Monday, June 16, 2008

Burne-Jones and the Sleeping Princess

A few weeks back I slipped into my local Art Museum, intent on (at the least) seeing the three Edward Burne-Jones paintings that were part of the "Passages To Europe" exhibition passing through.

The Burne-Jones pictures featured in this exhibit were three paintings comprising his 1st series of "Briar Rose" illustrations. They portray 3 stages of the Sleeping Beauty story as inspired by an Alfred Tennyson poem.

Since childhood I'd been drawn to Burne-Jones, having come across his "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" in a massive hard-bound book of Art Masterpieces of the World that my father had round the house and that I had been concurrently using as the base for some imagined medieval fortress.

Burne-Jones is a master of exquisite subtle color and flowing line and I don't give a
hang as to whether the pictures are decorative, over-romanticized, dated, over-literary irrelevant Victorian fluff, or whatever epithets (sometimes justifiable) are available for the tossing.
< King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1880-4)

Arthur Ruskin encouraged and, in fact, initially paid for Burne-Jones to journey to Italy in the 1860's to bring back studies and sketches of the masters for him. Burne-Jones gradually became quite smitten with the Italian Renaissance painters - in particular Botticelli - and subsequently made journeys to Italy of his own accord to immerse himself in the art. He would soak up the linear rhythms and coloring of the Botticelli paintings; it was nothing for him to devote a whole session sketching the the flowery patches of ground from the Primavera in the Uffizi gallery. Coincidentally, Burne-Jones' father was a gilder and carver and Botticelli apprenticed with a goldsmith and their attention to textured delicacies of detail may be linked back to the fine craftsmanship they were exposed to in youth.
Burne-Jones himself sheds light on this influence, saying,

"I love my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels. I should like every inch of surface to be so fine that if all but a scrap from one of them were burned or lost, the man who found it might say whatever this may have reperesented is a work of art, beautiful in surface and quality of color."

detail from Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat

The Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty painting, seen at the top of the page, is not the one I saw at the exhibit which dates from 1871 but from a later series (completed in 1890) based on the same composition. The earlier version, that I saw - which seems to be unviewable on the net due to copyright issues- is somewhat softer and dreamlike with a twilit blue tone to it (I would liken it more to a blend of Correggio and Fra Lippi) while the later version is more detailed and jewel-like with warmer colors.
Gazing long at the 1871 Sleeping Beauty painting (which was about 1" by 4") in the museum, I marveled at both the precision of the tiniest pink rose set against the cloth folds as much at the perfect balance of the whole scene; the eye following the lines of the the sleeping maids at the foot of the bed flowing into the supine Beauty and then down to the maid sitting at her side, head bowed in sleep, hands resting in fallen and withered petals. In the later, 1890 picture the hands of the maids are more expressively modeled, Botticelli-like, and the eye seems to finally rest on hand of the seated maid on the far right, resting on the ground, palm opened, like a flower awaiting a drop of rain.
I recommend to anyone a close inspection of the details of these paintings. either in person or through a decent reproduction. As David Corbett puts it in his excellent - aptly titled :) - short book, Edward Burne-Jones,

"The paintings use the rich textures generated by combining different media -

gouache, shell gold and platinum paint - to create a scintillating surface that marries

precision, in its description of fabric, flesh, and angel's wings, with an extreme assertion of the capacity of these media themselves to attract and seduce the spectator's eye.

Burne-Jones' works often perform this double process - on the one hand the detailed and evocative description of an imaginary world, and on the other the concrete realisation of imagination itself in the form of pigment, color, and line. "

* Corbett's book features excellent color reproductions of both the earlier and later
Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty paintings.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Strand: Postscript Word Trip

From the first entry for the word "strand" in the Oxford English Dictionary:

strand (straend) sb [OE. strand = OFris. strond, MLG strant(masc), ON. strond (strand-)fem. border, edge, coast (Sw., Da. strand).]
1.a. The land bordering a sea, lake, or river; in a more restricted sense, that part of a shore which lies between the tide-marks; sometimes use vaguely for coast, shore. Cf. SEA-STRAND. Now poet.., arch.. or dial.

Going back to 1000, the OED then cites various quotes using the word "strand", in the above sense, in English.

For instance, from Chaucer in 1386;
"Thanne longenfolk to goon on pilgrimages. And Palmeres for to seken straunge

Then later, a poem of Shelley's in 1817:
"On the bare strand
Upon the sea-mark a small boat did wait."

The love of a person, place or thing is a layering of many parts and threads; when any one of those parts and threads is singled out and examined closely they become less and less significant in isolation, losing the drawing power of the whole, and (to drag out the oft-used physics simile) like subatomic particles under microscopic view, utterly lose materiality, or rather, their materiality appears and disappears in waves. On the other hand, more threads may be revealed; an endless road of them. Knowing this, if only intuitively, my inclination is to lay back with an attitude of acceptance or gratefulness - content not to see or comprehend the whole picture, enjoying the detailed pathways and detours, but accepting the "mountain obscured by mists".

For me merely the sound of "strand" resounds, by a myriad of associations, with a feeling of refuge and repose, stretches of sand and tide to walk along.

In America we generally associate the word "strand" with the condition of being stranded, "he was stranded on a desert isle" or "I was stranded in traffic", and to a lesser degree, strands of hair.
In England up until the 1600's a "strand" usually signified a beach or shore. Those words gradually supplanted "strand" which was retained in placenames and poetic usage.

The shoreline of the Thames lent its name to Londons's Strand Street and district - once the site of vaudeville and "serious" theatres. Sherlock Holmes was first featured in stories published by The Strand Magazine.

In Ireland however, to this day "strand" retains its old meaning and commonly refers to a beach, shore, or a riverbank.
In the case of Ireland the usage of the word is more likely to come directly from the Danish and Norwegian vikings who gained a foothold there beginning in the early 800's. As they took a liking to the estuaries and coastal harbors reminiscent of their Scandinavian homeland the enterprising Norsemen proceeded to found what became the major Irish towns; Dublin, Cork, Limerick, and Wexford to name a few. Scandinavian words connecting with sea travel and trade thus entered into the Irish language. Eventually the Norsemen and later the "conquering" Normans (descendants of Danish vikings themselves) were absorbed into the culture and bloodlines of the Irish; leaving not but the towns, castles, surnames (Macmanus and McAuliffe from the Norse; Fitzgerald and Burke from the Normans) and a few words like "strand".

When I hear the word I also think of the lovely irish jig "The Lark On the Strand".

There are many varied samplings of it to be heard on youtube and trad Irish records. My favorite on youtube is this one, a rendition by the young harpist Michelle Mulcahey. The Lark on the Strand is the second tune of the two jigs. This is the clearest and most fluent, affecting version in my mind and I enjoy watching the movement of her hands on each side of the strings, weaving the melodic line.