The history of art can be seen as a series of magnificent obsessions. What would the most famous painting in the world have been had Leonardo da Vinci not been entranced by the enigmatic smile of that Florentine lady we know today as the Mona Lisa? How would we see the modern world without the compulsion that led Andy Warhol to make repeated identical images of Campbells soup cans? A spectacular chapter in the history of artistic obsessions awaits visitors in the Museo de Arte de Ponce
, where the medieval legend of King Arthur comes alive in the new exhibit The Art of the Empire: Three Centuries of British Art.
Edward Burne-Jones painting The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon is a monumental workthe size, in fact, is of a movie screen. It has a large cast of characters: more than a dozen damsels of ethereal beauty watch over King Arthurs sleep on the magical isle where time seems to have stopped. At the center of it all lays Arthur, and though some of the figures express sadness, we know that he will arise again. This is, truly, an ambitious painting, but the painting the public has seen for over a hundred years is only part of the story. Behind the shimmering colors are an epic saga of unbridled creativity and the singular obsession of an artist who could not turn loose of his masterpiece.
According to Thomas Mallorys Le Morte dArthur, King Arthur was mortally wounded in his last battle against the evil Mordred. Three queens carried him to the magical isle of Avalon, where the king entered a sleep resembling death. The Amazonian warriors who surround the pavilion look out in all directions, awaiting signs that Arthur is needed once more in the world. When they see these signs, they will blow their trumpets to awaken him. For Burne-Jones, this painting came to represent both his contempt for the commercial values of the art market and his belief in beauty as an antidote to materialism and social decay.
It took him over twenty years at the end of the nineteenth century to paint it, says the museums associate curator, Pablo Pérez dOrs, who has organized the exhibit and overseen the special gallery where The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon is displayed. It began as a small decorative painting that was intended to hang over the bookcase of the man who originally commissioned it, but it kept growing and growing. It was unfinished even at Burne-Jones death.
Every step of that daunting process was documented in drawings, studies, sketches, and photographs. Over a dozen complementary pieces give visitors unique access to the creative process. The materials are so rich that as visitors tour the gallery where the pieces are hung, they feel they are looking over Burne-Jones shoulder as he paints. These pieces were part of museum founder Luis A. Ferrés vision as he gradually acquired them to accompany one of the museums emblematic paintings.
There are many curious facts that emerged as we prepared for this exhibit, Pérez dOrs adds. For example, one of the demands that Luis Ferré made of Edward Durell Stone, the architect of the museum we are standing in now, was that he had to design a gallery large enough to hold this painting.
It is that gallery that serves as the emphatic final stop in the tour through the past and present of British art that is The Art of the Empire: Three Centuries of British Art. Here viewers can linger before the painting and lose themselves in its many characters. And while they do this, they can compare the final result with the sketches in which the painter tried out his approach to one of Englands most lasting, and treasured legend. In the journey, surprising discoveries emerge. Burne-Jones, for example, first painted each of his Amazon women hovering around the kings inert body without clothing, and then he clothed them with perfectly tailored brushstrokes.
The artists identification with the painting reached such a pitch that he portrayed his own features as King Arthurs. It was that total melding with the subject that defined the last twenty years of Burne-Jones life, and that, perhaps, prevented him from completing the work. He worked on the painting every day, devoting entire months to perfecting the tiniest details. As time passed, it became clear that finishing the work would mean entering the deep sleep that so attracted him.
Sometimes he would write his wife and say getting closer and closer to Avalon, but I have yet to arrive, Pérez dOrs says at last. And shortly after that, he died. He saw that Avalon was his final destination and his death.
The story of this obsession can be discovered in its entirety in The Art of the Empire: Three Centuries of British Art in the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Come discover it for yourself.