A deep look at the process of creating is an interesting basis for curation. Process appears to be vital for contemporary art but is rarely touched upon within a more classical body of work. The process is taken as given with the obvious high level of skill on show but rarely does this translate into the raw thought that actually goes into the planning of such works. This ideal could be equally applied to pre-Raphaelite extraordinaire Edward Burne-Jones before his latest exhibition at Lady Lever Art Gallery. His paintings are often staggering merely for their technical scope and glorious array of colour. The process for these is of little consequence to their final achievements. This exhibition intends to break apart from that relationship while simultaneously displaying a body of work that is sadly too delicate for permanent display.
Though the collection is called The Drawing of Edward Burne-Jones, it could equally be called An Evolution. The pieces on display of course show that typical melancholic classicism; that technical ability oh so rare within contemporary art where beauty is simplistic while magnificent and Kantian. Yet they are part of a process and not the final product. The drawings, watercolours and other works on display are largely preparatory with only a handful of the final works on display. Instead of being lost within the height of romantic melancholy, this exhibition proposes to show the thought or, in art school terms, the poetry behind Burne-Jones’ engulfing work. It just so happens that these sketches and drawings are from a period when even the most basic of detail was addressed with the keen skill attributed only the most obsessive of contemporary artists.
These sketches show an insight into the workings of the artist but it seems serendipic that they also work as strong individual pieces themselves. At once they put a new context on the figures of within Burne-Jones’ final paintings; their clashing emotions almost sweeping their own personas away into a heightened state of something higher. Study for the Head of a King shows this well along with the sketches around it which all went into making his beautifully fantastical, A Study for The Sleeping Knights (itself a first go at a scenario which would eventually turn into The Briar Wood). This chain of evolution from the basis of each element, emotion and character is rarely allowed on display for work of this nature, perhaps with worry that the spell will be broken and the planning will only appear as shards of a broken lie. This is as far from that case as possible.
Watercolours also play a big part in the exhibition making a very rare public appearance due to their fragility (only appearing every ten years). Two pages of his colour booklet The Flower Book, are on display, one showing his wonderfully folkloric Saturn’s Loathing. The work itself is barely the size of a coaster but seems all the more precious because of its miniscule nature. It also seems more private, almost as if the work was small for Burne-Jones’ benefit, for his own personal pleasure and methods.
Perhaps most obvious of all is the inclusion of Sponsa de Libano (1891), his famous, three metre tall watercolour which acts as the final product within his watercolour exploration. The colour work within The Flower Book somehow manage to retain its power in the huge transfer of size with the famous flame red-hair flowing down the subject’s shoulders, her dark blue-brown dress ruffled by a breeze. It takes on the semi-religious quality that often accompanies the Pre-Raphaelites but for once, this magnificent illusion has been taken apart to allow for an altogether new interpretation of this excellent artist’s skills.
The Drawings of Edward Burne-Jones is on display at The Lady Lever Art Gallery until the 12th of January.
Entry is free.