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Sleeping Beauty — but without the Kiss: Burne-Jones and the Briar Rose series

The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Video transcript

(gentle piano) - [Man] We're in Tate Britain at a special exhibition of the work of Burne-Jones. And we're in a room devoted to one cycle of paintings called the Briar Rose. - [Woman] Telling the story of Sleeping Beauty. A princess who falls under a terrible spell, she and the entire royal court fall asleep for 100 years until the prince comes and kisses her and with that kiss she awakens and the entire royal court awakens. - [Man] But that's not quite what we're seeing here. The artist seems to focus on a single moment in time. At the beginning of the first canvas, we see a knight, the only figure that is awake in the entire series. He stands wearing armor, his sword in hand, shielding himself from the thorns of the briar that surround him. - [Woman] But we get a sense of hesitation. He's shielding his eyes from what is in front of him. - [Man] The other knights that have come before him and have been unsuccessful, caught in this thicket and then come under the spell and have fallen asleep. - [Woman] A hundred years has passed and in that time, the rose briar, these thorny thick wooden branches have overgrown the woods. Removed the shields from the knights. Have overgrown their helmets. Human time has stopped, but natural time has continued. - [Man] And the rose which is usually an object of beauty seems here to have a kind of malevolence and it seems to have hung the shields of the unsuccessful knights up, almost as if they were trophies of it's own victory. - [Woman] For the first panel, William Morris wrote, the fateful slumber floats and flows, about the tangle of the rose, But lo, the fated hand and heart, to rend the slumberous curse apart. - [Man] Let's turn to the second canvas. Here we see the king's court. - [Woman] Morris's line reads, the threat of war, the hope of peace. The Kingdom's peril and increase. Sleep on, and bide the latter day. When fate shall take her chain away. - [Man] I love the king having nodded off on his throne with the point on his scroll as if he was in the midst of discussion with his ministers. - [Woman] We see a scribe at his feet with a book open. - [Man] And the scribe is holding the place in his book as if after a 100 years passes, he'll pick right up where he left off. And just in case we miss the whole point. An hourglass that is a reminder that time has stopped. - [Woman] All of the figures are compressed in all four of the paintings, so the very foreground and that helps us read this as a decorative pattern and the paintings are filled with decorative patterning. From the cape that the king wears, to the tile work where we see reflections of the sleeping figures. - [Man] Let's turn to the third panel. We've moved to what seems to be an inner court within the palace. - [Woman] For this panel, Morris penned these lines. The maiden pleasance of the land, knoweth no stir of voice or hand. No cup the sleeping waters fill, the restless shuttle lieth still. - [Man] We see on the right a large loom and what we're presented with is a place where craft is made where art is made. - [Woman] It reminds me of the kind of medieval workshop that Burne-Jones and Morris idealized. They rejected what they saw as the ugliness of mass-produced goods and looked back to a time when works of art were made in workshops by hand. - [Man] Again we see them reflected in this brilliant polished floor, but these women are slightly more upright. - [Woman] And the briar itself is not quite infiltrated this interior courtyard. - [Man] The last canvas in this series, finally shows the princess. - [Woman] But not taking us to that moment of the kiss. - [Man] And that's what that Disney movie is all about. It's all about that kiss and of the palace's reawakening. We don't see the action unfolding, everything remains frozen. - [Woman] And Morris wrote. Here lies the hoarded love, the key to all the treasure that shall be. Come fated hand the gift to take, and smite this sleeping world awake. - [Man] Here we see the long figure of the princess laid out, under this beautifully delicate cloth. Every surface is highly decorative. We can see peacocks in the carpet. The gems in the crown on the floor. A treasure box, highly ornamented, almost Islamic tiles in the floor. - [Woman] Jewels encrusted in the bed that she's lying on and my favorite, the silver bells around the hem of that cloth. And so we have this sense of sounds that could be made. - [Man] Look at the way that the thorny veins of the rose are here more delicate than in the panels that we saw before. This is the inner courtyard, it's as if the rose is only just reaching this inner sanctum. And we see it's tendrils almost as if they're fingers, just reaching into the treasure box, just beginning to surround the head of the princess. I wanna go back to a word you used a moment ago, which is the decorative. That became a dirty word in the 20th century with the rise of what we often call Modernism. If we think about modern architecture for example. Wanting to strip away what was seen as the incrustación of history. - [Woman] Modernism saw the decorative as empty as superficial, but it's anything but that here. For Burne-Jones the decorative is about looking back to the medieval, it's about the political and social problems of modern life. - [Man] And so Burne-Jones is in a sense trying to bring poetry back into modern life and he's doing that through the visual. - [Woman] Burn-Jones said, "When shall we learn to read a picture as we do a poem? "To find some story from it. "Some little atom of human interest that may feed "our hearts with awe, lest the outer influences "of the day crush them from good thoughts" - [Man] So as we stand in this room surrounded by these paintings they become a refuge, a refuge from the world outside. The world of factory life, the world of mass production. A world that was speeding up. - [Woman] I think more than a refuge. I think something that will, not just gives us a place to escape to, but a place that will bring us back to something that is deeply human, that we've lost. (gentle piano)