The Romantics and The Sleeping Congregation

Having finally had an opportunity to visit the Romantics exhibition at Tate Britain this weekend, here are some of my own thoughts on this show as well as Richard Wright’s small curated display, The Sleeping Congregation.

One of the aims of The Romantics is to place three of the most important artists of the period – JMW Turner, John Constable and, of course, William Blake – in a wider context. A related ambition is to emphasise the potential links between the three artists, not so much in terms of their historical relations (though those certainly existed between Constable and Turner, though they were much less evident between these two and Blake) as in their current configuration as three figures who have come to define what is meant by British Romantic art, especially for Tate Britain.

The exhibition makes it clear that this is not to be a simple chronological arrangement of what constitutes Romantic art but is, rather, arranged thematically. This is rather sensible for this particular exhibition (significantly, the large Gaugin exhibition at Tate Modern, while making the same claims, cannot help but slip into very straightforward chronologies in the contextual rooms detailing Gaugin’s career – after all, one individual’s life cannot but help follow time’s arrow at some point). Thematic arrangements for The Romantics, by contrast, avoid this most simplistic – and frequently misleading – of metanarratives, and instead makes a series of choices based on other organisational principles. Some of these may be as equally misleading as the simple history of Romantic art, but at least one – Pictures for an Exhibition – struck me as an effective intervention on the spectacular nature of Romantic art (another, British Landscape: Photography after the Picturesque, seemed a rather perverse attempt at counterpoint that did not work for me, unfortunately).

For this particular review, of the various thematic arrangements (Introducing Romanticism, Late and Early Turner, Pictures for an Exhibition, Constable and Contemporaries: Sketching from Nature, Neo-Romantics, British Landscape, and Colour and Line: Tutner’s Experiments), that on Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the most pertinent. However, it is worth making some general observations about the rest of the exhibition, not only because how it does (and sometimes does not) help to contextualise Blake’s own practice, but because Blake is also frequently invoked throughout the rest of the exhibition. The first thing that greets the visitor as they enter the Clore gallery is a line from Jerusalem – “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”, demonstrating just how important Blake has become since his death as a rather minor figure on the fringe of the pre-Victorian art scene. Certainly Blake’s role in The Romantics is partly to frame the significance of such art as part of the national collection for the twenty-first century, in many respects he being one of the few British artists who exemplifies what could be considered a romantic attitude in the visual, as opposed to literary, arts.

It is very clear that this is the British Romantics, with little that could illustrate the burgeoning art of Europe, with only the occasional contribution by continental artists such as Delacroix, as is the impossibility to provide a few other contextual aspects from the period, such as the overlap with neoclassical art or new developments in portraiture (evident in another exhibition currently in London at the National Portrait Gallery, with Thomas Lawrence as its focus) – though this, of course, is to demand the impossible, an exhibition with unlimited space and funds to show every work from every possibly related genre. Instead, there are opportunities to view some of the best examples of what could be defined as British Romantic art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s Sir Brook Boothby or Henry Wallis’s famous and fantastical portrait of Chatterton, as well as witness some clever interrogations of commonly understood conventions, as with John Crome’s early nineteenth century paintings of a slate quarry.

It is, however, the late Turner who, as ever, continues to astound: while, of course, paintings such as Sunrise with Sea Monsters and Norham Castle are unfinished, Turner’s vivid, brilliant expositions of light demonstrate just how important he would be to later generations of artists (much more so than the dutiful history painter of the early period who, for me, always disappoints when one moves from the grandiose landscape in the style of Lorraine or Poussin to the rather lumpen smudges of figures scattered around the foreground).

Which brings us finally to Blake. Presented with one room, the focus of this exhibition is the new series of prints acquired by Tate in January 2010, which is both an opportunity and a product of necessity, many of the other great Blake images owned by Tate Britain currently being prepared for a large exhibition at the State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum next year. Accompanying the new prints are two other works by Blake, the marvellous Blasphemer, one of the biblical scenes painted for Thomas Butts around 1800, and the dark and poorly preserved tempera of the Bard after Thomas Gray, which had started to deteriorate during Blake’s lifetime. In addition, there are works by Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli (with his Titania and Bottom dominating one wall), Richard Dadd and Theodore Von Holst. The Fuseli connection is apt, though from this the curators appear to have moved to Dadd and Holst as emblematic of Romantic imagination in a way that may be true generally, but immediately loses its originality by the apposition with Blake’s small prints.

Fuseli is an artist whose star has fallen as Blake’s has risen and, looking at his slightly bombastic canvas it is not hard to see why: Fuseli captures a particular aspect of his audience’s imagination and presents it back to them, slightly modified, slightly repackaged, without ever really pushing them (and, I’m afraid, that I was much less impressed by his student, Holst). By contrast, I have always been fascinated by some of Richard Dadd’s art, especially The Fairy Fellow’s Master Stroke, displayed here. Nonetheless, its hyper-real, rather kitsch and Dali-esque style means that this particular painting often appears to me to be locked into an obsession that, while it may fascinate more than Fuseli’s suitably risque but slightly passé fantasies, also bars out the viewer from exercising his or her imagination while Blake’s work appears much more stimulating.

Of course, during his lifetime, “mad” Blake’s paintings attracted even less interest than Dadd’s in Bedlam, but the new series of prints was proving extremely popular (and was constantly surrounded during the time I was at the exhibition). This, in part, is almost certainly due to the narrative surrounding their discovery, and plenty has been written on that subject and the prints themselves. One thing that struck me very clearly upon viewing these prints is the new style of conservation and preservation, which offers a marked contrast to previous forms of presenting art works. The prints have not had an easy life, and while some of the worst damage has been removed not all traces of that material history have been erased. Thus, for example, stab marks where the prints were bound together, as well as some of the grime accumulated throughout their existence, remain very much in evidence. However, it is the colours of those small images which most strongly stand out. Many of Blake’s contemporaries and immediate followers were extremely dismissive about his use of colour, but the clear, vivid reds and blues of his images of Los, Thel and Urizen blaze brightly, so that the fluid, elegant forms – lacking the monomaniacal introversion of Dadd or the arch, slightly too-knowing grotesquery or titillation of Fuseli – rightly inscribe themselves in the viewer’s mind. Eventually, these prints will sink to a lower place in the public imagination, almost certainly supplanted by the more famous large colour prints of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar, but for the moment it is entirely appropriate that they have this moment of close inspection: Blake’s imagination is more bizarre than Dadd’s, far less conventional than Fuseli’s, but it also offers a portal to later generations that is as important philosophically as Turner’s art is formally: it is the insistence that any artist – indeed, any viewer, must create their own system or be enslaved by another’s.

While the new prints may eventually attract less attention than other works by Blake, some of my particular favourites – Blake’s woodcuts for Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s pastoral poetry – are scattered throughout the exhibition. These very minor illustrations, which diverted Blake but for a little time, were in many ways the most formally significant of Blake’s works, inspiring artists as diverse as Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, such influence being especially evident in many of the works that fill the Neo-Romantics room. Apparent insignificance and ephemerality is a theme of the room curated by Richard Wright and demonstrating the importance of the Contemporary Art Society, which has donated, or caused to be donated, many important works to the nation.

Entitled The Sleeping Congregation, Wright’s room takes its title from a print by Hogarth satirising a pompous sermon. Wright’s own collection is very low-key – so low-key that we walked past it twice, somewhat distracted by Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar aircraft in the Duveen Gallery. Wright, winner of the Turner Prize for 2009, provides a more liminal space that, as well as a fragment of a title page from Blake’s Europe and small prints by Blake, Palmer and Calvert includes curios such as one of Christo’s wrapped magazines. Wright offers a critique of post-sixties art’s obsession with using the techniques of manipulation and control drawn from the advertising industry, and which offers a very understated contrast with the Duveen exhibition in the gallery next door (though Banner’s work is the most fun I’ve seen in a long time). There is also, it must be said, a certain irony in visiting this curated collection after the Romantics, for if contemporary art is sometimes seduced by the media-manipulation techniques of the advertising industry, it is also quite clear that those techniques owe much to the revelling in spectacle that has been one of fine art’s own enduring contributions to the growth of mind-forg’d manacles, and was clearly sometimes as much the intended effect of Romantic art in the early nineteenth century as any liberation of the senses.

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