From the Collection: Blake’s Progress – R. F. Nelson

Quite possibly one of the strangest books that I’ve ever come across – and this from a man who has spent more than half a lifetime poring over Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and The Book of Urizen, R. F. “Ray” Nelson’s Blake’s Progress is a science fiction from 1975 that follows the progress of one William Blake – and, more importantly, his wife Catherine – in their struggle against the time traveller Urizen throughout alternate universes.

While I let that sentence sink in, Radell Faraday Nelson is worthy of attention. Born in 1931 and 86 years young, Nelson began writing and drawing in the 1940s and 1950s. I had jokingly tweeted on first beginning Blake’s Progress that it read like a Philip K. Dick take on Blake – not realising at that point that Nelson’s first novel, The Ganymede Takeover, was written in collaboration with Dick and that he had been with the writer in the last few days before his death in 1982 (which you can read about on his web site). Most famous for the short story that was turned into John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live, Nelson himself considers Blake’s Progress to be his most successful novel.

The book is bizarre but extremely entertaining – and terribly written in parts, which does add to its charm. After a very brief prologue which introduces the League of the Zoa (more on which below), the story proper begins with Catherine Boucher in 1782 as she meets her future husband. It is Kate who is the hero of the novel – not only does it begin and end with her, but Nelson suggests that she was the real talent behind the partnership: as her husband worked on crazy illuminated books that no one wished to read, Catherine produced the more commercially viable prints that kept body and soul together. It is also William who is the husband in distress, saved by his wife when seduced and taken captive by Urizen and Vala.

The relationship between William and Catherine is one of the most fascinating elements of the book – and Bill does not come out of the comparison well. Throughout the novel he is portrayed as sexually repressed, stubborn to the point of stupidity and selfish through and through – a thoroughly Urizenic figure who, it turns out, fathered Urizen on Vala while travelling through time.

Nelson clearly knows a fair amount about both Blake’s works and life, though there are some bizarre gaps (such as his insistence that Blake had to find a new way to print because he didn’t own a printing press). The Four Zoas and The Book of Urizen provide, perhaps, the strongest guides to the plot: Urizen is a member of the League of the Zoa, a group of time travellers, and frustrated with the progress of history he constantly travels backwards in time, attempting to change reality (with Los and the other Zoas constantly seeking to revert the universe to its more usual order). William, through his visions, makes contact with Urizen and passes on the Zoa’s power of time and dimension travel; in one such alternate universe (created when Catherine and Blake sabotage biological weapons that the empire of Albion seeks to use against the Americas – in a twist on the events of America a Prophecy) they encounter Urizen and Vala (who is both Urizen’s mother and William’s lover) leading a race of malevolent serpent people who have replaced humanity.

At its best, the writing has a certain brio but Nelson really can’t do dialogue (William, Catherine and even Urizen converse in an ersatz Mary Poppins-esque “London-ese”), yet the following passage will give a taste of the bizarre settings that, ultimately, could have no other source than in the works of William Blake:

A moment later they turned a corner and came in sight of where they might have expected to look over downtown London. Kate gasped. “Look!”

On the opposite bank of the Thames, towering over the other structures, was William’s giant statue of Urizen, unchanged except that it was no longer stepping on the serpent god of Oothoon.

“He’s done it again,” William groaned, then added, more cheerfully, “But he must have liked my statue to have gone to the trouble of including it in this new reality.”

Blake’s Progress by R. F. Nelson, published by Laser Books, 1975.

 

From the Collection: The Punisher – The Tyger

First of all, a quick confession. Frank Castle is probably my favourite Marvel… character. I nearly wrote hero, which seems intentionally the wrong word, and yet also anti-hero is never quite right for me. The Punisher has been more frequently reviled as praised for being a series that glorifies violence. Yet for me, reviews such as Matt Kamen’s take on the recent Netflix series as an example of toxic masculinity are not quite correct (although to be fair to Kamen, his review is much more subtle than a one-phrase comment does justice to). Frank Castle occupies a position for me somewhere closer to Don Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy (which does, after all, deal with the events of the Duke of Castile and his son) and, as in all good Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, there will be blood. Lots of it.  Articles discussing the gruesome nature of violence in the series also seem to miss the mark: the violence is gut-wrenchingly unpleasant, and this is as it should be – if we enjoy violence, then there is, simply, something wrong with us (one of my fundamental problems with the Deadpool franchise). Frank Castle is as much punished as punisher and in the end I think he is a hero more for what he could have been, what he wants to be – a husband, a father – than what he is.

I’m also a sucker for the fact that Frank (born Frank Castiglione) had originally intended to become a priest before joining the marines. As with that other lesson in the dark morality of comics, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, it seems that one ex-Catholic can’t quite get enough of his heroes always being willing to fall a little further while yet somehow never quite reaching the bottom of the abyss. This post, however, deals with an exceptional edition of The Punisher, published in February 2006 as part of the Max Comics imprint aimed at adult audiences. Entitled The Tyger, it is an origin story that also contains one of the most extensive expositions on Blake that I believe exists anywhere in the comic universe, but Garth Ennis, the writer alongside John Severin, who did the art for this issue, have attracted considerably less attention that other figures such as Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.

The issue begins with Frank on a rooftop in the 1970s, waiting to commit an assassination and pondering on how his violent actions will be explained away as a convenient narrative based on the post-traumatic stress of combat in Vietnam. Yet the real cause of his transformation took place in 1960 when he was ten years old, and its origins lie in two figures – Lauren Buvoli and Vincent Rosa (a son of a local mafia boss) – as well as, we are told very explicitly, “the tyger”. The scene cuts to Frank as a young boy witnessing a man on fire, running through a navy yard, like a terrible parody of Orc. We will later discover that the man on fire has been set on fire by the others at the navy yard for being a strike breaker and complicit in an accident which left one of the men permanently injured. This brutal example of lex talionis is apparently justified by Frank’s father, but his mother decries such mindless violence.

It is Frank’s mother, we learn, who at this point influences him more than his father, inspiring in him a love of poetry that Catiglione senior cannot understand and dismisses as queer and unmanly. Ten-year old Frank, however, is very much his own boy, and a boy in love at that: Lauren Buvoli is beautiful and kind, a song of innocence in Frank’s neighbourhood and one of several indications throughout the series of the very different life that he could have led before he was forced to embrace experience. We also briefly encounter Lauren’s brother, Sal, a marine who will occupy a very important place in the story. It is partly to get closer to Lauren, but more to encourage his own sense of imagination, that Frank visits Father David who teaches poetry to kids in the neighbourhood. Father David introduces the class to Blake’s “The Tyger” and, as Frank observes, the priest and Blake “had me from the get-go”.

The follows, after the reading of the entire poem, an original and (the first time I read it) entirely unexpected disposition on reader response theory. Having let his imagination loose to conceive the tyger in his mind’s eye, a “force made flesh” that knows neither remorse nor mercy, Frank, Lauren and Father David discuss who it was that made this creature. It seems entirely credible to me that Ennis is familiar at this point with Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class?in particular Fish’s discussion of how critics answer the question in Blake’s poem according to their own preconceptions as to the nature of good and evil. Frank believes that the tyger must be made by something other than God, while Father David – responding to Lauren’s wonderfully liberal assertion that “can’t Frank read the poem the way he likes?” with a fatal assertion: “In this instance he really can’t.”

Ennis’s use of Blake is not as subtle and allusive as Alan Moore’s in part V of Watchmen, nor indeed Grant Morrison’s playful rejoinder in Zenith (more on both of these soon), but this discussion is an exceptionally intelligent series of observations on the role of interpretive communities in reading Blake and follows with another remarkable example of the role of the reader in interpreting the text. While on his second tour in Vietnam and out searching for a pilot lost behind enemy lines, Frank encounters a tiger. Rather than shooting in fear – for by this point, Frank Castle really doesn’t do fear – he and the tiger (or is it a tyger) reflect each other’s dangerous, stoic stare. As Frank remarks: “To this day, I have no idea if it was real. Or imagination filling in the gaps.”

The remainder of the grim roots of the origins of the Punisher involve rape, suicide and a dreadful, burning revenge by Sal who is, we realise, the “tyger” invoked by Frank at the beginning. In contrast to Frank’s father, who operates a kind of vigilante law of revenge that does, in the end, know fear and pity, Sal is remorseless and without mercy. He is also, as Frank discovers very quickly in Vietnam, walking towards his own death wish. The scene in which Sal takes his revenge on Vincent Rosa, burning him alive, is another demonstration of how Blake’s poem is used throughout the issue, being an act of fearful symmetry. By the end of the issue Frank reveals that he has made his choice, fixed his reading of “The Tyger” to become one who shows “the world a face not made by God”.

Ennis and Severin’s reading of Blake via the eyes of ten-year old Frank Castle is, quite simply, remarkable. I do not actually agree with Frank’s interpretation, and that is ultimately (for me) his loss, of innocence for experience. Yet Frank himself, throughout the various issues of The Punisher, knows this, and that is why – for me – he is such an interesting character. When The Punisher: The Tyger was published, Blake’s poem had already entered popular culture as one of the images – alongside the Great Red Dragon – in the Hannibal Lecter series. Yet unlike Francis Dolarhyde, with whom we are invited to at least empathise, if not sympathise, Frank stands apart from us: ultimately, his actions require a different kind of judgement. The invocation of the tyger is particularly interesting because this is not, in Ennis’s words and Severin’s art, a creature of Dionysian joy but, rather, a figure of stoicism – and, as in the works of that other famous stoic, Seneca, violence and pain are a punishment to be endured in a brutal, uncaring universe.

From the Collection: Spider-Man and Tigra

As I’ve been preparing for a talk in Manchester on Blake and comics, entitled “Here be Tygers”, I thought I’d share this little oddity from Marvel Comics. Part of the Marvel Team-Up series, Spider-Man and Tigra: At Kraven’s Command! is probably the oldest comic I have with a Blake connection as it was published in 1978.

Written by Chris Claremont with art by Dave Hunt and John Byrne among others, the Blake connection is pretty slender, to be honest. On the inside cover, Peter Parker is shown spinning his flight between buildings, worrying that he should really be studying but enjoying the freedom that his spidey-skills bring. Above him in bold letters reads the heading: “Tigra Tigra Burning Bright!”

It’s the oldest direct comic book reference I’ve found so far (and I’d be very happy to be contradicted/enlightened/educated in the comments below!) The story itself is usual Marvel fare from the seventies: Spider-Man, seeking to capture his foe Kraven the Hunter is himself caught and taken to Kraven’s lair. There the hunter sets Tigra – formerly an ally of the Fantastic Four but now controlled by an electronic collar that makes her Kraven’s slave – on Parker, an act that will result in his or her death that is (of course) averted when he uses his strength to destroy the collar.

As far as Blakeana goes, it is an extremely superficial link, more useful in many respects as an indication of just how prevalent the poem “The Tyger” was in post-war pop culture that Marvel could reference it in a pun with absolutely no further reference and expect its audience to get the joke. I’ll follow with a couple more from the collection at a later date.

From the Collection: Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love

While the internet and social media are abuzz with chatter about U2’s Songs of Experience (which I do intend to review soon), I thought I would return in the meantime to one of my personal favourites in terms of musical interpretations of Blake, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake by the Martha Redbone Roots Project.

Born in Kentucky, with roots throughout the Appalachians, Redbone has long explored Native American music alongside other traditions such as soul, gospel and English folk music. Her first albums, Home of the Brave (2001) and Skintalk (2004), attracted very favourable critical reviews, and there is a very good interview with Tom Paul at Soul Tracks which outlines some of her early influences, whether George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Quincy Jones or Icelandic R&B. As Paul observes, while some of her influences are clear the sound is all her own.

The Garden of Love was released in 2012, her fourth studio album and combined these influences to create a truly wonderful musical setting for Blake’s poetry. As with her earlier albums, reviews were rightly enthusiastic and are perhaps best summed up by a headline from National Public Radio: “Blake’s Poems, Reborn As Bluesy Folk Tunes, Burn Bright”. Of the songs on the album, her single, “The Fly”, attracted most attention.

“Bluesy folk tunes” is too broad a phrase. What is particularly remarkable about Redbone’s music is how the Appalachian roots of her music come to the fore, for example “On Another’s Sorrow”, but also how other genres recreate Blake’s poetry, such as the more melancholy English traditions of “I Heard an Angel Singing” or gospel on “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”. What is particularly wonderful is that while the words are those of Blake (and thus, of course, immensely appealing to me) the songs really are Redbone’s: not only does Blake serve as an inspiration to her to create in her own image, but – like all great adaptations of Blake – it leads me to reconsider his work in new ways.

A remarkable example of this is “I Rose Up At the Dawn of Day”, in which Redbone is supported by a choir on one of the most joyful recordings of Blake’s poetry ever. To my astonishment, when I first heard it I didn’t even realise that this was William Blake, initially mistaking it for a more traditional gospel source such as Charles Tindley or Andrae Crouch. However, the words are very much those of Blake, taken from his Notebook:

I rose up at the dawn of day
Get thee away get thee away
Prayst thou for Riches away away
This is the Throne of Mammon grey

Said I this sure is very odd
I took it to be the Throne of God
For every Thing besides I have
It is only for Riches that I can crave

I have Mental Joy & Mental Health
And Mental Friends & Mental wealth
Ive a Wife I love & that loves me
Ive all But Riches Bodily

I am in Gods presence night & day
And he never turns his face away
The accuser of sins by my side does stand
And he holds my money bag in his hand

For my worldly things God makes him pay
And hed pay for more if to him I would pray
And so you may do the worst you can do
Be assurd Mr Devil I wont pray to you

Then If for Riches I must not Pray
God knows I little of Prayers need say
So as a Church is known by its Steeple
If I pray it must be for other People

He says if I do not worship him for a God
I shall eat coarser food & go worse shod
So as I dont value such things as these
You must do Mr Devil just as God please (E481)

There is not a single song on this album that is not worth listening to repeatedly and it is, to repeat, one of my favourite albums based on Blake’s work. Selecting one track from the album is invidious and, as such, I will simply end here with the opening title track which is a doorway to the rest of the album:

 

Martha Redbone Roots Project, The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake, CD, Blackfeet Productions Ltd., 2012.

From the Collection: A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra

These two anthologies, A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra, were edited in the late nineteenth century by the clergyman and poet, Henry Charles Beeching (1859-1919). Beeching was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and began work in a Liverpool parish after taking orders in 1882; he published his first collection, Love in Idleness, in 1883.

As with many Victorians in the decades following publication of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, Beeching took an interest in Blake’s poetry, and included selections in his anthology A Paradise of English Poetry, published in 1893. From the 1870s onwards, Blake’s poetry became increasingly popular and his lyrics in particular started to appear in a number of collections. This particular anthology reprints Blake’s stanzas from Milton, ‘And did those feet’, as the second poem in his section on ‘Patriotism’, while the first comprises a compilation of extracts from Shakespeare:

O England, model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart!

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (A Paradise of English Poetry, p.204)

Cobbled together from extracts taken from the Prologue to Act 2 of Henry V, the final comments of Phillip the Bastard from Act V, scene 7 of the History of King John and, unsurprisingly, John of Gaunt’s “scepter’d isle” speech from Richard II, this looks to all intents and purposes the kind of set piece that Shakespeare should have delivered but never actually did. Indeed, Beeching’s alterations deliberately falsify Gaunt’s speech delivered just before a death that he welcomes, replacing his sad observation that “England, that was wont to conquer others,/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (Richard II, 2.1, ll.66-7) with the vainglorious assertion that instead “England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror” (King John, 5.7, ll.118-9). That Beeching was obviously affected by Blake’s verses is also indicated by his inclusion of the poem in his next collection, Lyra Sacra: A Book of Religious Verse, which appeared in print two years later and included the stanzas in the following form:

The New Jerusalem
By William Blake (1757–1827)

I

ENGLAND, awake! awake! awake!
Jerusalem thy sister calls!
Why wilt thou sleep the sleep of death,
And close her from thy ancient walls?

Thy hills and valleys felt her feet
Gently upon their bosoms move:
Thy gates beheld sweet Zion’s ways;
Then was a time of joy and love.

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult; and London’s towers
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green and pleasant bowers.

II

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pasture seen?

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land. (Lyra Sacra, p.199)

Alongside some epigrams and lines from Auguries of Innocence, these two poems – taken from Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and Milton A Poem – are most interesting because they represent the first time the title ‘Jerusalem’ is applied to Blake’s most famous stanzas. As an active editor of Milton’s works (indeed, Geoffrey Keynes published a version of Beeching’s edition of Paradise Lost with the addition of Blake’s illustrations in 1926 for the Nonesuch Press), Beeching was probably attracted to Blake’s prophetic book because of the Romantic’s clear invocation of the epic poet. As with most Victorian editors, Beeching took considerable liberties with Blake’s work, polishing it as he saw fit to accord more agreeably with Victorian tastes. Yet while he was critical of Blake’s ideas and the style of the prophetic books, nonetheless he admired the lyric poetry enough to reproduce a considerable quantity of it during his publishing career. More importantly, his slightly cavalier attitude to what the original author intended was to have immensely important consequences for the later reception of the stanzas beginning ‘And did those feet’: by conflating lines from Milton with those from Jerusalem, Beeching felt justified in renaming the poem ‘The New Jerusalem’, paving the way for the much more famous title by which the poem would be known in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Proving a direct link to Parry is problematic, but the indirect connection is compelling. Beeching was related by marriage to Robert Bridges, the poet laureate whose publication of The Spirit of Man provided Parry with the text for his setting, and Henry Walford Davies, Parry’s former pupil and the conductor for the first ever performance in 1916 of what would become known as ‘Jerusalem’ set both ‘And did those feet’ and the lines from Shakespeare to music in 1907/8. Furthermore, Parry’s final composition before his death – entitled simply ‘England’ – took as its lyrics the same extracts from Shakespeare which Beeching had placed alongside the stanzas from Milton. As such, A Paradise of English Poetry and Lyra Sacra remain two important, if forgotten, texts in the genealogy of what would become the most famous setting of Blake’s verse to music.

From the Collection: The Fall double single box set – Jerusalem and Big New Prinz

Mark E. Smith of The Fall has long been a fan of William Blake (you can listen to or read a transcript of some of my earlier reflections on what Blake meant to him), and one of the clearest expressions of his fascination with the poet was a version of ‘Jerusalem’ that he recorded in 1988 for the album I am Kurious Oranj.

I am Kurious Oranj, an album ostensibly based on the 300th anniversary of William of Orange’s accession to the English throne, is as wonderfully bizarre as it sounds. Released in late October, 1988, the pictured box set came out a week or so later, on 7 November, and was a beautiful, limited edition release comprising two singles as well as a promo postcard for the album.

The above links give a more extended reading of my own reactions to Smith’s version (which I love), and here I’m simply drawing attention to the beautiful nature of the singles as an assemblage of objects – something we have very much lost in the age of the digital download.

The song(s) reached 59 in the main UK charts – some way behind The Fall’s biggest hits, covers of ‘There’s a Ghost in My House’ (30) and ‘Victoria’ (35), although much better than most Fall singles, which tend to languish in the nineties. One of the hardest working men in (indie) showbiz, Smith has nearly always been an acquired taste, though I’ve always loved The Fall. You can listen to their version of ‘Jerusalem’ in the YouTube clip below.

The Fall – Jerusalem/Big New Prinz
Beggars Banquet – FALL 2B; 2 x vinyl, 7″, 45 rpm
Box set, limited edition, numbered; 07 Nov 1988

From the Collection: Urizen, the Dark God

Urizen, from Todd McFarlane’s Spawn series

This is something very different from my last post, although for various reasons it’s a favourite of mine. If Joel Peter Witkin’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience represents a high-culture response to Blake (in price at least, although some critics might object to that tag applied to the content of his photography), this plastic figurine from McFarlane’s Toys is very much the downmarket aspect of merchandising. I picked up this particular object for about £5 from eBay, but I do absolutely love it. I very much doubt that when Blake first presented his tyrant deity, Urizen, in the Lambeth prophecy America in the early 1790s, he thought it would be reincarnated as a plastic figurine aimed at kids – well, more accurately comic book geeks. I rather hope that he would have appreciated the thought.

I have a notion to do some work on Blake and comics in the coming months, and so have begun to collect various titles that reference Blake in some shape or form. Everyone, but everyone who knows something about Blake and comics knows about Blake and Alan Moore, the creator of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, who most recently wrote an epic novel, Jerusalem, that takes its title from the hymn and illuminated book by Blake. There are many, many others who lay claim to Blake as an inspiration, however, and one of the most inventive is Todd McFarlane.

McFarlane, most famous for his work on the Spider-Man series, is a Canadian-American comic book writer who has also produced material for some of the best-known and best-loved figures from comics in recent years, including the Incredible Hulk and Batman among others. My own interest in McFarlane, however, was piqued by his series Spawn, some of which I remember reading in the 1990s when they were first released by Imagine comics, but which I had long forgotten about.

Urizen, McFarlane Toys

Urizen first appears as a character in issue 93 (March 2000), and is identified as the “Dark God”, an epithet apparently chosen for its deliberate contrast to Blake’s original identification of this Zoa as the “prince of Light” (David Erdman, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, p.307). Indeed, a descendant of William Blake, “Granny Blake”, also appears in the Spawn series – but I’ll return to Urizen and Granny Blake at a later date once I’ve collected the relevant issues of the comic.

In the meantime, this figurine stands apart as a fascinating piece of Blakeana for its own sake. McFarlane Toys, the manufacturer of this trinket, is a spin-off subsidiary of Todd McFarlane Productions and was formed in 1994 (originally as Todd’s Toys, though it changed its name a year later to avoid confusion with, of all things, Barbie’s younger brother). The company has received some criticism for the gory nature of some of its creations, but any company that works with the late, great H. R. Giger to bring his monstrous creations to life (or plastic) is fine by me. Since its formation, McFarlane Toys has gone on to become a business with a turnover of some $9 million and makes toys for acts as diverse as The Simpsons and the rock group KISS.

There is no date given for this particular figurine, but would clearly have been after 2000 when Urizen made his debut in the Spawn comics, and is listed as part of the Spawn series 2. Rearing upwards in a stance similar to his pose in the first comic, Urizen takes on the form of some hellish demon, a complete antithesis (which, as far as I can tell, is deliberate) to the Blakean original. I would hope that rather than spinning in his grave, Blake would have been pleased to see his Deistic nemesis revived in popular culture – and perhaps have half an eye on future royalty payments.

From the Collection: Joel Peter Witkin’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

Joel Peter Witkin, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Joel Peter Witkin, Songs of Innocence and Experience

Published in 2004 by the photography art publisher, 21st Century Editions, Songs of Innocence and Experience is the most extensive homage by the photographer Joel Peter Witkin to the work of William Blake. Two separate editions were published (aside from artist’s and hors commerce copies): a deluxe edition, containing an original, signed platinum print by the artist, which was limited to 26 copies, and the regular (though still lavish) edition pictured here, which numbered 915 copies.

Born in 1939, Witkin’s art has frequently attracted controversy because of his use of corpses and dismembered body parts, as well as physically deformed, transsexual or BDSM-active individuals. Personally, I’ve been a fan of Witkin’s work since the 1990s (when I first encountered it in the retrospective catalogue published by Scalo in 1995), but his photography is often unpopular and frequently considered exploitative (especially, for example, his images of dead children and foetuses taken in Mexico where laxer laws allowed him to capture such photos). Rather like another Blake afficionado, the Surrealist Georges Bataille, Witkin’s relations to Blake operate on the margins of the diabolical rather than the angelic, depicting extreme depictions of human figures.

Strictly speaking, I find little visual consonance between the work of Witkin and Blake, the latter being so thoroughly influenced by the neo-classical movement of the late eighteenth century (for all his protestations that he hated classicism) that he seems at first to bear little relationship to the tortured, mannered expressionism of Witkin that has its roots, perhaps, in distortions of El Greco (and indeed, in 2016 Witkin announced that he was planning a series of photographs based on El Greco). To many of Blake’s contemporaries, however, the “human form divine” outlined in so many of his paintings was seen by them as precisely tortured, mannered and expressionistic: Robert Hunt described his work as that of “an unfortunate lunatic” and thought that his painting of the ancient Britons looked like sides of “hung beef”. As such, Witkin’s still lives of dismembered parts may share much more with Blake’s illustrations of the body than I am initially willing to concede…

Nonetheless, it is clear to see Witkin’s attraction to Blake operating in at least one other way: Witkin has frequently sought to present his curious subjects in the form of religious tableaux, and there is an intensity to the best of his work that invokes the original meaning of the word “sacred”, as that which is consecrated or set apart – devoted to divine use and destined for destruction in sacrifice, taboo. Again, this particular reading of the divine may have more in common with Bataille’s accursed share, though it is significant that Bataille began his book,  La Part Maudite, with an invocation of Blake: “the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space”. Ever since Algernon Swinburne’s apotheosis of Blake as the arch rebel, the Romantic artist and poet has clearly been one who was knowingly of the devil’s party for some of those inspired by his work – one whose work is a marriage of heaven and hell.

Joel Peter Witkin - La Bête
Joel Peter Witkin – La Bête

For the most part, Songs of Innocence and Experience brings together previous photographs by Witkin rather than new work, in ways that is frequently not especially appropriate while in other ways the connection is both fortuitous and illuminating. In an article published in 2010, I was somewhat critical of the fact that Witkin was far more attracted to experience rather than innocence in my opinion, but the image reproduced above – La Bête – is one of my particular favourites from the book: numerous scholars have been somewhat disappointed with Blake’s original illustration to his poem “The Tyger”, and Witkin’s accompanying photograph is one of the wittiest commentaries that I have ever seen. A reconstruction of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 Rhinoceros, Witkin’s photo suggests that just as Dürer had never seen a Rhino so Blake, quite clearly, had never been witness to a tiger. It is playful, amusing and delightful.

While some of Witkin’s images annoy me – not necessarily for their content, but rather because the juxtaposition with Blake’s poems is jarring (such as genital torture alongside “The Chimney Sweeper”) – the entire book is a truly beautiful artefact, even in the standard form. Many of his images would be better suited to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (or perhaps the darker nights of The Four Zoas), yet if the work sometimes is too redolent of experience rather than innocence, it also suggests some of the reasons why Blake continues to fascinate in so many ways in the twenty-first century.

 

Songs of Innocene & Experience, photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin, poems by William Blake with an Introduction by John Wood.
Edition: 915 numbered copies, plus 26 lettered copies. 62 plates printed in off-set on Arches paper. 13 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches