paint surface is like the sway of the ocean.

Elsewhere in the museum, "" is a wonderful surprise. Here are 100 prints from photographic collections held by Birmingham Central Library. I never knew that such a store-house existed, but it appears that photographs have been collected by Birmingham public bodies since 1839 and that the city owns hundreds of thousands of them. Only the V&A has a comparable archive. This show records the way that Birmingham welcomed camerawork as an adjunct of the city's interest in science and technology. The exhibition is also aesthetic and includes work by Eadward Muybridge, Bill Brandt and Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. Among contemporary local photographers I single out Vanley Burke, whose Africa Liberation Day, Handsworth Park, Birmingham (1979), ought to be recognised as a classic.

The Gas Hall, a large space recently annexed to the Museum, has a fine retrospective of work by Edward Burne-Jones, who came from Birmingham (and was always unwilling to return there). This is the only British venue of an exhibition mounted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It has the flavour of a major international art event and is full of confidence. We are asked to reconsider and applaud the merits of an artist we usually take for granted. The Director of the Met claims that Burne-Jones was the greatest 19th-century British painter after Turner and Constable.

Can this be true? Personally I find it difficult to look at Burne-Jones with fresh eyes. The temptation is to walk straight past his tall, lugubrious compositions such as The Golden Stairs and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, familiar to us from visits to the Tate. Such grandiose paintings don't look much better when seen in a retrospective.

Burne-Jones was better when working on a smaller scale. The other very large pieces in the show are tapestries, alas. As often happens with artists who work with tapestry, life and energy go missing, lost somewhere in the loom.

This said, the exhibition gives us numerous works of unique and sinister charm. The best pictures turn up at any time but are more numerous in the first section of the show. Little wonder that people were astonished when they first came across young Ned Jones, as he was originally called. His earliest work, The Knight's Farewell of 1858, is both imaginatively and technically a marvel. He was largely influenced by Rossetti when he began. All the same, he could do things beyond Rossetti's competence, especially when his lines were drawn long.

Indeed Burne-Jones was above all a linear artist, whose loveliest things (I genuinely think that some of his drawings are lovely) were flat, wavy and unencumbered by obligations to chiaroscuro. When he tried to model volume in depth he usually failed. Pencil suited him more than charcoal. Burne-Jones had no professional training and wasn't happy with the actual business of painting. This is one reason why his early works were kept small. The portentous canvases of his later years were often painted by assistants who plumped out his original drawing.

That practice was common among academicians: not so common to the avant- garde, except within the William Morris circle. Because he had a business, Morris had dozens of assistants. He and Burne-Jones were best friends. Their common projects are nicely presented in Birmingham and ably summarised in the catalogue by Stephen Wildman and John Christian. The Burne-Jones/Morris partnership is usually celebrated as a triumph of Victorian culture. I disagree. Some artistic partnerships start brightly but for years afterwards link each partner in shared bad habits. In Burne-Jones's case these habits include repetition and mannerism, disengagement from contemporary life, including its women, ludicrous medievalism, pissy bombast and a general atmosphere of despair.

He should have been less close to the unintellectual Morris, and more attentive to his magnificently clever friend Ruskin. Burne-Jones and Ruskin lost their companionship around 1869. Some people think that Ruskin disliked Burne-Jones's use of the nude figure. It's certain that the painter disliked the critic's defamation of Michelangelo, one of Burne-Jones's heroes. Anyway, Burne-Jones's attitude to the nude and his misplaced imitations of Michelangelo give us paintings of immense unease.

He couldn't fully, as it were, embrace the nude. That would be too shocking. Neither could Burne-Jones frankly declare that he was an imitator of Michelangelo. That would be too servile. Hence the emotional confusions of his paintings of naked women (he painted them as though they were statuary) and of naked men who, in the nonsensical Wheel of Fortune (1875-83), appear to be acquiescent victims of fate. In private life Burne-Jones was a humorous and occasionally a passionate man. His brightest and also sexiest picture is Katie Lewis, a girl on a chaise-longue, fully clothed and reading a book. Her mind shines out.

Aubrey Beardsley, who began as an imitator of Burne-Jones, somehow fails to shine in his exhibition at the V&A. We have become so used to him since his last retrospective was held, also at the V & A in 1966, when his art began to influence contemporary fashion. I learn nothing more of his character from the present show, except that it is good to know that he appreciated Mantegna. The Mantegna prints in the present exhibition make one long for more. They set the mind to work. As for Beardsley - enough is enough.

'': Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (0121 303 1966) to 28 November, and 'Burne-Jones', sponsored by Ernst & Young, to 17 January; 'Aubrey Beardsley': V&A, SW7 (0171 938 8441), to 10 January

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