Beauty that’s more than skin deep
Rowan Pelling on why it’s time we embraced the mad, androgynous dreamscapes of unfashionable Burne-Jones
To gaze at the preRaphaelite visions of Edward Coley Burne-Jones is to enter a world beyond time, politics and history. In his 19th-century dreamscapes, the air is heavy and movement is suspended; figures touch yet don’t connect, their eyes downcast and gazes averted; gender identities are confused or obscured. And everything is refined to the point of sensory oppression: these are pictures so coolly, perfectly beautiful that they mesmerise and repel in the same instant.
With its unmistakably Victorian yearning for a narrative to counter the realities of industrialisation, Burne-Jones’s art feels tailor-made for a public craving escapism – so Tate Britain’s upcoming retrospective of his entire oeuvre, the gallery’s first since 1933, feels well-timed.
The last major show of its kind in the capital was at the Hayward Gallery in 1975, when Arthurian legend, folk and glam rock, as well as sartorial androgyny, were all in vogue. That same year, David Bowie took a trip to New York and returned “very impressed by the transvestites; they were kind of pre-Raphaelite, there was something about the