Yesterday I went into BMAG to have a look at Burne-Jones’ Perseus Series, currently on loan from The Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. This is the first time the whole cycle of paintings has been on display in the UK, and here it’s shown alongside 3 additional studies for the series, plus some works featuring the Persues myth by other artists. Burne-Jones was commissioned by Arthur Balfour in 1875 to provide a series to decorate his home, but the choice of subject was left to the artist. Burne-Jones was inspired by “The Doom of King Acrisius“, a version of the Perseus myth from Morris’ The Earthly Paradise.
The series depicts the myth in eight large paintings, but they do more than simply tell the tale. Burne-Jones’ interest in the male figure in action and the depiction of the female classical nude is prominent here. With the exception of The Baleful Head, above, in which Perseus shows Andromeda the head of Medusa against a Morris-type verdant background, the paintings focus on the figures set against sparse and unobtrusive landscapes. Looking around the room in which they are displayed, only the luminous flesh of the figures stands out against largely monotone backgrounds.
There is something strikingly modern about Burne-Jones’ figures, despite their obvious referencing of the medieval style and of classical nudes. This is particularly apparent in The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled, the paintings which show Perseus’ rescue of Andromeda and which bear a resemblance to the Pygmalion series. In the earlier pictures here, it is the composition of figures in the landscape which is paramount, however; how they fill the space and are placed and posed, particularly in Perseus and the Sea Nymphs.
The series is not just interesting for its visual qualities, but also for its use and reworking of myth. Though Burne-Jones uses Morris’ version of Perseus, he also draws on other sources, such as the version of Apollodorus, and he brings the figures to life in a way that is often unexpected. Moreover, the exhibition notice comments that: “Burne-Jones believed that Perseus represented the creative impulse in the fight against evil. The hero is the prototype of the artist who gains knowledge and skill to pursue his battle against the forces of materialism symbolised by the Gorgon whose deadly stare turns everything to stone. Andromeda represents beauty and truth saved from destruction.”
The exhibition is on until October and is well worth a look. If you want to read more about the Perseus cycle there is a commentary here on the Victorian Web.