"William Morris: Let Beauty Rule"
“William Morris: Let Beauty Rule” at the Reykjavik Art Museum (Kjarvalsstaðir) looks at the work of British artist and designer William Morris and his circle. Although he was a complicated man who led a multi-facted life, Morris is most often remembered today as a leader in the 19th century British Arts and Craft Movement.
Born in 1834 into a wealthy middle class family, Morris grew up on landed estates in Essex. During his boyhood, he especially liked reading the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, many of which were set in the Middle Ages. He also enjoyed exploring old churches and the ruins of medieval buildings.
While at the University of Oxford, he developed an interest in medieval history and architecture. Morris came to believe that the chivalric values of the Middle Ages had become lost in Victorian industrialization. Together with his lifelong friend Edward Burne-Jones Morris became part of the Birmingham Set, which met to hold discussions on such ideas and to recite plays and poetry. Morris also started to write poetry set in the Middle Ages. (During his lifetime, Morris was known chiefly as a poet).
The critic John Ruskin had a profound influence on Morris. Among other things, Ruskin argued for rejecting industrial goods in favor of handcrafted goods. He was also a champion of a group of young artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, this group argued for a return to authenticity and seriousness in art. They believed that these qualities had been lost with the High Renaissance. Their paintings often depicted romanticized visions of Medieval life and romantic legends.
Morris was naturally attracted to the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy and after graduating from Oxford and moving to London, he purchased several of their paintings However, by the time Morris arrived, the three leaders had drifted apart and the original movement was languishing. Still, Morris was able to became friends with Rossetti, who persuaded him to become a painter. Together with Burne-Jones, the three constructed a second Pre-Rapahelite movement.
Although Morris remained friends with Rossetti for the rest of Rossetti's life, it was a difficult relationship. Rossetti found it fun to taunt Morris in order to provoke Morris' fierce temper. More importantly, in 1857, Morris met and fell in love with Jane Burden, a woman from a working-class background. Although she did not love Morris, Burden agreed to marry him. However, she soon became involved in a notorious affair with Rossetti that lasted on various levels until his death in 1882.
Deciding that he lacked the talent to be a painter, Morris turned more and more to design. During his career, Morris designed wallpaper, textiles, embroidery as well as borders and ornamentation for books. Many of these were based upon Medieval designs. Because he believed that a designer should know how something is made before designing it, Morris studied how various items were produced before designing such items.
In 1871, Morris, together with Rossetti and others, founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., known as “The Firm.” The plan was to produce high quality goods using handcrafted methods. Morris, Rossetti and various other members of their circle created designs for architectural carvings, furniture, stained glass, wallpaper and other items. In order to obtain more control over the Firm and its production, Morris bought out Rossetti and the other shareholders, changing the name to Morris & Co. in 1875.
During this period, there was a wave of nostalgia for the Middle Ages. It was, for the most part, based upon a romanticized vision of knights in armor and fair damsels. As a result, the Firm's products became very fashionable among the upper and middle classes. (Working class families could not afford the prices the Firm charged).
The commercial success of the Firm created some tension for Morris. Although he was a wealthy man who lived in his life in various mansions, Morrris was an outspoken advocate of radical socialism and even communism. While the working conditions for employees of the Firm were better than the conditions at its competitors, it was still a traditional company, not a commune. Even leaders of the various working-class socialist groups that Morris joined were puzzled by his behavior.
Despite the man's contradictions, Morris the artist has had an enduring legacy. The designs that he and his circle created still speak to viewers. His ideas on production influenced later design, such as the Bauhaus movement in Germany.
The exhibition in Reykjavik presents examples of his designs and includes some of the products made by the Firm. In addition, there are works by Rossetti including several in which Morris' wife was the model. The signage is good, although very sympathetic to Morris.
In closing, one might well ask why there is an exhibition about a British designer in an Icelandic art museum? The answer is two-fold. First, Morris was friends with the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson. Together they translated some of the Icelandic sagas from the Middle Ages. This work so interested Morris that he made two lengthy trips to Iceland, traveling across much of the country. Morris also led fund-raising efforts in Britain after natural disasters struck Iceland towards the end of the 19th century. So there is a substantial connection between Morris and Iceland.
Second, museums in remote areas have an obligation not just to exhibit the work of local artists but to act as a resource for both the public and for local artists, allowing them to see art produced elsewhere. Such art may inspire a thought or reveal a technique that when combined with native thinking and ability may germinate into something entirely new. At the very least, it broadens the mind.
Above: Two portraits of Jane Burden Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Below: Jane also appears in a design by her husband.
Above: William Morris, "Minstrel," stained glass.
Below: A stained glass by Rossetti "Lady of the Woodbank and Her Daughters."
Art review - Reykjavik Art Museum (Kjarvalsstaðir) - - William Morris: Let Beauty Rule