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By Robin Collyns

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In the years 1875–78, Burne-Jones worked on his Pygmalion and the Image series: a sequence of four images that 25 narratized the legend. All four images—The Heart Desires, The Hand Refrains, The Godhead Fires, and The Soul Attains—are set in characteristic Burne-Jones style that uses archways, stairs, windows, and passages to divide the space. Focusing on the final painting of the series, The Soul Attains, we see Pygmalion kneeling at the newly alive female image’s feet, looking up at her with adoration.

Misfortune shows a once model wife and mother’s decline as her husband discovers evidence of her affair. Prostrate on the floor, the woman pleads in agony; she lies across the floor diagonally with her pleading, clenched hands in the lower right corner closest to the viewer. It is as if her outpouring for mercy is as much for the viewer as it is for her shaken husband. Yet the downfall is already painted in detail—a wormy apple lies on the floor; her children’s house of cards collapses; paintings on the wall include the Fall from Eden and an abandoned ship—all details a Victorian viewer was accustomed to searching for and reading in a canvas.

The subtle merging of the tones of their clothes makes it hard to distinguish where one figure ends and the other begins. The active and undulating folds of her dress as they catch the light seem the manifestation of the creative energy moving through them. These details seem to suggest one mind, one creative spirit, at work, formed from these two figures. This woman has asserted her place as partner and participant in life and in art in this painting—not a mere observer. Many of the paintings in this section seem noteworthy at a basic level for choosing to show women at a creative or artistic activity and not just at their familiar and expected domestic duties.

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Did Spacemen Colonise the Earth? by Robin Collyns


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