New Ofili show at Tate Britain

The Chris Ofili retrospective at Tate Britain opened on January 27 and runs at Tate until 16 May, 2010.

Ofili, an artist who has been influenced by Blake since the 1980s, has brought together more than 45 paintings as well as drawings and watercolours for the exhibition.

As well as an opportunity to see many of his most famous works, such as No Woman, No Cry (1998), Ofili’s response to the Stephen Lawrence case, and the remarkable Upper Room collection, the new show includes some of his latest paintings that demonstrate the effect of his new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago.

Many art critics have noted the continuing importance of Blake as one of several influences on Ofili. Tom Lubbock saw the show as one of the strangest examples of Blake’s enduring appeal, while Charlotte Higgins noted the strong connections between Blake’s works and Ofili’s new images of a character he calls “The Healer”. 

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/chrisofili/default.shtm.

Related links: Review of Chris Ofili and Richard Wright.

Studies on Blake’s reception

As this is the main focus of my own research, the following is an introduction to the main publications that have appeared dealing with the reception of Blake’s work. The top-10 format is simply to make this manageable, and most of the following are books although Mike Goode’s Blakespotting is a superb article. Published in chronological order, they demonstrate that this is a relatively new field in Blake studies (with a few honourable precursors). Anyone interested is also recommended to refer to Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly which frequently includes articles on Blake’s influence.

1. Dorfman, D. Blake in the Nineteenth Century (Yale UP: 1969). Still the best guide to Blake’s reception in the immediate period after his death. While the theory of reception has moved on considerably since publication of this book, it is a comprehensive study of literary and artistic influences.

2. Bertholf, R. and Levitt, A. Blake and the Moderns (SUNY: 1982). A collection of essays including ones by Hazard Adams on Blake and Yeats and Robert Gleckner on Joyce, this concentrates on the literature and has largely been superseded by Larrissy (see below) but still worth reading.

3. Dent, S. and Whittaker, J. Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 (Palgrave: 2002) A polemic and wide-ranging survey organised thematically rather than chronologically. This is the first to try and extend studies of reception beyond literature and the fine arts and, because of this, is inevitably full of gaps.

4. Tambling, J. Blake’s Night Thoughts (Palgrave: 2005) Although not devoted to reception of Blake alone (dealing more generally with Blake as a poet and artist of the night), there is some very useful material here on his influence on figures such as Blanchot and Mann.

5. Larrissy, E. William Blake and Modern Literature (Palgrave: 2006) The best survey of Blake’s influence on literature since the very end of the nineteenth until the late twentieth centuries. Focuses on high rather than popular formats, but more coherent because of this.

6. Clark, S., and Suzuki, M. The Reception of Blake in the Orient (Continuum: 2006) Blake’s printmaking ironically brought him wider acceptance at an early stage in Japan, at least as an artist, than in western Europe and America, and this collection of essays deals with Blake’s relation to orientalism as well as how he was used by figures such as Yanagi Soetsu.

7. Goode, Mike, Blakespotting (PMLA, 121.3: 2006). An excellent and witty survey of the uses of Blake in popular culture, beginning with Donald Trump’s use of the Proverbs of Heaven and Hell.

8. Clark, S., and Whittaker, J. Blake, Modernity and Popular Culture (Palgrave: 2007). With two essays on Blake’s contemporary circles, most essays in this collection deal with reception during the Victorian period through to the beginning of the twenty-first century.

9. Ault, D. and Whitson, R. William Blake and Visual Culture (ImageTexT, 3.2: 2007) ImageTexT is devoted to interdisciplinary comics studies, and there is some material here on Blake’s influence on graphic novels as well as other visual forms.

10. Trodd, C. Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World, 1830-1930 (Liverpool UP: 2010) Forthcoming. Will offer the most comprehensive view yet of Blake’s artistic influence in the century after his death.

Chris Ofili and Richard Wright

Two recent exhibitions at Tate Britain have demonstrated the continuing importance of Blake as an influence on contemporary art. The Chris Ofili retrospective opened on January 27 and runs until May 16, 2010, while the winner of the 2009 Turner Prize, Richard Wright, attracted a great deal of admiration with his impressive contribution, a beautiful gold-leaf fresco.

Ofili, also a Turner Prize winner in 1998, has long been interested in Blake, most clearly in two paintings from 1995, Satan (inspired by Blake’s Satan in his Original Glory, c.1805) and Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung (after Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne). Neither of these works are present in the current exhibition, which brings together more than 45 paintings as well as pencil drawings and watercolours, but, as a number of critics have noted, Blake’s influence continues to play a role in the development of Ofili’s art.

The most obvious example of this is a print, Siesta of the Soul, produced by Ofili as a limited edition for Tate Britain. With branching tendrils and vines surrounding elegant, handwritten text, this particular work is especially evocative of a page from one of Blake’s illuminated books, comprising a song of innocence or of experience that ends with the lines “shaded but not shrouded, summoning his dancing demons”. As a marriage of image and text, heavenly but with a hint of Blake’s playful diabolism, Ofili’s print is also reminiscent of the Romantic artist in terms of the spray-painted colours that remind me of the colour washes in Blake’s illuminated prophecies. Tom Lubbock has spoken of the works in this retrospective as “an art of luminous colour… of wild imagination”, and this is certainly true of the best of Ofili’s paintings.

To concentrate on Blake is, of course, to do a disservice to Ofili. His new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago (the artist left London in 2005) inspire the latest paintings with a rich and luscious beauty, but Charlotte Higgins is certainly correct to see something of Blake in another of his recent works, The Healer, in which an uncanny figure devours vivid, yellow blooms. Personally, the highlight of the show for me was an opportunity to see The Upper Room, a recreation of his deservedly famous exhibition which ran at Tate throughout 2006, thirteen rhesus macaque monkeys depicted in gloriously competing colours.

Richard Wright has been creating site-specific art works for many years, often intricate paintings that are then erased. Sometimes those installations are discreet and delicate, such as the alcove shown as part of an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2008, but his major untitled piece for the 2009 Turner Prize was spectacular, an exquisite gold-leaf fresco that dominated the room in which it was displayed at Tate Britain.

The painstaking methods used by Wright to transfer the fresco to the wall, as well as the subtlety of effects achieved, has won him acclaim from usually sceptical commentators who regard the Turner Prize as little more than a freak show. Similarly, the transience of the work, now whitewashed over (so that, ironically, it remains as an archeological layer somewhere beneath the current Ofili exhibits), draws attention to what Wright has identified as the fragility of experience in his paintings.

Wright has frequently mentioned his admiration for Blake, telling interviewers that he often travelled down from his home in Glasgow to see the Blakes and Turners housed at Tate Britain, an experience that often left him both exhausted and elated. The influence of Blake, as well as Turner’s voluminous light and colour, is evident in the fresco (which, even though it no longer exists, I cannot help but think of in the present tense). The initial experience is overwhelming, a balanced chaos, but the painting it brought to mind most for me was Blake’s 1808 A Vision of the Last Judgement, that imposing mandala of the end of days in which damned and saved fall and rise around a central pillar of heavenly and infernal judgement, eternally circulating between paradise and earth. Wright’s work brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime.

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/chrisofili/default.shtm.