Saturday, May 19, 2018

William Morris: A Life for Our Time IV

I have better reading conditions at the moment and hope to advance rapidly through the remainder of the book, though I'm only halfway through at this point. This is an unusual book for me, because I like the thoroughness of the author more than the subject matter. Morris and his friends are of marginal interest to me, because they are neither major artists nor major thinkers. I'm up to 1874, when Morris reached the age of forty, and they seem as if they have had a prolonged adolescence and are finally starting to grow up. Even so, I think that any good biographer will reveal errors and limitations in the person who is their focus, and that biographies that portray their subject exclusively in heroic or exalted terms are consequently hagiographic or mythopoeic. Every life, no matter how successful, has elements of stupidity and dumb luck, and these are evident in MacCarthy's telling.

Morris continues to learn new crafts, such as gilding, calligraphy and manuscript illumination, with the Firm not occupying much of his time under the partnership arrangement. Various intrigues crop up between the men and women in the group. In 1861, Rossetti's wife, Lizzie Siddal, had a stillborn baby, and she became emotionally unstable, committing suicide with drugs the following year. Thereafter, Rossetti pursued a relationship with Morris's wife, Jane. After Morris leased Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire as a country home in 1871, Rossetti took up residence there and continued cuckolding Morris, apparently with Morris's approval. Rossetti, who was the son of an Italian-born professor, seems to me to have had a rather unpleasant personality. He was flamboyant, collecting exotic animals such as wombats and kangaroos, but also seems to have had a sadistic streak, and he liked to pick on Morris, who accepted it passively. My interpretation is that Morris lacked self-confidence and had a dose of English timidity. He seems to have had especially low self-confidence with regard to women, perhaps because he was socially awkward, five-foot-six, unkempt and fat. He remained on good terms with Jane, but apparently was attracted to Burne-Jones's wife, Georgiana. Burne-Jones began an affair with another woman, and Morris began to attract female admirers through his success as a poet. There is no evidence yet that he had any affairs.

In 1871, Morris went on a trip to Iceland and became fascinated with Norse sagas, translating them into English. In 1873 he went to Italy for the first time but did not like Renaissance art. Where I left off, he decided in 1874 to take full control of the Firm by buying out the other partners, because he felt that it was insufficiently profitable due to their lack of attention to it. This resulted in some acrimonious negotiations – people's true feelings come out when money is involved – but friends such as Burne-Jones were supportive. The new firm was named Morris & Co., and it later became a centerpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement, which is Morris's most significant legacy.

As Morris matures, I am hoping to find more value in his work. In the context of the history of art, fiction and poetry, his group seems amateurish and backward-looking. The paintings of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, which represent a small branch of the academic art that was also popular in France at the time, are both qualitatively and thematically inferior to many of the French paintings. Compared to Jean-Léon Gérôme, for example, they seem like rank amateurs, yet there is no mention of this or any French contemporaries in the book. Significantly, Morris was born in the same year as Edgar Degas, and in 1874 the Impressionists launched their first exhibition while Morris and his friends were just beginning to lose interest in medievalism. As a realist, I find it appalling that artists in England were engaging in Lord of the Rings-like fantasies and idealizing women to absurd lengths just as modern realism was emerging in French art and literature. They completely ignored J.M.W. Turner, the English painter who influenced Monet. While they carried on in their fantasy world, Manet painted the first great modern realist paintings and Flaubert wrote the first great modern realist novel. I don't think Morris's poems compare favorably to those of Shelley, but then I prefer modern poetry anyway. In many respects, English arts have always seemed provincial to me. I have noticed that George Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, which was published in 1859, has similarities to Madame Bovary, which was published in 1856. Having studied George Eliot closely, it does not seem far-fetched to me to speculate that Adam Bede started out with the code name "Madame B." Though Hetty Sorrel is hardly the English equivalent of Emma Bovary, both novels are realistic depictions of the downfalls of women, and I feel confident that George Eliot read Madame Bovary. From tapestries to cathedrals, many of the arts in England have French origins. Even good food seems not to have reached England until the late twentieth century.

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