Her beds are full of perfume and sad sound,
Her doors are made with music, and barred round
With sighing and with laughter and with tears,
With tears whereby strong souls of men are bound.
- Algernon Charles Swinbourne, Laus Veneris
|Laus Veneris (1873-75)|
oil on canvas
In this blog I have written a great deal about the strange and wonderful worlds found within books and movies; evoked by music or by poetry... This time I wish to journey within a land lit "by a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no one can define or remember, only desire", that is, I wish to enter the personal, mythic and altogether splendid dream-world of Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian painter, and of all artists my best beloved.
Burne-Jones' pictures are full of strange, fantastic beauty and seethe with emotions, expressed not in the faces, but the attitudes of the figures; and the symbolism and context of his paintings. Often the subject matter was drawn from myth or medieval romance, but the pictures always from his private inner world, wherein story, symbol and ideal combine with the artist's turbulent emotions to form highly complex pictures of depth and meaning as well as aesthetic loveliness.
Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) is an exploration of love as a force through which the world, as perceived by the lover, is transmuted into something altogether grander and more vibrant (but potentially more desolate) than the world of the mundane. Yet through close examination of the painting, we discover that love itself is be something paradoxical - a force to be worshiped and feared, that can both transform and destroy; unite and divide.
Details from Laus Veneris (I - VI):
|I. The Queen|
|II. The Musicians|
|III. The Impatient Musician|
|IV. She who looks without...|
Looking at the painting is like looking into multiple worlds - and each is representative of one of the states of love. The queen and her attendants occupy the foreground, and flame in brilliant colours; garbed in robes as tinted bright and hot as the anticipation of passion. They exist in a state of heightened reality inspired by love, wherein the subject sees all things brighter and more vividly because of love. But the women are also in a state of unrelieved tension - though the queen reclines in a languid posture, her air is one of a lover frustrated by long waiting; her gaze is introspective and her mien dissatisfied. The queen's attendants are watchful and expectant, their instruments poised as though they had just left off playing, and even now await the signal to resume. The two nearest to the queen appear to be sharing a glance - perhaps one of sympathy for the queen, or sharing the grief of their own long waiting. One lady, directly opposite the queen and garbed in crimson, sits toying with her instrument, her hands betraying the impatience that her tranquil face belies. But it is the fourth of the ladies that holds our gaze - seemingly staring out of the canvas, straight into the viewer's eyes. Through her eyes we are drawn into the painting - and she transcends it. The borders between the dream-world and reality waver - and in trying to solve the enigma in her stare, we become aware of the second, sorrowful state of love.
For outside the beautiful, vivid room where the ladies sit lies a cold land - bare and bleak as love that is forsaken. Here can be seen five restless knights on horses white as driven clouds of snow, or wild sea-foam. These knights, we assume, are the lovers of the ladies - but for some reason they cannot enter and though some look inside the warm room and seem to grieve, the women appear unaware of their presence. This puzzling state of affairs leads the viewer to look around the painting to find clues to solve the mystery - and we see that on the wall hangs a sumptuous tapestry, portraying Venus the goddess of love in a chariot drawn by doves and surrounded with worshipers who offer their hearts to her and her flame-winged son.
Thus Burne-Jones represents the ideal of love - the grandeur of passion and the worship of love itself. This third state - the world-within-a-world of the tapestry, hung between the knights and the ladies - provides the clue for which we have been searching. Perhaps it is the worship of love itself that separates them. The ladies are enclosed in an ideal of love, which blinds them to their lonely knights outside, yet they can perceive our world, the world outside the realm of love. The knights are held without because they too worship the ideal, but one looks through the painting even as does the green lady, joined to her and us through a shared gaze. And perhaps through them we are also linked to Burne-Jones himself, for it was he who said:
|VI. The Tapestry: the Chariot of Venus|
"I've lived inside the pictures, and from within looked out on a world less real than they".
But of course, Burne-Jones would never reveal plainly the secrets of his dream world, for if he did he would lose the chief power of his work; its mystery. So the painting Laus Veneris is glorious and ambiguous, and open to many interpretations. At the end of the journey I are left wondering: perhaps this explains the title of the painting, Laus Veneris; that both the knights and ladies have given their hearts to Venus and hence have none to give each-other.