Review: John Higgs – William Blake Now

During my near thirty years of studying Blake, there have been plenty of books and articles that I have been sent which cross the normal boundaries of academia and publishing and are also given as an act of friendship. I have a strong suspicion that this is something that is more common in Blake studies than elsewhere, but it is something that I felt very strongly upon reading John Higgs’ William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever.

This slender non-fiction title, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is not an academic text at all (and I mean that neither as a slight to William Blake Now, nor as a stab at my own profession). One thing that has always intrigued me about Blake is how he appeals to thoughtful readers outside academia: of course, this is also true of a number of writers and artists – Jane Austen is a contemporary of Blake who has a vibrant afterlife beyond the university – but Blake is one of those who has never been owned by the hirelings such as myself who populate universities. In this short book, Higgs provides nine essays – a series of brief spots of time (or, better, moments in each day that Satan cannot find) that are placed at angles to each other, like the surfaces of a gemstone. They form a wonderfully personal and frequently polemical consideration of Blake’s value to our contemporary times, that future age to which he called in works such as Milton a Poem.

That personal response is evident in the opening chapter, which brilliantly paints the occasion of the unveiling of Blake’s new grave – a stone commissioned by the Blake Society to mark the newly discovered spot where Blake’s body lay. Delighting in the sight of celebrities mingling with the hoi-polloi (as, indeed, it should be), Higgs remarks the Romantic’s unusual ability “to reach across society” (p.3) before focussing on his relationship with the English Beat writer, Brian Barritt, who stimulated his interest in Blake. Standing before Blake’s grave, Higgs has a revelation or vision, that he sees the golden thread that connects the engraver, writer and artist to our own age. For him, it is clear that the Beats form an important strand in that thread, bound through in the next chapter when he discusses the influence of Blake on Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Patti Smith. There has been a huge amount of interest in Blake and the Age of Aquarius in recent years – not least Linda Freedman’s William Blake and the Myth of America and Stephen Eisenman’s edited collection William Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Higgs clearly feels this connection strongly, but this is his entry point, the doorway to Blake’s influence: as he wrily remarks – “The 1960s were a long time ago… We are in a very different world now.” (p.15)

The relevance of Blake to now emerges in the following two essays. In some respects, the first of these – entitled, simply, “London” – is the most important. The Song of Experience is famously one of the most profound poems ever written on the city, and Higgs’s personal reflections on that poem lead him into a discussion of Englishness and national identity in which, amidst the divided Britain of Brexit, both remain and leave may be contraries of a personal character: “if you don’t have love for your home and neighbours, then any proclamation of love for those further away is suspect… if you condemn groups of strangers far away, then how true is your love for your home and neighbours really?” (pp.22-3) It is an optimistic vision of a division too often defined by rancour, but in the end both contraries must learn that opposition is true friendship if this island is ever to be more than a disunited kingdom.

The following chapter, “Blake Now”, is one for my blushes as my own observations on the froth of Blakespotting (a favourite activity of mine) form the basis for a multiplicity of scattered references to the poet and artist in computer games, films and social media. For Higgs, such sightings are rarely more than superficial: for my part, I delight in such superficiality as well as the deep struggles with Blake’s meaning, but this is one of those points where it feels I am reading (and mentally conversing with) an old friend, making the book a very personal delight. The following two chapters, as with so much of the book, are very personal and insightful considerations on the topics of understanding Blake and remembering him. The former returns once more to Blake’s grave, and the words of Bruce Dickinson as an example that “understanding Blake is not knowledge that you possess but an activity that you undertake” (p.34). The notion of a Blakean praxis or activity is one that is not pursued enough: after thirty years of studying Blake, I am never entirely sure that I understand the strange and wonderful visions that he wrote, engraved and painted, but I feel most profoundly that from those studies I have joyfully learned the error that comes when “you see with, not through, the eye”.

“On Being Remembered” dealswith the vagaries of reception and influence, particularly through the works of artists such as Tracey Emin who invoked Blake in her 2017 retrospective. Certainly his influence is much more wide-reaching than that of much more famous contemporaries, perhaps precisely because he is so difficult to possess as knowledge rather than practice. As a primary artist of imagination, the subject of the following essay, Blake has led many writers, artists and filmmakers to pursue their own vision – to create their own systems rather than be enslaved by others – and Higgs ends his collection with a wonderfully idiosyncratic reflection of a visionary experience of his own on Primrose Hill. It is London that perhaps resonates most with him; certainly it is the poem he returns to, tracing the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the opening of the London Olympics to the vision of London that appeared in Songs of Experience. Blake, perhaps more than anyone, with his profound insights into perception, art, spirituality and politics, “has prepared us for the world we find ourselves in.” (69)

John Higgs, William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. 79pp. £5.99.

 

The Prophet of Lanark: Alasdair Gray and William Blake

The news today of the death of Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer and artist most famous for experimental novels such as Lanark and Poor Things, is cause for reflection on a trailblazer in Scottish fiction who once described William Blake as his “favourite artist and author”.

Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray turned to the novels which would make him most famous relatively late in his career, having previously worked on scriptwriting and painting. Lanark: A Life in Four Books, was published in 1981 when Gray was 46, to be followed by his erotic reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the book 1982, Janine, three years later. Lanark, for me still the most striking of his works for very personal and idiosyncratic reasons, won him various awards and led Anthony Burgess to call him the “best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. Scott’s contemporary, William Blake, was much nearer to Gray’s ambitions not least in that both of them sought to combine image and word in a kind of illuminated book.

Lanark follows the journey of a young man, the eponymous hero of the book, who arrives in a strange version of Glasgow, Unthank, which owes more than a little to Dante’s visions of Inferno (as with Blake, Gray was working on a version of The Divine Comedy at the time of his death). Falling in with a group of young men and women, Lanark begins to feel alienated and to suffer from a disease whcih turns his skin into dragon hide. Between the story of Lanark in Unthank, Gray then tells the tale of a precocious man, Duncan Thaw, born into wartime Glasgow who suffers obsessive visions and eventually commits suicide.

Thaw and Lanark are linked in some way (as Thaw suffers from eczema, so Lanark is covered in dragonhide), and it may be that Unthank is a kind of hell in which Thaw finds himself after his death. While the journey through Unthank owes much to Dante, it is Blake who is perhaps the artist in whom Thaw is most interested, citing him at many instances throughout the novel. At the beginning of Chatpter 19, “Mrs. Thaw Disappears”, for example, we are told:

Thaw opened his diary and wrote:

“Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” So sung a little Clod of Clay trodden by the cattle’s feet, but a Pebble of the brook warbled out these metres meet. “Love seeketh only Self to please, to bind another to Its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Blake doesn’t choose, he shows both sorts of love, and life would be easy if women were clods and men were pebbles. Maybe most of them are but I’m a gravelly mixture. My pebble feelings are for June Haig, no, not real June Haig, an imaginary June Haig in a world without sympathy or conscience. My feelings for Kate Caldwell are cloddish, I want to please and delight her, I want her to think me clever and fascinating. (p.190)

Blake runs as rich seam throughout Lanark. Thaw spends a lot of his time at the Mitchell Library, looking at facsimiles of the Romantic’s illuminated books, indicating the influence of Blake and Beardsley – the two most important artists for Thaw – and he tells his father that he wants “to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” (p.204). This alone suggests strongly that Unthank is a vision of the underworld after Dante (with a little of Milton and Bunyan thrown in as well), but that it is the Romantic poet rather than Virgil who is the guide to understanding this fantastical novel. Another key are the references to that incredibly Blakean novel, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary: Gray cites Gulley Jimson, the Blake-quoting artist-protagonist of Cary’s book, in his Epilogue, clearly drawing on the Anglo-Irish writer as a precursor to his own experimental fiction.

The comment regarding Blake being Gray’s favourite artist came from an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, given at the time of publication of his collection of essays and occasional pieces, Of Me and Others. In it, Gray tells the interviewer, Susan Mansfield:

William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’

While admiring the strange and extraordinary in Blake’s work, then, Gray had little time for the stereotype of the suffering Romantic artist. Burgess was wrong to compare him to Walter Scott: aside from a shared interest in Scottish nationalism, Gray had little in common with his fellow countryman and mentions him only briefly in passing – as something to be endured in school. Scott was, in the end, too Tory for Gray, and his enduring interest in socialism made William Blake a much better fit.

Gray did indeed have much to say about the issues of Scottish nationalism as well as the ideals of socialism. Throughout Lanark, Thaw and his contemporaries discuss the possibilities of a Scottish parliament as well as ironic asides to the relative failures of the Scottish Arts Council to support an arts proper to the north of the border. Yet this is no appeal to jingoism – indeed, he is critical of the Scottish arts scene in general as well as declaiming against “Scottish chauvinism” more generally. In contrast to the more traditional romanticism of Scott, this seems to have been something that Gray has picked up from Blake: Albion is Blake’s vision of his homeland where he was born, but it is as much a perfidious as glorious country. Like Blake, Gray wished to use novels such as Lanark as a means to restore his country to their greater arts.

Review: William Blake, Tate Britain

As the director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, observes in the catalogue accompanying the new Blake show, although there have been a number of very well-received exhibitions of Blake’s work in the twenty-first century, such as those in Paris (2009), Moscow (2011) and the Ashmolean, Oxford (2014), it is through four major exhibitions since 1913 – the last having taken place in 2000 – that the Tate at Millbank has established “a very special relationship with this most idiosyncratic and distinctive of artists” (William Blake,  p.6). This latest show, titled simply “William Blake”, is the largest and most comprehensive ever to be held, presenting a huge variety of Blake’s works (over 350 of them) in a largely chronological order via a series of galleries. Its overall ambition is to shift the emphasis of Blake’s work from being perceived almost entirely as that of a printmaker to that of a visual artist of much wider abilities. Tracking Blake’s progress across his lifetime, the works are then grouped in a series of five “rooms” that also organise the collection thematically according to the format or period of the artist’s life.

The first of the five rooms is called “Blake Be an Artist!”, drawing this unusual instruction from an account recorded by Henry Crabb Robinson, in which Blake related how a spirit told him: “Blake, be an artist and nothing else.” While the overall flow of the exhibition is largely chronological, this first room begins not with the young Blake’s apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire, but rather his enrollment at the Royal Academy in 1779. This is certainly to pre-empt the shift that the entire show is attempting to make, to transform Blake from being perceived almost entirely as a printmaker to an important visual artist who is also a master engraver. As the authors of the catalogue explain, “whatever use he made practically of the facilities [at the Academy], there is no doubt that this was a turning point in his life and his art.” (p.25) It was at the Academy that Blake made the pivot into the art world of the eighteenth century as a designer and originator of art rather than remaining a craftsman employed to reproduce the works of others, coming to the attention of significant players such as Henry Fuseli and John Flaxman.

Before entering the terracotta-red space of Blake’s first expressions as an artist, the visitor faces a single blue-green wall upon which is set “Albion Rose” (previously known as “Glad Day” after Gilchrist’s description of the painting in his 1863 Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotis). This colour-printed etching – a difficult procedure that was only rarely used in the eighteenth century – was made around 1793 and hand coloured by Blake during one of the most revolutionary phases of his life. Much reproduced, it depicts the giant Albion, a key figure in Blake’s mythology, standing in a pose similar to Da Vinci’s depiction of the Vitruvian Man. Along with “The Ghost of a Flea”, “Newton” or “The Ancient of Days”, it is one of his most famous images and, as Myrone and Concannon observe, has been subject to much speculative scholarship over a century and a half. While resisting the temptation to attempt to explain too much of my own opinions as to its meaning (upon which I speculated a great deal in my first book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain back in 1999), my allusion to Da Vinci is significant: the Vitruvian Man was meant to display the essential proportions of the ideal human body, and Blake’s Albion is also intended as a universal figure, his idiosyncratic everyman. To select this as the very first image that visitors to the exhibition encounter offers an important frame for the subsequent rooms, marking Blake as an artist who is both British and universal in his aspirations.

In the two areas dedicated to “Blake Be an Artist”, the works include a number of his drawings as well as watercolours of biblical subjects, such as those illustrating the story of Joseph and his brethren, and ends with the series of ink and watercolour washes for his unpublished poem, Tiriel. This section was generally fascinating for me in terms of demonstrating the development of Blake as an artist in the 1770s and 1780s, but I wonder how it must have appeared to visitors unfamiliar with his work. Very simply: William Blake was not a particularly good painter before the 1790s, and while his combination of mannerist, gothic and neo-classical techniques in his earliest work is fascinating to the art historian and student of Blake, there is very little in the way of star attractions to compel the eye of the viewer, with two exceptions (one of which is not even by Blake). The first of these is a gigantic book of engravings from the Shakespeare Gallery commissioned by John Boydell in the 1780s, opened to Richard Earlom’s reproduction of Fuseli’s depiction of Lear casting out Cordelia. Blake was tangentially involved with the Boydell project, having been commissioned to produce an engraving of the gloomy finale of Romeo and Juliet after a painting by John Opie, but his limited involvement was telling: while no means an outsider to the London art scene, Blake was never central to it. The second image, this time by Blake, is a particularly wonderful image also drawn from Shakespeare: “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing” is a delicate watercolour that shows Blake’s emerging talent as a colourist but also, after the stiff, column-like patriarchs of his early biblical illustrations and the drawings for Tiriel, also shows his ability to bring dynamism to his figures. It is tempting to view Tiriel as something of a dead end, both visually and poetically for Blake (and I am being deliberately harsh here): Blake is not so much neoclassical in his art at this point as archaic but without the grandeur of the pre-Hellenic sculpture that he would invoke later in his career. Similarly, his imitation of Shakespeare’s tragedies – particularly Lear – is rigid and wooden rather than majestic: we are witnessing the formation of an artist who remains, at this stage, largely derivative in his work. As such, it is a true pleasure that the first Room of the exhibition ends with a dance to match the joyful posture of “Albion Rose”.

Upon the two visits I made when the general public were present, the distinction between Room 1 and Room 2 – “Making Prints, Making a Living” – was vivid and immediate. The first room contained a significant number of visitors, many of whom I suspect were already politely curious about Blake but perhaps wondering what all the fuss about. On both occasions, however, the second room was packed – and with good reason. This returns to the theme of many an earlier exhibtion: Blake the printmaker. Although Blake’s output could vary in terms of its qualities, he was without doubt one of the great artisans of his time. This is immediately evident in some of the commercial work that he produced, such as the reproduction of Hogarth’s painting of the climax of The Beggar’s Opera, an intaglio engraving that would have taken a great deal of time to complete and is exquisite in its detail. Similarly, his work on Thomas Stothard’s The Fall of Rosamund is meticulous – although, ironically, the technical perfection of these pieces makes them somewhat forgetable: Blake was a great engraver, but then the commercial print industry in eighteenth-century London meant that there were plenty of other very good engravers. Ironically, it is where a certain crude vitality comes through, as in his engravings for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, that his commercial work becomes memorable. Blake’s depictions of the torture of rebel slaves are some of the most troubling images to emerge from the period that, unsurprisingly, continued to be used in abolitionist texts throughout the nineteenth century.

Important as the commercial work is – the curators rightly observe that “reproductive engraving… was the backbone of his working life” (p.52) – it is the presence of the illuminated books that attracted the interest of most visitors. An exceptional feature of the current exhibition is the number of illuminated books that are present as bound books: while, like everyone, I am used to printed facsimiles in this format, I have become used to seeing Blake’s originals as separate prints over the years. Obviously, this means that the books themselves tend to be fixed at a very limited number of pages on display, but the range present in a single case show the sheer variety of the format of the book at a glance, from the tiny emblem books The Gates of Paradise to the large folio edition of Europe A Prophecy. To demonstrate the variety of Blake’s designs within a text, there are selections of Songs of Innocence and of Experience displayed very eye-catchingly on plinths (a feature which attracted the attention of every visitor I spoke to at Tate) and, along the walls of one space, a complete set of America a Prophecy, allowing viewers to compare the designs from plate to plate within a single edition and also to compare coloured printed versions to monochrome plates and, indeed, a bound copy of the book.

The third room, “Patronage and Independence”, shares some of the innovative display features of its predecessor, with large plinths set up to break up the presentation of individual plates, with others then set up around the walls. Divided into three sections, this part of the exhibition concentrates on two incredibly important figures in William Blake’s life – Thomas Butts, the civil servant who was the patron for many years during Blake’s life, and William Hayley, the well-connected poet established in Felpham, Sussex, who drove Blake to distraction but also provided him with much-needed support when the artist was tried for sedition in 1804. Upon entering this particular space, I was immediately struck by what, for me, was one of the cleverest arrangements in the entire exhibition – the placement of two of the Red Dragon paintings alongside “Satan in his Original Glory”. While all of the Red Dragon paintings, which take their inspiration from the Book of Revelation, tend to be reproduced together, the appearance of Satan as beautiful, prefallen angel, reminds us that Lucifer, the most perfect of God’s creations, would also become the great beast and that his pride was as much a source of spiritual ugliness. (One of the most amusing conversations overheard at the exhibition involved this painting, when a member of the public asserted that the curators must have labelled the painting incorrectly as Satan could not be this beautiful.)

The first two sections, dominated largely by the biblical paintings for Butts, as well as the illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost and a separate gallery for the magnificent large colour prints, easily dominate the viewer’s eye and demonstrate how, in contrast to much of the non-engraved work of the 1770s and 1780s, by the mid-1790s Blake had become a truly original artist with his own specific visual language and style. Strictly speaking, “Newton”, “Nebuchadnezzar” and the other large colour prints that were produced between 1795 and 1805 (and several of which were purchased by Butts) are prints rather than paintings, but this is nitpicking over Blake’s status as a visual artist. These works are among those pieces that establish him easily as one of the greatest British artists ever, indeed, an artist whose work can be compared to the Renaissance or northern European masters. Alongside these, the translucent watercolours for Paradise Lost are an astonishing boon (particularly as I am always surprised when I see the originals just how small they are – something about their spiritual allusions seems to indicate that they have been shrunk in reproduction from what must be more massive paintings, and yet the reverse is true). By this period, following his return from Felpham in particular, Blake had settled into a mature style which combined the grace of neoclassical art with a solemn formality that he associated with the art of the Middle East. This combination had been a feature of the “patriarchal” vision that Blake had experimented with from the beginning, but by the time of his large colour prints and the illustrations to Milton, there was a mastery of the classical human figure that is at once both deeply familiar from the long tradition of western art and somehow profoundly strange, as though the cherubim and seraphim of ancient Mesopotamia are being brought to life before our eyes.

In contrast to the work done for Butts (to which must be added the delightful watercolours for Thomas Gray’s poetry, commissioned by the artist John Flaxman as a gift for his wife, Anne), the art from the Felpham period is generally less rich, although two particular items stand out. The first of these, which was immensely gratifying to see, is a number of the heads of the poets that were painted by Blake to appear in William Hayley’s library. Although Hayley’s house no longer survives, we know from contemporary accounts that they were displayed high on the walls around his library, and the curators have made the wise decision to place Blake’s works similarly high up, leading them to dominate the viewer’s gaze when they enter this part of the gallery. Another important work is “The Vision of the Last Judgement” which was painted for the remarkable Elizabeth Ilive, the patron of the arts and polymath who became the wife of George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. In contrast to the recent exhibition at Petworth House, the home of Egremont, “The Vision” is slighlty overwhelmed by such a rich collection of Blakean artefacts but is still one of the great treasures of Blake’s career, a coherent vision of eternity that, in my opinion, surpasses Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in terms of its conception and intellectual coherence even if not in terms of scale and grandeur. For me, this has always been a painting that appears to capture the essence of an eastern mandela rather than the rigid hierarchies of Western Christian art.

Room 4, “Independence and Despair”, contains the most innovative part of the exhibition which, unfortunately, was also one of the least successful for me. Dealing with the period following the return of Catherine and William from Felpham, the first image to catch the viewer’s eye is the large oil portrait by Thomas Phillips, commissioned in 1807 to accompany an ambitious project, Blake’s illustrations to a large volume of Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave. Included alongside the Phillips portrait is a copy of the white line engraving that Blake showed to the book’s publisher, Robert Cromek, a striking but highly idiosyncratic image that led Cromek to pull the lucrative engraving work from Blake and, instead, hire another artisan, Louis Schiavonetti, to reproduce Blake’s designs. Throughout the nineteenth century, The Grave was the work for which Blake was best known prior to the publication of Gilchrist’s biography, and my own unpopular opinion is that, in terms of his immediate posthumous reception, Schiavonetti and Cromek did Blake a favour even as they reduced his already straitened circumstances further. Blake’s own engravings would have been bold, modern to the point of futuristic but, rather like his astonishing print of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims (perhaps the first work of modern art to attempt to emulate medieval styles and typies), would have been utterly baffling to contemporaries. Thomas Stothard’s more fluid and naturalistic rendition of the Chaucer pilgrims is immediately recognisable as suitable for contemporary tastes – and much, much less memorable than Blake’s. It was, in the end, Stothard who made the money while to Blake would be reserved posthumous fame.

The work with Cromek is presented in a fairly standard format, although there are nice touches such as the fact that printed copies of The Grave are lined up to draw the viewer’s eye to the originals as they hang on the wall. Beyond this, however, the curators have tried something very bold: in 1809, Blake held his only one-man show, above his brother’s shop in Broad Street. As such, for the exhibition a room has been constructed to house paintings from that exhibition, to try and give a sense of the feel of how it must have appeared to visitors. Martin Myrone, who has written extensively about the failed exhibition and the accompanying Descriptive Catalogue, includes very thoughtful considerations as to what Blake was trying to achieve and its contemporary reception, but it does not really work as it stands. The main problem is that, as much of Blake’s work from this period is very sensitive to light, the room within a gallery is simply too dark to see the works properly. Tate has engaged in an extremely interesting concept, to digitally restore Blake’s spiritual portraits for Nelson and Pitt (which have darkened over time), projecting images of how they would originally appear over the originals. Unfortunately, this “restoration” cannot be left on permanently, meaning it is very hit and miss as to whether you will actually be able to see them (they only appeared for me on the third visit to the exhibition). Finally, with regard to the reconstruction itself, the fact that the curators are unable to restore the missing painting of “The Ancient Britons”, perhaps Blake’s most amibitious work ever, as well as the fact that another centrepiece – “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims” – are also outside the room make it less successful than it should have been. Beyond the room, there is a large, full-wall projection of how Blake’s “frescos” could appear if transferred to full size in settings such as the parish church of St James, itself a very interesting idea, as well as close up screens of the texture and restoration of the damaged tempera paintings which, I must be honest, I felt was a waste of good gallery space.

This critical comment arises from the fact that “William Blake” ends very much on a high. In 1818, Blake began a series of friendships, starting with the artist John Linnell, that would transform the final decade of his life and lead to a truly remarkable artistic renaissance. It is from this period that we have his illustrations to Dante and to Job, his most monumental illuminated book, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, and a series of astonishing pieces of art including his woodcuts to Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s Georgics and “The Ghost of a Flea”. These final years saw Blake produce a series of astonishing pieces that would surpass that of most artists in terms of originality and execution, and after a largely empty room (very few visitors to the exhibition paused in the digital projection space) it felt frustrating to have these magnificent works cramped into one space. For example, on my first visit, I missed the fact that Blake’s illustrations to The Book of Job were present: they exist, as bound books (which is wonderful to see), but the opportunity to have selections of them displayed separately on the wall, such as the images of Leviathan and Behemoth, or the morning stars singing at the creation of the world, would have immediately drawn attention to one of the most perfect examples of Blake’s intaglio style. Similarly, while the curators did not wish to reproduce the entire 100 plates of Jerusalem in the exhibition, restricting themselves to the first 25 plates of Book 1, this was perhaps the only element where the 2000 show surpassed that of 2019. That said, it was wonderful to see the illustrations to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress on display, a series that is rarely shown.

And it is this observation that is more important than my critical comments. “William Blake” is not perfect – but then the perfect exhibition of William Blake’s works perhaps only exists in heaven. The most striking factor of this show is that it is so comprehensive; indeed, I suspect that for many visitors it must be overwhelming. Over the space of two days, I made three separate visits to the exhibition and, guided by decades of knowledge about Blake and his works, I still realise that this review remains a series of initial impressions that will be further refracted by subsequent visits. For example, I am very conscious of the fact that I have said very little about Catherine Blake in this review: much has been made by the curators and indeed media reports of her contribution, and indeed I was writing about this (along with Shirley Dent) after the 2000 show. And yet… even after three visits it is hard to make out that contribution aside from a portrait or two and a few comments in accompanying notes. In part, that is because of the success of the show: it truly demonstrates the range and variety of her husband’s art.

There are flaws, then, in the execution of the aspirations of Tate, and yet this show is truly astonishing. It is, quite simply, the best exhibition of Blake’s work that I have seen in my lifetime, and that appreciation has only grown with each visit. For the first, I was very lucky to be part of a private view (hence the early images showing largely empty rooms), but actually my subsequent visits as a member of the general public were, if anything, even more illuminating. Yes, it is frustrating not to be able to look at everything in the first rooms because of people lining up to stare at everything – yet this is itself the point. William Blake is remarkably popular. At one moment, I made a detour through the Clore gallery which houses the remarkable Turner collection. This was by no means empty, but it is Blake who – if only for a short time – commands attention. A particular joy for me after the 2000 show was how it stimulated renewed interest in Blake among artists, writers, directors and composers. I believe that the success of this show, recreating Blake as a great artist, will do the same for the next generation of those for whom imagination is the life.

William Blake is on show at Tate Britain, 11 September 2019-2 February 2020. Admission £18 standard adult (members free, reductions available). The exhibition catalogue, also titled William Blake, is available for £25 paperback, £40 hardback, written by Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon.

Blakespotting: Blake news for April 2019

The start of April saw Tate Britain ramping up the publicity for its new Blake exhibition that will open in September. Among the stories carried in the national press, themes tended to emerge around the importance that will be given to the role of his wife Catherine – The Guardian wrote that it will celebrate her creative influence, while The Telegraph said that she would be placed at the heart of the exhibition – and the inclusion of the only self-portrait by Blake. Senior curator Martin Myrone told the Evening Standard that the portrait had a “jewel-like intensity” and The Daily Mail reported that this would be the first time it has gone on display in the UK. William Blake: The Artist will be on show at Tate Britain from 11 September until 2 February.

While the opening of the Tate exhibition will be the biggest event of the year, the most important event of the month was the world premier of Allen Bevan’s Ancient of Days on 15 April. Performed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus at the Winspear Centre for Music in Alberta, the opera was a multi-media work for chorus and orchestra, much of it spoken word and drawing extensively on Blake’s poetry, ideas and visual art. Toronto-born Bevan had completed his Masters at Edmonton and he himself conducted several of the parts on the night. The Edmonton Journal described it as a “verbal drama with incidental music”, with Timothy Anderson and Dawn Sadoway playing the parts of Blake and his Emanation, the whole comprising a “thoughtful work” and “an effective introduction to Blake.”

Paradise Club in New York held an event early in April entitled “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. A cabaret night where participants were invited to paradise and inferno, the show itself was performed by the Brooklyn collective House of Yes with a “theatrical feast” created by John Fraser. Hosted by Nik Alexander, The Telegraph described it as “not your usual theatre experience”, the organisers intended the burlesque to be a celebration of “what it means to be human”.

Finally, as April drew to a close, the music organisation WordSong, based in Boston, hosted Tyger Circus, a set of fifteen different compositions based on Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. Taking place on 26th, Krista River, Keith Phares, and Linda Osborn performed work by Adele Dusunbury, Howard Frazin, and Benjamin Pesetsky at the First Church in Boston, at an event that also marked the tenth anniversary of Wordsong. The month also saw the launch of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Burning Hot, which begins with the execution of Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard after a plot to overthrow George III. Tracing resistance to the loss of commons throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Linebaugh draws upon Blake’s imagery throughout the book to draw attention (as he explained in an interview for Counterpunch) to how “Blake’s moment of truth is upon us”.

 

Review: Naomi Billingsley – The Visionary Art of William Blake

Within Blake studies, Blake’s visual art tends to be studied less than his poetry and illuminated books. There have always been notable exceptions, of course, from Anthony Blunt on, but The Visionary Art of William Blake is an excellent contribution to an area of Blake studies – his painting and engraving not devoted to the prophetic books – that has been comparatively neglected. While Blake’s painting might be under-represented to some degree, since the turn of the millennium there has been some increase in critical works that consider the religious aspects of Blake’s works such as Susanne Sklar’s Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as Visionary Theatre and Magnus Ankarsjö’s William Blake and Religion, and in such contexts Naomi Billingsley’s new book is an extremely welcome addition.  Unsurprisingly given its sub title – Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination – the book concentrates on Christ (her own preferred term although Blake tends to use Jesus more frequently). Alongside a discussion of Blake’s Christology, Visionary Art presents an opportunity to discuss some relatively neglected works, such as the designs to Night Thoughts and the Butts temperas.

Visionary Art is arranged into five sections that correspond – generally – to several periods of Blake’s artistic production. These general themes (on resurrection and apocalypse, inspiration, community, Christ as universal form divine and crucifixion as self-annihilation) do not always match perfectly on to their corresponding texts, which include the illustrations to Milton and the designs for the Last Judgement as well as Young’s Night Thoughts. This is a function of any attempt to try and arrange Blake’s concepts into some kind of coherent schema that offers an interesting approach to Blake’s art other than a simple chronological survey, and Billingsley is not tied to that schema (including, for example, examples of resurrection imagery that is not restricted to Young), thus allowing herself flexibility. The only time it became problematic for me was in the discussions of the temperas for Thomas Butts, where it seemed occasionally she had to remind herself that as well as close readings of the images themselves she had set up a framework to discuss Christian inspiration. That said, this is an exceptionally good book for close readings of individual designs as well as overviews of Blake’s various series, with plenty of examples of detailed analysis of sometimes overlooked works.

The first section of Visionary Art, dealing with the designs and engravings for Night Thoughts, is exemplary, not least in that it provides an opportunity for Billingsley to demonstrate her extensive critical knowledge of the historical context surrounding the (failed) publication of Night Thoughts. She draws succinctly upon critics such as Eaves and the editors of the 1980 facsimile edition, building upon them with her own research to offer scholarship as is always evident throughout the book. Despite my previous comment, this is one chapter where resurrection as a thematic approach does work very well alongside a study of the failed project, with its emphasis upon Blake’s “endeavour to regenerate Young’s poem through a dynamic of creative conflict” (p.34). Several very interesting points also emerge in this section: that Blake, for example, is often very hesitant to use the image of the crucifixion, at least in the 1780s (hence the creative conflict of his emphasis upon images of resurrection rather than death); that he is not really a systematic theological thinker, at least in his visual series – a well-made point that is a recurring theme of the book); and that he seeks to emphasise an active Christology in which Jesus is full of energy and vitality as an example intended to transform the viewer.

The second chapter, dealing with inspiration and prophecy is, as previously indicated, where I felt the schema of Visionary Art was less successful. Despite this, the chapter offers once more an excellent reading of the tempera paintings for Thomas Butts (again, with some very good historical context) but occasionally it felt as though the dual demands – to provide as comprehensive reading of these paintings while also linking them to the overarching theme of inspiration and prophecy – could not always be reconciled. With regard to the thematic approach, I would have preferred something more wide-ranging across Blake’s entire oeuvre, but as an exploration of the Butts temperas in their own right this is one of the best accounts I have ever come across. Thus, for example, while considering the relevant critics such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson, Billingsley shows masterfully how the temptation to discover “a complete understanding of the series is impossible on secondary grounds, and may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” (p.65) With this in mind, she draws links very well between individual designs, such as those depicting Christ’s nativity and his life, a theme through many of the paintings, without being bound to try and explain the entire series as a coherent and systematic Christology. She is also extremely good at drawing attention to Blake’s innovations, such as his depiction of the baby Jesus springing upwards from Mary at the scene of his birth and, in a comparison with J.M.W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), draws attention again to how Blake’s paintings are intended to inspire the viewer rather than seek out the historical Jesus, this being a common factor of his Christology. As such, the Butts series is better read as “a web of recurring themes… in the context of Blake’s theological mythos” (p.86) rather than a systematic arrangement of narrative or theological ideas.

Chapter three, on Jesus as facilitator, concentrates on the watercolours created for Butts during and after Blake’s time at Felpham, offering a view of Christ’s ministry as a means of building a community. This is an ecclesiology that, as Billingsley rightly observes, is concerned less with church structures as with participants in the divine body of Christ. The watercolours produced during this time for Butts are often more vivid and memorable than the temperas, perhaps due in part to Blake’s renewed engagement with – even a reconversion to – Christianity during his time at Felpham. It is in this section that Billingsley offers some of her most insightful readings of images that are frequently neglected, such as The Hymn of Christ and the Apostles (c.1805), a depiction of the disciples playing musical instruments that is “a clear manifestation of Blake’s statement that ‘Jesus & his Apostles & Disciples were all Artists’.” (p.127) The focus on the ministry of Jesus as an embodiment of the human form divine, a community of believers joined in the practice of art (which is, ultimately, to perform actions with love, care and devotion) works more effectively in this chapter, returning to a constant theme in The Visionary Art of William Blake, which is that by seeing these pictures the viewer is also intended to “internalise the processes of regeneration and inspiration” (p.131) and thus, by recognising their own human form divine, become part of that community.

In the following section, Billingsley explores how, in the penultimate decade of his life, “Blake was intensely engaged with fundamental questions related to art and Christianity” (p.164), exploring these particularly via his illustrations to Milton and various designs for The Last Judgement. Regarding the former, again she notes the slight variations and repetitions between the versions for Joseph Thomas, Thomas Butts and what was presumably an unfinished series for John Linnell. The focus on depictions of Christ, with five out of the twelve watercolours presenting the Son at the centre of the image, allow Blake to “Christologize” Milton’s poem, for example by making him central to the creation of Eve as well as the rout of the rebel angels, and she once again demonstrating her critical skills in a close reading of The Rout of the Rebel Angels that draws parallels and contrasts with The Ancient of Days, Christ circumscribed within a sun from which he casts error just as Urizen, similarly encircled, creates error. The centrality of Christ is another feature of Blake’s multiple designs for the last judgement, which also serves as a major source for his aesthetic theory. A common element of those designs (which take their inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous fresco for the Sistine Chapel) is the position of Christ at the centre of the image, which “does not make him a formidable law-maker, but subverts such a conception of God: that throne becomes the Mercy Seat and the book of Law becomes the Book of Life (Revelation 20:15).” (p.153) Such insight is one of the joys of Visionary Art, demonstrating a profound sympathy with Blake’s visual art as a means of conveying the complexities of his thought. The chapter, covering as it does the period of 1805-1811, also deals with a series of four unusual pieces – including The Virgin and Child in Egypt (1810) that are completely unlike anything else produced by Blake’s contemporaries, approaching almost the form of the icons of the Orthodox church.

Iconography and iconoclasm segue into the final chapter on crucifixion as self-annihilation. At first glance, this chapter would appear to contradict Billingsley’s earlier assertion that Blake disliked the crucifix as a subject, particularly considering later examples as on plate 76 of Jerusalem, but there is an important qualification: she is right to assert that he “regarded the doctrine of the Crucifixion as Atonement (the Son being offered as a ransom for humankind’s erring from the Father’s Law) as abhorrent” (p.168), and also notes that the subject was not popular in eighteenth-century art as probably too popish. Instead, in Blake we see a movement from cruciform figures, such as Orc in America, which are exemplars of violence upon the human form divine, to a vision of Christ’s ultimate generosity in self-sacrifice as the breaking of Urizenic law. As well as a close reading of the Jerusalem crucifixion and Michael Foretells the Crucifixion from Paradise Lost, she ends the chapter with a consideration of the same subject in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante Adoring Christ from his illustrations to The Divine Comedy, showing how Blake’s attitude towards the crucifixion became more positive in his final years.

The Visionary Art of William Blake is a compelling and scholarly contribution to Blake studies, which draws attention to often overlooked paintings and also reiterates the importance of Christ to his art, while avoiding the temptation to provide some kind of systematising tendency to his Christology. Rather, Blake’s relations with Jesus – as inspiration, source of revelation and, above all, the supreme example of the human form divine – is one which fluctuates and develops across his lifetime. If her thematic schema does not always map out entirely onto the historical survey of Blake’s work, this is due to an attempt to provide more than a mere catalogue of oft-neglected images. As a work of art history, placing Blake in the contexts of religious art in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this book is intensely rewarding.

 

Naomi Billingsley, The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination, London and New York: I.B. Tauris and Company, 2018, 256pp. RRP: £69. 

“A Blakean Year”: 2018 in Review

2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.

Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year included Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.

Musically, the big news at the beginning of 2018 was the announcement of U2’s £xperience + Innocence tour to accompany their 2017 album, Songs of Experience. More affecting to me personally was the death of Mark E. Smith, frontman of post-punk band The Fall, in January, whose life was probably best summed up by the headline “Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard“. He was also something of a fan of William Blake, demonstrated not least by his cover of “Jerusalem” for the album I Am Kurious Oranj. Other releases in winter and spring included two albums that referenced Blake songs – Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations, including the tracks “Cradle Song” and “Holy Thursday” respectively. There was also, in March, a new version of “Jerusalem” released as Team England’s official anthem for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, as well as the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination in April.

Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.

2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of JerusalemUrizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.

The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.

Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.

The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard.  She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.

The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception,  which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Blakespotting: News about William Blake, June 2018

The big news during June was Tate Britain’s announcement that it will recreate William Blake’s failed 1809 exhibition in 2019. Speaking to Robert Dex at the London Evening Standard, Alex Farquharson said that the main purpose of the exhibition is to shift the perception of Blake as primarily a poet to a visual artist. The show will open next September and will be one of the biggest displays of Blake’s work since the 2000 exhibition that also took place there.

Although it was actually released at the end of May, Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a prose poem written in response to the Trump Administration’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, became available in the UK in early June. As well as her gnomic, Blake-inspired text, it includes a series of images produced by Smith in recent years. Smith gave a talk at the Festival of Voice in Cardiff and we’ll be carrying a review of the book soon. Other publications in June included Julia Fine’s debut novel, What Should be Wild, with nods to Blake in the form of the characters the Blakeleys and a setting of Urizon, while Hiroshi Unno’s The Art of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Steampunk demonstrates the influence of Blake among other artists on modern fantasy artworks.

A truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art came via the Edinburgh College of Art’s end of year degree show. Jack Handscombe, a student at the ECA, produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, crouched above a keyboard as a palm tree sprouts from its back. Entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”, as Duncan Macmillan, reviewing the show for The Scotsman, observed, the piece is a witty parody of the Paolozzi statue that stands in front of the British Library, suggesting that “digital is all very well, but nature will break out”.

Neko Case released a new album, Hell-On, was released on June 1. At least one reviewer (Ludovic Hunter-Tilney at the Financial Times) noted the Blakean connection to the track “Last Lion of Albion”, as in the chorus:

Last lion of Albion
They’ll use you for centuries to come
Your wound’s the main road into London
You’ll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money

Another musical performance announced during June is Eve Beglarian’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell at, which will be performed at the New York Bang on a Can summer music festival.

Also in the arts, a new show in London was announced, Wirework. Written by Daleen Kruger, the play itself was actually written in Afrikaans in 2009 but has recently been translated, telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas. The pair created an extraordinary environment in the middle of the Karoo in the Easter Cape, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake to fill the museum with wonderful statues. The play will perform at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London from July 3-7. Another performance that carried the spirit of William Blake came from Keith Hennessy’s Sink at The Lab in San Francisco. According to the Bay Area Reporter, Hennessy’s dance and chant invokes both Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Also in theatre, Lynne Kaufman’s one act play, William Blake in Hollywood, will show in Cedar City in Utah. Exhibitions during June included William Blake in Colour at the William Blake Gallery, and the owner of the gallery, John Windle, gave a talk on the artist and poet during Melbourne Rare Books Week.

Finally, during June we were also reminded of the Blakean references in Westworld (“Auguries of Innocence”), as a signifier of English identity according to the BBC’s poll (“Jerusalem”), that the Libertines nearly took a more Blakean name, the Albions, and you could have heard a group of Blake scholars – Michael Phillips, Linda Freedman, Susan Matthews and me – discuss the Life and Works of William Blake on the BBC World Service’s programme The Forum.

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?

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.