Edward Burne-Jones

Prerafaelittene og Norden

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25 February 2020

The pre-Raphaelites are are not a group of painters I had heard of before this weekend. I haven't spent much time in art museums for the simple reason that, while I think much of art is beautiful, I also think much of it crap and that the art industry picks and chooses who's popular in a way that ignores the quality of the work. Nevertheless, I've been swallowing my general disdain in an attempt to gain more knowledge about art history. It's about like when Scott Lang asks Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff if they know anything about quantum mechanics and Natasha replies, "only to make conversation."

So yesterday I found myself wondering the third floor of Kode 1 in Bergen gazing at the paintings and sketches of Edward Burne-Jones and some of his contemporaries. Making art purposefully bad to fit into the style of the Middle Ages is a strange thing, and it produced some lame results. Not so bad as abstract art often is though. One can see early hints of that direction in his work though. But instead of dwelling on the bad, let's look at what I found to be good.

"The Wheel of Fortune" is one of Burne-Jones' more famous works and also graces the cover of exhibition guide. I see the capriciousness and cruelty of women toward men embodied here as Fortuna. This painting hit me on an emotional level because of this theme's resonance on personal circumstances. Burne-Jones' figures always seem to have tilted heads looking askance at something besides eachother, which is a little odd. I found most of Burne-Jones' work to be unremarkable, whether it was Ezekiel and the pot, or St. George and the dragon. I am enamoured though with the goal of creating art in the style of Medieval artists, but I'm not sure Burne-Jones really managed it. I haven't seen any of his stained glass work though, so perhaps this is where he really shines. One can also not discount the power of ideas, and his clearly affected his contempories and the work they produced, which is, I suppose, the point of the exhibit.

Gerhard Munthe illustrated books, painted and made tapestries like this one featuring pulesveis-haired women encountering princes in the form of polar bears, which in Norwegian are often called ice bears or white bears and frequent characters in fairy tales here. Kvitebjørn kong Valemon is the tale where I first encountered this theme here, although Pullman seems to have leaned on it heavily for His Dark Materials triology. There's a lot of stylized elements in this tapestry I don't think I fully grasp because they allude to elements of these tales I don't know. For example at the bottom I thought those were mountains, but on closer examination they appear to perhaps be flowers instead. And why is there a shower curtain with the stars behind it? Not knowing is part of what makes this work intriguing.

Agnes Slott-Møller's work here features a frustratingly ambisexual figure on horseback encountering a little bird. The title of the painting draws focus to the bird, but experiencing this painting I didn't notice the bird until I read the title. Perhaps that is the point. Or perhaps I am just unobservant. I think that art is meant to be experienced though, and what the viewer sees isn't always what the artist intended. Often this is likely the case the further the viewer is from the artist in experiences. Our experiences color the world we perceive more than an artist's brush ever could. I wish I gotten this under better lighting, because it's hard to perceive the androgynousness of the figure here. The exhibit also featured her husband Harald who was also a painter.

This tapestry by Frida Hansen harks back to the two dimensionality of medieval tapestries. Always hurrying these ladies are. At least that's what the Latin says . . .

I'm not sure why Edvard Munch counts as a pre-Raphaelite, but they included several of his paintings in the exhibit as well. This particular work features a nude redhead striking a rather somber mein. Like much of Munch's work with redheads it remains alluring, highlighting the curvatiousness of womanhood. This work show that sometimes less is more, as the viewer's imagination fills in the sensual details blurred or hidden from view.

This Olaf Lange is entitled "Seaweed" for obvious reasons on a particularly Norwegian seabottom. Again we have nude redheads, but this time with more defined features than Munch as their feet anchor to the rocks and they sway in the swell of waves unseen. The depiction is perhaps a bit surreal for pre-Raphaelites, but perhaps it is evoking some mythological theme of which I am unaware.

In the center of Kode 1 is modern metal sculpture in the form of an 18 m pole by the artist Bård Breivik running through the center of the building, in stark contrast to the 19th century architecture of the building. The popularity of this work led the city of Bergen to create a bunch more along the Torgallmenningen, which are, however, still mostly wrapped in plastic two months after their installation. Not sure when they'll be unveiled, but certainly before the start of the summer tourist season.


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