Is Wright’s Work Secular?

Jason Whittaker writes of Richard Wright’s Turner Prize winning work, that it “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”.  However, Wright’s work has been likened to that of Blake, whose work is often steeped in religious reference, so could his work be considered truly secular?

There are difficulties in establishing the meaning of “secular” especially in terms of visual image, and there are monumental challenges around identifying “the sublime” – a notion that has been a preoccupation of many nineteenth century philosophers. As Carroll writes in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, “The sublime has had almost as many interpretations as it has appearances in philosophical literature” and argues that the concept of the sublime is resistant to a singular definition.  Perhaps the absence of religion makes the notion of sublime more problematic? For many, “sublime” has other worldly, pseudo-religious connotations.  Ultimately, despite Whittaker’s claim that Wright has created a vision, there may be other, more relevant artists, who could have been better regarded for creations of sublime secularity.

The Oxford Dictionary describes secular simply as “not connected with religious or spiritual matters”.  But describing something by what it is not can be problematic. An attempt to identify a visual representation of an absence of something is challenging, but an attempt to find its epitome or a sublime, awe-inspiring representation of a missing notion is near impossible.  The dictionary also says that “secular” is contrasted with “sacred” – again this is only a contrast, and is defining only as a negative.  Secularity is not unlike peacefulness – a state which is simply defined as being the absence of violence – what peace looks like has been reduced to signifiers (doves, candles and rainbows).  Secularity doesn’t appear to even have universally recognised symbols –everything that is without overt religious connotation could be judged as being secular.

Secular is also derivative of saeculum in Christian Latin meaning ‘the world” – as opposed to the Church.  If secular is taken as the absence of religion, it is hard to argue that a European artist influenced by Blake, living in a Scottish pseudo-Christian environment, could produce something truly secular in spirit. Wright’s work does not only echo Blake’s, but the pure gold shimmer and scale the piece put me in mind of great Islamic works of the art of the ornament found in mosques and even Catholic churches.

According to some philosophers (notably Nietzsche), other measures of secularity include worldliness, classical tragedy and meaninglessness. The worldliness of this piece is undeniable, not perhaps in its form, but in what happens to it afterwards – it is painted over. Art critic Charlotte Higgins writes, “Wright’s point is that all art is mortal” and quotes Wright as saying, “the fragility of the experience is the hinge for me.”  And although the content may lack a narrative of tragedy and may even be considered overtly biased towards the Apollonian aesthetic of beauty, there is tragedy is in its ultimate destruction – and therefore presents us with a Dionysian balance. In an interview after wining the Turner Prize Wright says, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”.

Wright himself has not offered any deep meaning to the marks he makes – but could they be read as meaningless?  It would be strong to insist that Wright’s work is nihilistic – unless the artist stated so himself.  It might be dangerous to simply take Wright’s work as being secular ornament, when the associations with religious and cultural tradition remain strong, in particular the careful attention to pattern in Wright’s work, which echoes an Islamic trend. It is near impossible to read ornament and pattern as neutral – references to the multitude of traditions of pattern – both religious and secular –found in ‘The Grammar of the Ornament’ can be found in Wright’s work.

In a world acknowledged by a number of philosophers as being fraught with nihilism, we are forced to return to the option of filling this void with art and music, as Young indicates “[Art] enables us to enjoy a religious sentiment without the need to subscribe to any conceptual content”, providing a “catacomb where religious habit of mind can continue to exist”. Here perhaps lies the strongest argument for Richard Wright’s work being viewed a vision of secular sublime.

Many visual and non-visual creations by a wealth of artists across the ages are able to respond to the charge of being secular, but as a portrait artist I could not but wonder whether such a vision would contain some representation of the human being, or face.  The human form could be said to be a poignant illustration of the “artistic taming of the horrible” a human portrait may have evoked a true, worldly vision. When promoting earth, individuality and the absence of reason and morale, how can any vision of secular sublime fail to contain a human?

I have recently visited Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac at Musée Rodin and also seen Gustav Klimt’s Three Ages of Woman which was inspired by a Rodin piece – Gates of Hell.  Two works of art containing the human, that could equally be explored as secular visions. Although Rodin may have tried to capture Balzac’s genius in this monument to him, is it a stretch to suggest it held qualities of the secular sublime?  Is the artists religious stance relevant? As a sculpture of a human it is of this world, (although the plinth may betray this) and perhaps speaks of the tragedy in genius – although it does not horrify or compel.  It is perhaps, knowing Rodin’s love of classics that permits him access to this discourse – although also a lover of reason (The Thinker) Rodin was far from nihilistic. There is some argument that science and reason, over religion could be taken as secular.

Klimt’s paintings and drawings were packed full of eroticism, humour and dominant female figures.  Drawing inspiration from Greek classics, Klimt was said to employ a sublime sensitivity and a “decadent aesthetism”.  At the time of his painting he was breaking all religious taboos and his portrayal of the mortal human was both tragic and beautiful.  His work is both compelling and horrifying.

Although my conclusions may feel as ambiguous as the many attempts to define the secular (and the sublime), on balance the assessment is that yes, Wright’s work at least references such a vision.  It has a worldliness to it and a tragedy in it’s unmaking – one could even suggest that it was the painting over of the work, its destruction, which ultimately defined it as sublime.  However, as Wright is able to tell us what his art is about – I conclude that it is far from nihilistic.  I have juxtaposed Wright’s work with that of Rodin and Klimt, which may be unfair and even irrelevant, but demonstrates that Wright’s work may not be the best example of the secular sublime. However Wright’s work and Whittaker’s views certainly offer a useful starting point that allows us to ask – what does a vision of the secular sublime look like?

William Blake Spring events

After the barring of Winter’s adamantine doors, the first months of Spring have seen her issue forth from her bright pavilions with a Blakean intensity, a number of Blake-inspired events having been opened or being projected for the coming weeks.

In the art world, Zoamorphosis has already covered the exhibition of Blake’s work curated by John Frame at the Huntington gallery, as well as display of his stories and sculptures, “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale”, but in the UK the National Gallery of Scotland is also planning a new catalogue, English Drawings and Watercolours 1600-1900, that will draw attention to its less-well-known collection. Due for publication in June, this will include information on the works of Blake (as well as other contemporaries such as Turner and Gainsborough) included in that collection. At the Northumbria University Gallery, in the meantime, the east London-born painter Norman Adams has opened an exhibition, The Way of the Cross, which takes inspiration for the crucifixion from a line of visionary painters that includes Stanley Spencer and William Blake.

In Australia, the 59th Blake Prize, named after the artist and dedicated to promoting diversity as well as provoke conversations that promote religious themes, has come to Melbourne for the first time in many years. The exhibition includes installation pieces, paintings and mixed-media works, nd though the exhibition has now drawn to a close it has done much to promote the work of the Blake Society in Australia.

On the stage, Blake inspired work has been attracting considerable attention. The award-winning play Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth and starring Mark Rylance has opened this week on Broadway at The Music Box Theatre, and runs to the 24th July. Directed by Ian Rickson and starring Mackenzie Crook and John Gallagher, Jr., as well as Rylance, it has already stirred up considerable critical attention with its alternative take on England’s green and pleasant land. Meanwhile, at Theatre Oobleck in Chicabo, a new play by Mickle Maher, There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, weaves Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience around the fate of a hapless pair of college teachers whose decision to have sex on the quads leads to their delivering what are very probably their last lectures.  Maher’s play runs until May 22 at the Storefront Theatre on Randolph Street.

Of other events, Heriberto Yepez will be one of the guest authors to do some readings at the UCSD New Writing Series this month. Yepez is a Mexican writer, journalist and psychotherapist, and a full-time professor at the Art School at the Autonomous University of Baja California, in Tijuana, whose work in translation include a selection of William Blake’s fragments and aphorisms. In music, Andrew Blick of Gyratory System has released an album, New Harmony, that includes the Blake-inspired track “I Must Create a System” (the album incorporating Cabaret Voltaire, free jazz and nineteenth-century socialism as well as Blake among its influences). You can buy New Harmony from Amazon.

And finally (aside from the slightly bizarre news in The Sun, much repeated, that rapper Dizzee Rascal has taken to reading Blake), one of my favourite stories of the month was the contemporary art project run in Guelph, Ontario on April 21. Song for Others was a conceptual take on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in which Guelph residents sang from some 60 recordings on subjects as various as nursery rhymes to children to love songs and melodies to the sick. You can read more about it on the Guelph Mercury site.

 

Blakespotting: My Pretty Rose Tree – Jason Franks and Luke Pickett

“My Pretty Rose Tree” is a short, four page comic adapted from Blake’s song of experience. Written by Jason Frank and illustrated by Luke Pickett, it was originally published in Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls, a collection of 22 horror stories from Australia, in late 2010. Luke Pickett, however, has made a low-res version of the story available on his blog and my thanks to him for drawing the comic to my attention.

Blake’s poem is pared back to a few skeleton lines that allow Frank and Pickett to re-imagine the poem as a luridly coloured gothic horror story, with implicit themes of sexual transgression being brought to the fore.

Luke, who currently resides in Toronto, studied art in Melbourne and now dedicates much of his time to developing comic art (a form that, unsurprisingly considering the combination of word and image attracts a large number of Blakeophiles – see, for example, Roger Whitson’s article on Korshi Dosoo’s Tyger). Jason Franks, also from Melbourne and the editor of Blackglass Press which publishes the Kagemono series, is a writer and programmer, and you can read more of his work on his blog at jasonfranks.com.

Kagemono: Flowers and Skulls

Born to Endless Night: John Frame curates Blake at the Huntington Art Gallery

The Huntington Art Gallery, in San Marino, California, is currently hosting two displays that will be of interest to Blake admirers. The first, “Born to Endless Night“, is a collection of paintings, drawings and prints selected by John Frame and on display in the Works on Paper Room, March 12–June 20, 2011. The second exhibit is Frame’s own display of stories and sculpture, “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale“, showing concurrently in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery.

Frame, who was influenced by Blake and Shakespeare as a young artist, provides three dozen intricately carved sculptures for the “Three Fragments” display. Having worked as a figurative sculptor since the 1980s, Frame has also worked more recently in film and photography. His current project, on show at the Huntington, began as a dream with a cast of characters created from wood and found objects. A book accompanying the exhibition provides a linear narrative to the pieces, but Frame has also been eager to point out that each of the sculptures, ranging in size from 3½ to 32 inches high, also exist as independent objects.

For the display “Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame”, the artist has chosen works from Blake’s illustrations to the Book of Job and Paradise Lost, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and the prints Hecate or the Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, Lot and His Daughters, and Laocoön. Of his relation to Blake, Frame writes:

Discovering Blake in my early twenties, I was drawn immediately into a world that was both charming and unsettling, and a body of work that comprised both literature—which was my primary study at the time—and visual art, where I was to find my own life’s work. Blake was a poet, a painter, an eccentric, and an unorthodox theologian. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, who confined themselves largely to portraits of the wealthy, landscapes, and decorative pieces, he grappled always with the basic questions of human life… Through imagination, he believed, you accessed the Divine; in the act of creation you realized your purpose as a human being. Blake’s insights have in many ways shaped my own approach to art making, and, no matter how frequent my journeys into his world, I have never failed to find there new wisdom, fresh beauty.

Entrance to the displays is free, and a book of Frame’s own sculptures – T hree Fragments of a Lost Tale: Sculpture and Story by John Frame – is available at the Gallery bookstore or through University of California Press.

“Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame” and “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale: Sculpture and Story by John Frame”. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Morino, CA, March 12-June 20, 2011. For more information visit www.huntington.org.

Oathe13 Embracing Calthalendula

Tom MayberryOathe13 Embracing Calthalendula, 2011
Conceptual Artist/Model: Tommy Mayberry
Photographic Artist: Tina Weltz, MPA, LPPO
Hair and Make-up Artist: Jessica Barber
Digital Image
Calla Studio
www.callastudio.ca
www.tommymayberry.com

Note: This work is part of my in-progress Master of Arts Thesis in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) under the supervision of Dr. Jeffery Donaldson. For this project, I am re-visioning Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion as a visual book (Visions2011) combining creative prose with studio photography to explore contemporary cultural contentions of Blake’s Visions in a dually creative/scholarly manner.

I slowly reach out my right hand and sweep my fingertips along Calthalendula’s golden petals. As I pull my hand back in toward me, it follows its motion and rises from the mud on its powerful stem. Growing nearer to my face, I cup its head in my right hand and grasp its stalk with my left. With both of my hands embracing it, subtle shoots emerge from the ground and wind themselves softly up my body.

We are becoming one, Calthalendula and I. Its roots hug me tighter, and when I feel that I could no longer pull away had I wanted to, the centre of Calthalendula’s blossom opens. A hot glow radiates from it unto me, resting on my face, shoulders, and between my breasts. The intensity of its light consumes me until I can no longer see again and feel anything but its fire. A comfortable cool settles on my skin, and I open my eyes to see that Calthalendula has left me. I am now clothed, but alone again.

Yet you are not, Calthalendula’s voice whispers to me from inside me.”

          -from Visions2011

In my re-visioning of Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion, I have inverted the genders of Oothoon and Bromion so that the heroine of Blake’s poem becomes the hero in mine as he, following this scene here, flies off to be with his (male) lover, but, on that journey, falls victim to his (female) rapist. As I have shifted the axes core to Visions, Oathe13 Embracing Calthalendula, too, follows in this oppositional vein as it counters the gender, sunlight, and angles of Blake’s “The Argument” plate so that, intervisually, it becomes a near-perfect mirror refraction. S. Foster Damon, in his A Blake Dictionary, writes that “[t]he Marygold (marigold) symbolizes the first experiment with sex [as t]he plucking of a flower is an ancient symbol for sexual experience” (265), and Northrop Frye, in his Fearful Symmetry, notes that “Oothoon has ‘pluck’d the flower’ of imaginative experience and has entered the state of innocence” (238). In my re-vision, Oathe13 (my male Oothoon character) embraces his “marigold” (named Calthalendula) to do just the same: awaken the powers of [sexual] exploration within him (Damon 265). Leopold Damrosch Jr., in his Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth, writes that, in Visions, “Leutha’s vale had been the place of sexual initiation” (217), and while not given in the illustrated snippet of text from my visual book above, Calthalendula, upon initially meeting Oathe13, tells him, “[w]e are in Leutha. In the Land of Visions.”

A great deal of botanical scholarship in relation to Blake’s Visions fuels the conceptuality of this piece as well, for “[b]otany was a radical and sexualized discourse in the 1790s” (Bernath Walker). In her paper “‘In What Gardens Do Joys Grow?’: Queer Botanizing in Blake’s Visions, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and Darwin’s Botanic Garden,” Elizabeth Bernath Walker notes that “Blake was one of the engravers who worked on [Darwin’s The Botanic Garden],” and that “[t]he influence of Darwin’s personification [of plants and plant ‘sex’] is evident in the opening prosopopoeia of Visions where Oothoon wanders in the vales of Leutha and comes upon a talking flower, an anthropomorphized marigold symbolizing the spirit of female sexuality.” She explains that there are “two discrete genera” for the common floral name marigold (the Caltha palustris – the marsh marigold – and the Calendula officinalis – the pot marigold) and that both are in Darwin’s text. Noting that “critical opinion is divided as to which genus Blake was referencing,” Bernath Walker explores the evidence on either camp revealing that David Worrall advocates for the pot marigold “based on the beams of light that Leutha’s marigold emits” (as Darwin references Calendula officinalis as emitting sparks) while Anne K. Mellor and Richard Matlak annotate the marigold in Visions as “caltha palustris, commonly called mayflower, a symbol of fertility in May Day festivals” (294). Bernath Walker ultimately suggests – although, in her paper, she primarily considers it the pot marigold – that it is “likely that both Calendula and Caltha contribute meaning to Blake’s text.” For my marigold, I merged the two possible genera into one überflower to encompass the cultural connotations of both possibilities. I dubbed it, appropriately, Calthalendula (a linguistic splicing of the two). My Calthalendula still emits light (recalling its half-namesake Calendula officinalis), for, as Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi note in their Introduction to Visions, “[o]ne thin line of radiance etched on the plate extends from the right-most marigold, but the other three shafts of light make it clear that they are all part of a sunrise” (237), yet it also retains the fertile connections to Caltha palustris.

These fertile and feminine connections and connotations are vitally interesting in my piece, for the schools of scholarship (very aptly so, given Oothoon’s female identity in Visions) all centre on the inherent femininity of her act. Sheila A. Spector, in her “Glorious Incomprehensible, writes that “the action initiated by Oothoon’s choice to pluck Leutha’s flower encompasses the full range of female archetypes from virgin and mother to whore” (72 – emphasis mine). Furthermore, “Oothoon’s plucking of the flower strongly suggests the similar fatal act of Persephone” (Damon 265), and “[b]oth stories [Oothoon’s and Persephone’s] suggest at least a metonymic connection between the acts of literal and metaphoric ‘deflowering’” (Eaves et al. 230). How, though, does an act of deflowering – literal and/or metaphoric – translate into male actions? If males are traditionally, and even anatomically, the deflowerers (as is), can they maintain their masculinities in becoming deflowered themselves? Or do they, in essence, become somewhat hermaphroditic? Tony Rosso, in his paper “The Last Strumpet: Harlotry and Hermaphrodism in Blake’s Rahab,” says that “[h]ermaphrodism isn’t necessarily a merging of genitalia so much as a monstrous merging in general,” and that “Blake interprets hermaphrodism as merging the Male and Female as required to achieve the perfect form.” John Middleton Murray, in his Note on Blake’s Visions, writes that Male and Female being one (as in the Bible story), “rather than the freedom of Oothoon, is Blake’s final answer to the riddle of sex” (21). The current prognosis of my Thesis is to find that “perfect form” within Blake’s Visions through my queering of it, and this piece, Oathe13 Embracing Calthalendula, begins that divining.

Works Cited

Bernath Walker, Elizabeth. “‘In What Gardens Do Joys Grow?’: Queer Botanizing in Blake’s Visions, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, and Darwin’s Botanic Garden.” Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century [The Sexy Blake Conference]. 15 July 2010.

Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century [The Sexy Blake Conference]. The Christopher Room, St. Aldate’s Church, Oxford, UK. 15-16 July 2010.

Blake, William. “The Argument.” Visions of the Daughters of Albion Plate 3. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. William Blake: The Early Illuminated Books. Eds. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998. 247. Print.

Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. Rev. ed. Lebanon, NH: UP of New England, 1988. Print.

Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. Print.

Eaves, Morris, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Introducion [to Visions of the Daughters of Albion]. The Early Illuminated Books. By William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998. 225-42. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Ed. Nicholas Halmi. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 14. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. and Richard Matlak, eds. British Literature: 1780-1830. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle, 1996. Print.

Middleton Murray, John, “A Note of William Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion.” Visions of the Daughters of Albion. By William Blake. London, UK: Temple P Letchwork, 1932. 11-25. Print.

Rosso, Tony. “The Last Strumpet: Harlotry and Hermaphrodism in Blake’s Rahab.” Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century [The Sexy Blake Confernece]. 16 July 2010.

Spector, Sheila A. “Glorious Incomprehensible”: The Development of Blake’s Kabbalistic Language. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2001. Print.

Watercolour at Tate Britain

A new exhibition opened this week at Tate Britain, devoted to understanding what has often been considered a particularly British art form of which William Blake was a particular devotee.

Titled simply “Watercolour”, the exhibition, which runs from 16 February to 21 August 2011, looks at the often neglected impact of this medium over 800 years. Described as “the most ambitious exhibition about watercolour ever to be staged”, it covers a wide range of formats from miniatures and manuscript illustration to extensive landscape paintings that are often neglected in favour of oil.

Artists on display in “Watercolour” include JMW Turner, Paul Nash, David Jones, Anish Kapoor and Tracey Emin – as well, of course, as William Blake.  In his Descriptive Catalogue of 1809, Blake praised watercolour (which he described as fresco) in the following, typically extravagant but also subtly perceptive, terms:

Fresco Painting is properly Miniature, or Enamel Painting; every thing in Fresco is as high finished as Miniature or Enamel, although in Works larger than Life. The Art has been lost: I have recovered it. How this was done, will be told, together with the whole Process, in a Work on Art, now in the Press. The ignorant Insults of Individuals will not hinder me from doing my duty to my Art. Fresco Painting, as it is now practised, is like most other things, the contrary of what it pretends to be.

Tate Britain is also running a blog on the exhibition that will include articles by both the curators involved in the show and various other public figures such as David Attenborough and contemporary artists included in the exhibition.

“Watercolour” at Tate Britain: 16 February – 21 August 2011. Entrance fee: £12.70/£10.90 concessions. For more information visit http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/watercolour/default.shtm.

Samuel Palmer and the Valley of Vision

Today is the anniversary of the birth of the artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), a landscape artist and writer who befriended William Blake through their joint acquaintance with John Linnell. Born in London, he had no formal schooling and was largely self-taught as a painter, demonstrating the influence of Joseph Mallard William Turner in some of his earliest paintings.

After meeting Blake in 1824, he became associated with the Ancients, sometimes called the Shoreham Ancients because of Palmer’s residence in the village, and his art of the following years was greatly inspired by Blake. He married Linnell’s daughter, Hannah, though relations with his father-in-law were not always happy, and from the 1830s his art became more conventional, though his later landscapes met with critical success. After his death, his reputation declined, although from the 1920s onwards his Shoreham paintings inspired a number of artists such as Graham Sutherland and Ruthven Todd.

Although the exact date when Palmer first met Blake is not known, the meeting was of profound significance to Palmer, who later wrote to Alexander Gilchrist:

I can never forget the evening when Mr. Linnell took me to Blake’s house, nor the quiet hours passed with him in the examination of antique gems, choice pictures, and Italian prints of the sixteenth century… His eye was the finest I ever saw: brilliant, but not roving, clear and intent, yet susceptible; it flashed with genius, or melted in tenderness. It could also be terrible. Cunning and falsehood quailed under it, but it was never busy with them. It pierced them, and turned away. (Gilchrist 302)

Palmer began to visit Blake regularly in 1824, quickly becoming friends with the older artist, and Palmer’s son wrote of him that “No one else was affected by Blake in the same way, to the same extent, or so permanently” as his father (cited in Bentley, 403). Blake probably first accompanied Palmer to the house of the young artist’s grandfather in Shoreham around September 1825, and over the following years Palmer most began to demonstrate the influence of Blake’s art, in particular after Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, in a series of paintings such as Landscape, Girl Standing (1826), Coming from Evening Church (1830), and Harvest Moon (c. 1833).

After Blake’s death, Palmer, along with Linnell, became one of the most important sources of information about Blake to a later generation, spending many evenings in discussion with the Gilchrists. In a letter reprinted by Gilchrist, Palmer summed up his feelings thus:

Blake, once known, could never be forgotten… He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter. (Gilchrist, 301)

It was Palmer who described Blake as “a man without a mask” although, like Linnell, he was not averse to abetting Gilchrist in suppressing those aspects of Blake which could have been unacceptable to the Victorian public. Nonetheless, he maintained memory of the artist in the decades following Blake’s death when there was no interest among a wider public, and in the twentieth century his adaptation of Blake’s vision became an equally important influence to a new generation of neo-Romantic artists.

(Citations taken from Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake. Edited by Ruthven Todd. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1945. Image: Coming from Evening Church, 1830, Tate Britain.)

Newton – Blake – Paolozzi

As today is the anniversary of the birth of Sir Isaac Newton (according to the Gregorian calendar at least, although Newton himself was actually born on Christmas Day, 1642, under the Julian calendar), this seemed an opportune moment to discuss the image that has become part of the logo for this site and has, for me, long served as a good example of zoamorphosis in action.

Blake’s iconic image of Newton, compass in hand, was first designed circa 1795 and another version printed in 1805. Although, as with so many of Blake’s designs, somewhat neglected during his lifetime, it became one of Blake’s exceptional images during the twentieth century, not least insofar as it influenced Eduardo Paolozzi, the sculptor responsible for the huge bronze outside the British Library.

This version, unveiled in 1995, was not the first time Paolozzi, who initially trained as a commercial artist at Edinburgh before being introduced to Surrealism at the Slade in the 1940s, is not the sculptor’s first treatment of Blake’s rendition of Britain’s most famous scientist. Paolozzi’s interest in Blake began during his time at the Slade when Blake was regularly displayed at the Tate under the directorship of Sir John Rothenstein, and intensified when Francis Bacon produced his studies of Blake’s life mask in the 1950s.

Paolozzi has spoken of his admiration for Blake’s idiosyncratic classicism (for example in his illustration of Laocöon) and he first began working on Newton inspired models in plaster and other materials (after the manner of Canova’s terracotta “sketches”) in the mid to late eighties. In “Master of the Universe”, produced in 1989, he began to mechanise the form of Newton, as well as adding some personalised touches such as glasses that accentuated the links Paolozzi found with Newton as well as Blake.

In an interview with Fiona Pearson not long after the British Library statue was unveiled, Paolozzi said that he enjoyed the “ironic tension between Blake’s castigation of Newton’s wish to order the universe and the accepted wisdom that one should celebrate Newton’s intellect and discoveries”. This draws attention to a double play of mutation that takes place within the image: Newton, as the classical imago of British science and rational enlightenment, is transformed by Blake into the beautiful but static (and, indeed, statuesque) image of Urizenic rationalism, almost blind to the beauties of the strange, submerged world around him in Blake’s colour print.

Paolozzi, in good, Blakean style (remember, this is the artist who insists that he must create his own system or be enslaved by another man’s) refuses to accept his Romantic forebear’s conception of the great demi-god Newton. Instead, he converts the marble-painted eyes to bronze and adds a pair of spectacles, instruments of myopia certainly, but also a focus for the task of concentration that he must perform as an artist. Blake’s Newton inspires Paolozzi again and again, but not towards any slavish copy: rather, as a true artist, his business is not to reason and compare but to create his own vision.

Blake and Physiognomy

This new display in Room 2 of the Tate Britain collections for British Art 1500-2010 brings together a selection of Blake’s works in the context of Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and physiognomist most famous for his book, Essays on Physiognomy. Translated in 1789, this book caused something of a sensation in Britain (as well as the rest of Europe), and Blake was commissioned – along with Thomas Holloway – to engrave a number of designs made for the Essays by Lavater’s friend, Henry Fuseli.

The display has been brought together by Philippa Simpson with input from Sybille Erle, who has long worked on Blake’s illustrations to Lavater and whose book, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy was recently published by Legenda. It opens with a brief account that contextualises the ideas made popular by the Swiss writer. His illustrations to Essays on Physiognomy, begun near the start of Blake’s career, are followed immediately by designs for the so-called “Visionary Heads”, the series of drawings and famous tempera painting of the Ghost of a Flea that were composed at the instigation of his friend John Varley in the final years of Blake’s life. While Blake seemed to have taken a lifelong interest in the depictions of facial types that was consonant with the philosophy of Lavater, that interest was much less literal in many respects than Varley’s who, as various asides from his contemporaries made clear, believed more or less everything he heard and everything that he read.

Much of the display is comprised of selections from two series that Blake worked on: the large colour prints, including the magnificent illustrations of Nebuchadnezzar and Newton, and watercolours and engravings from the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. While Blake was immensely impressed by Lavater’s theories, having inscribed a heart around his and Lavater’s names in his own copy of the Essays, one of the most striking elements of this display is the occasional dissonance that appears to occur in Blake’s own art. Lavater suggested that through physiognomy was displayed the essential characteristics of a person’s character, and while Blake appears to have agreed with this basic tenet he also sometimes appears to turn the correspondences between psychic and physical attributes on their (so to speak) head. This is most evident in the print of Newton – in which the idealised spiritual beauty of the scientist betrays a cold, almost blind monomania rather than perfection of character – and Ciampolo the Barrator Tormented by the Devils. In this latter engraving, the malebranche, or horned devils that torture Ciampolo (whose sin is to sell political influence) have faces of refined gentlemen, offering a satirical cast on Blake’s use of physiognomy to reflect character.

As the curators make clear, if very subtly, though Lavater was considered one of the mildest of men his pseudo-scientific theories also contained disturbing aspects, most notably his anti-semitism. Lavater believed, for example, that by conversion to Christianity Jews would see their features slowly become less “jewish”, and once or twice the immensely philo-semitic Blake appears to pander to this crass prejudice, as well as – perhaps rather understandably – the straightforward Eurocentrism of the age.

While Blake’s illustrations dominate the display, there are also works on show from Sir David Wilkie and William Hogarth, whose painting of heads of six of his servants is a delightful masterpiece. While Hogarth is obviously fascinated by the features of his servants, his interest in physiognomy does not display the same fascination in abstraction, theory and types as Lavater’s and Blake’s but captures instead vivid characters rather than correspondences. Alongside this is a print of Blake’s depiction of the Canterbury Tales, vivid and brilliant in a very different way to Hogarth’s masterly painting. In his catalogue entry for the original painting, Blake had written: ”

Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter.” (E532-3) Whereas Hogarth depicted individual characters, specific to the faces of the wonderfully mundane figures in his employ at that time, for Blake the illumination of types from literature was a more important consideration for the ideal artist.

The final items on display are two versions of the famous life mask of Blake made by James Deville in 1823. Deville, who created and collected phrenological casts, wished to capture the faculties of imagination which, he assumed, were displayed most clearly in the face of Blake. The versions, in plaster and bronze, have become one of the most significant and popular images produced by Blake, influential on a wide range of later artists such as Francis Bacon and Antony Gormley – and which I have long considered his most important piece of performance art. As ever, the life mask, is a fascinating piece and also offers an ironic counterpoint to many of my own assumptions regarding the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook that Lavater inspired: if physiognomy is not an index of character, particularly of the racialist strictures that it was to give rise to in the nineteenth century, it never ceases to amaze me how much of my own estimation of what type of man Blake was has been formed by looking on the somwhat stern, concentrated face preserved in Deville’s remarkable cast.

Blake and Physiognomy runs until 8 May 2011. Entrance is free.

Blake and Physiognomy

Tate Britain has just opened a new display on Blake and Physiognomy which is to run at the gallery until 8 May 2011.

Curated by Philippa Simpson, with items on loan from the National Portrait Gallery and drawing on the research of Sibylle Erle, Blake and Physiognomy explores the relationship between Blake and the fascination with aspects of physiognomy and phrenology that developed in the late eighteenth century.

Works on show in the display include some of Blake’s large colour prints, notably Nebuchadnezzar, as well as a selection of the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy and other artists from the period such as William Hogarth and Sir David Wilkie who had an interest in physiognomy. The display also focuses on Blake’s interest in Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and friend of Henry Fuseli whose essays on physiognomy sparked most sustained attention on the subject at the time.

Entrance to Blake and Physiognomy is free and the display is located in Room 2 at Tate Britain. It runs from 8 November 2010 to 11 May 2011.