Surreal sunflowers – Paul Nash and William Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite artists, Paul Nash. While there are plenty of figures I have an interest in because of their connections with Blake, Nash is one of those I have a long and abiding love because of his own work. I had been fascinated with Nash since my teenage years as perhaps the best of the British surrealists and only much later did I discover the connection between him and Blake. (Note: the perhaps is for the benefit of other readers who may have particular opinions about British surrealist art – in my mind, there is no “perhaps”.)

To reduce Nash to a convenient tag, surrealism, is problematic: he contributed to abstraction and Vorticism through the group Unit One. Born in London on May 11, 1889, he studied briefly at the Slade but, according to his biographer Andrew Causley (Paul Nash, 1980), was largely self taught. A printmaker, designer, writer and photographer as well as painter, Nash served as an officer during the First World War before becoming Official War Artist in 1917. His ‘Void of War’ exhibition in 1918 established his reputation, but his real innovations came in the 1920s and 1930s.

Many critics have placed Nash in a tradition of British art that includes Blake, Samuel Palmer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In a letter to Dora Carrington in 1913, he observed to her “I expect you love Blake as I do”, and early works demonstrated a clear debt to Blake, such as “Angel and Devil” and “Our Lady of Inspiration”, drawings completed in 1910 and the latter drawn from Blake’s poem to Thomas Butts, ‘Over sea, over land,/My eyes did expand/Into regions of the air’ (E712). He also completed two illustrations in 1917 based on Blake’s poem Tiriel.

Most of Nash’s most famous work, such as his Landscape in a Dream (1936-8) and Landscape of the Megaliths deals with abstract visions of place, and as such appears to place him at odds with Blake. Yet his series of woodcuts, Places (published by Heinemann in 1922) showed the profound influence of Blake’s series of illustrations to Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil (1821), with the link to Palmer providing the fulcrum between the two. Nash himself was aware of the irony of his fascination with both Blake and landscape, as he wrote in an article on ‘Abstract Art’ for The Listener in 1932:

Perhaps the strongest contribution to the history of the pictorial subject in England, and one whose character is, in a sense, extremely modern, was made by William Blake. Blake is said to have hated Nature, and his work certainly shows a contempt for natural appearances. Like the Surrealists of today he sought material for his pictures in other worlds. Within the realm of the mind he conceived certain very precise and solid images, bright with colour and of a rather persistent curvilinear design. The finest of these do indeed burn with unreal life and seem the product of unique vision. (cited in James King, Interior Landscapes: A Life of Paul Nash, 1987, p. 137)

Towards the end of his life, Blake’s poem ‘Ah! Sun-Flower’ became another source of inspiration for Nash’s art, leading him to depict a series of gigantic sunflowers such as Sunflower and Sun (1942) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945). In these late art works, Nash does not simply respond to the obvious energy of the emblematic flower, but also to the ambivalent tone of melancholy within Blake’s original poem.

Blake, then, occupied Nash’s thoughts and inspired his practice at the beginning and the end of his career. Nash’s real significance as an artist was to promote modernism and the avant garde, both in his own work and his friendships with others such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Herbert Read at a time when such art was viewed with suspicion in conservative Britain.

this work im doin i dont kno what it is

Philip Davenport, who guest-edited the recent issue of Ekleksographia dedicated to the inspiration of William Blake and entitled the Naked Tea Party, has been in touch to draw attention to another event with which he is currently involved.

“this work im doin i dont kno what it is” is a series of poems for the eye, combining visual objects with text and exhibited and hidden at the Henry Moore Institute Library. It will run from April 27 to June 7 and, in addition, Philip will be reader in residence on May 5.

“Heart-shape pornography” uses pornography as a found object to create a poem from a cross-section in fruit, while “Spreadsheets of Light” poems are written into spreadsheets which present moral dilemmas such as war crimes, celebrity or simple shopping as a tangled series of accountancy questions. These poems in turn are accompanied by eggshells in which fragments of the poems are written, emphasising the dual visual/literal nature of such objects.

Philip offers the following explanation of his work: “For the last decade I’ve made poems by collecting the words surrounding me and cutting them up to create poems. Journalism, porn, missing person notices, advertising, misheard conversations… I like being freed from using my own vocabulary to describe the world. I often work off the page, putting poems onto objects to complement ideas held in language. More recently, I find my own words, thoughts, self reappearing in the work. Many of these new pieces are about moral dilemmas, written as spreadsheets balancing up violence/love, fame/anonymity, and so on. I am struck by how often we try to explain the world using numbers, so that statistics have an authority they don’t really own. Here, I am totting up words as if they are numbers, trying to use the form of the spreadsheet to shape a poem.”

You can find more details of “this work im doin i dont kno what it is” at the Henry Moore Library web site.

The new Blakes at the Tate

On Monday, during a visit to Tate Britain, I had a chance to see the William Blake prints that have recently been acquired by Tate and are currently undergoing restoration.

Tate purchased the eight prints at the beginning of this year, with funds largely raised by members and patrons (you can read the original news story here). A certain romanticism has already started to accrue to the prints – most notably their discovery inside a railway timetable (a small myth that caused at least one of the conservationists to roll his eyes in disdain). In any case, the collection is undoubtedly beautiful, consisting of eight prints from an original series of ten according to the numbers on the pages. Six of these are taken from The Book of Urizen, with the other two being drawn from The Book of Thel and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The works had apparently been loaned for a 2007 exhibition at Tate, but this was my first chance to see them in detail.

One of the most fascinating features of the prints, beyond the immediate, vivid colouring of dark blues and turquoise, bold, fiery orange-golds and reds and, of course, Blake’s powerful designs, was the patina of dirt and mild abuse that had built up in the intervening two centuries, traces of the material history of the prints subsequent to Blake’s composition and execution. The starkest example of this was the print taken from the final plate of The Book of Thel, which has thick fold lines in the paper where someone had probably wrapped its corners to fit it into an oval frame. As David Worrall remarked, the chances were that an owner of these prints identified this single image as the only one really suitable for public display, the others being shuffled away somewhere into a private portfolio. Similarly, the stab holes alongside each image indicate that at some point all were bound together, but the absence of creases indicates that they were not viewed as a book, instead simply being gathered together for safe keeping.

All the images found here were originally produced as part of Blake’s composite art, combining text and image to convey the prophetic messages of Blake’s illuminated books. As with his Small Book of Designs, however, it is quite clear that the original collector, while interested in Blake’s visual art, had little time for the artist’s idiosyncratic poetry. As such, the relief etchings were masked off so that no text was displayed and then worked up as painted copies, with hand drawn borders surrounding the printed area.

The prints are due to go on display at Tate Britain in July 2010 before being included as part of a major exhibition at the Pushkin Gallery in 2011.

Blake’s art and Dante Rossetti

Today is the anniversary of the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, probably the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of the leading figures in the renovation of William Blake’s reputation during the Victorian era.

Rossetti became interested in Blake after reading Allan Cunningham’s biography on Blake in The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830), and in 1847 purchased Blake’s Notebook (sometimes called the Rossetti Manuscript) from William Palmer, brother of the artist Samuel who had known Blake in the engraver’s final years. Along with his wombats, this was probably the most famous purchase that Rossetti ever made.

Like Blake, Rosetti was both painter and poet and appears, like Algernon Swinburne, to have also been fascinated with the Romantic’s reputation as a rebel. Blake’s attacks on artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds appear to have partly inspired Rossetti’s own rebellion as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in 1849 he wrote a short poem to Blake:

BLAKE
To the memory of William Blake, a Painter and Poet, whose greatness may be named even here since it was equalled by his goodness, this tablet is now erected – years after his death, at the age of sixty-eight, on August 12th, 1827, in poverty and neglect, by one who honours his life and works.

Epitaph
ALL beauty to pourtray
Therein his duty lay
And still through toilsome strife
Duty to him was life –
Most thankful still that duty
Lay in the paths of beauty.

This sentimental verse has found few admirers since, and some critics have remarked just how much it binds Blake into what Robert Essick calls “a heaven of Victorian sensibility”. Meeting Swinburne and then Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, Rossetti made the Notebook available to them and also began work with Gilchrist editing what was to become the most important early biography on Blake – Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus. As well as providing descriptions of various illustrations, with his brother, William Michael, he also edited Blake’s writings for the second volume of the Life and provided a series of introductions, or “Headnotes”.

In his descriptions of the designs, Rossetti emphasised the Gothic elements of Blake’s work, and his version of Blake’s poetry was heavily edited: this was partly guided by the desire to make Blake more readable for the Victorian public, a policy of freely rewriting Blake which drew criticism from contemporaries, most notably Richard Herne Shepherd. The Rossettis, as with Gilchrist and Swinburne, had an important role to play in reviving the reputation of Blake for a Victorian public, although Dante Gabriel was as guilty as Swinburne for also encouraging a view of aspects of Blake’s art as only accessible to an aesthetic elite.

Seen in My Visions

Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. William Blake (edited by Martin Myrone).
London: Tate Publishing, 2009. pp. 128. £12.99. ISBN: 978 1 85437 863 7.

Published to accompany the exhibition at Tate Britain last year that recreated Blake’s private show of 1809, this small, elegant book presents Blake’s once neglected Descriptive Catalogue with quiet, understated authority. Much of this, of course, is due to the great change in status that Blake’s work has undergone since his death, yet the collection of colour plates presented here, along with the Catalogue itself and Martin Myrone’s introduction and notes, provides Blake’s one-man show with a cultural significance that would have astonished the Romantic artist’s contemporaries.

Seen in My Visions is divided into four sections: Myrone’s introduction and a bibliographical note is followed by the Descriptive Catalogue itself as well as the paintings that were included in the Tate 2009 exhibition. The volume concludes with a glossary of art terms used by Myrone and Blake. Myrone’s essay, “The grand Style of Art restored”, is concise but extremely informative, providing within its few pages a surprisingly comprehensive (and comprehensible) account of the contexts of the fine art scene as it existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Myrone’s main concern is the institutional practice of the Royal Academy, designed as a showcase to promote contemporary British artists and one that very quickly prompted opposition that resulted in alternative one-man shows, beginning with Nathaniel Hone’s exhibition in 1775. Leading artists such as Gainsborough, Barry and Fuseli sought alternatives to the hegemony of the Academy; as such, Blake’s decision to exhibit was by no means as eccentric as (in the eyes of those few contemporaries who saw them) were the works of art on display. As Myrone concludes, Blake was not that unusual, and many artists “had tried to acquire a public reputation, and avoid the pitfalls of the big annual exhibitions, by setting up their own shows” (p. 18).

While Myrone effectively contextualises Blake within a sphere of contemporary practice that was not, then, particularly unusual, the Descriptive Catalogue itself cannot but appear idiosyncratic even after two centuries. The longest section of text describes a a painting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which emulated a Gothic, medieval style that was considerably out of favour with early nineteenth-century tastes. Charles Lamb described this as one of the finest pieces of criticism he had ever seen, and certainly it demonstrates Blake’s incisive opinions, but other readers such as the Hunt brothers and Robert Southey who encountered his denunciations of Rubens and Titian, as well as his declarations of the primacy of semitic over classical art considered him at best eccentric, at worst mad.

The plates of surviving works (eleven out of sixteen included in the 1809 show) include some of Blake’s most famous images, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan and Christ in the Sepulchre, guarded by Angels, as well as early, more conventional examples of Blake’s art such as The Penance of Jane Shore, which he had painted in 1793 for exhibition in the Royal Academy. Some of these paintings, notably the rich temperas of which Satan Calling up his Legions is a good example, have suffered considerably over time, the canvas having cracked and darkened. The watercolours, however, particularly the glorious angels guarding Christ, remain translucent and vivid. By displaying mainly biblical subjects or those drawn from contemporary poetry (for example Gray’s The Bard), rather than those figures that comprised his own mythology, Blake attempted to present himself in a relatively conventional light, yet the non-mimetic, gradiose figures elevated from flat, pre-Renaissance backgrounds, could not have appeared as anything other than impossibly bizarre to most viewers at the time.

Myrone’s glossary, as with his footnotes to the Catalogue, provides a lucid explanation of various terms. The book as a whole has been designed as a catalogue for general readers (and visitors to the 2009 show) rather than academics, and the strength of Myrone’s style is his ability to convey the complexities of art history with an assured, light touch. Blake’s painting, in contrast to his poetry and printmaking, tends to be a neglected subject, but recent exhibitions and the continuing interest of twenty-first century artists in Blake indicate that “Seen in My Visions” probably marks the start of a new trend in Blake studies that will pay more attention to that art.

Bible illustrations published on Blake Archive

Blasphemer - Blake ArchiveTwenty of Blake’s water colour illustrations to the Bible have been published on theBlake Archive. Produced by Blake between approximately 1800 and 1806, the selected images depict scenes from the Old Testament and indicate the profound and lasting influence that the Bible had on his work.

Blake painted a series of some eighty biblical scenes for Thomas Butts in the early nineteenth century, and some of the images in the series, such as The Blasphemer, Ezekiel’s Wheels and David Delivered Out of Many Waters are among the most famous of Blake’s images.

The Blake Archive will continue to add Blake’s biblical paintings, with plans to include scenes from the New Testament before moving on to images from early in Blake’s career, such as Abraham and Isaac (c. 1780), as well as his final biblical paintings from the 1820s.

For more information visit http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/public/update.html or http://blakearchive.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/publication-announcement-blakes-water-color-illustrations-to-the-bible/.

New releases and forthcoming events

Just released is Chase the Devil, a new album by Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman, which draws inspiration from Blake, Blind Willie Johnson and Shlomo Carlebach among others. Lucas, who played and recorded with a number of artists including Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley and Lou Reed over the years, has been attracting reviews that describe his guitar-playing as driven by an almost religious fervour on tracks such as “In Christ There Is No East or West” and “Out on the Rolling Sea”. Of particular note for Blake followers is the inclusion of a version of “Jerusalem” that combines Lucas’s bluesy, sliding guitar to good effect with Bowman’s clear voice.

An exhibition around Carl Jung’s “Red Book” at the Library of Congress shows how Blake was one of his influences. The 205-page manuscript had been locked away after his death until a facsimile was published by Norton last year, and demonstrates his technique of what he calls “active imagination”, elaborating the stream of his unconscious. Prints of Blake, alongside Tibetan mandalas and books of alchemy, are part of the exhibition that will run from June 17 till August 18. Another exhibition, “Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s” at the San Antonio Museum of Arts, draws on Blake and Hieronymous Bosch as precursors, and runs till August 1.

Of forthcoming talks, lectures and conferences, Victoria University is holding a Symposium, “Blake In Our Time”, celebrating the life and work of renowned Blake scholar, G. E. Bentley, Jr., on August 28. On July 15-16, “Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century”, organised by Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, will be running at the Christopher Room, Aldgate Church, Oxford, and the “Digital Romanticisms” conference at the University of Tokyo on May 22-23 will include a number of speakers discussing Blake’s work in the digital age.

Finally, The Blake Society also recently posted a reminder that it will be running its annual celebration of Blake’s life and work at his grave in Bunhill Fields. Anyone can come and participate, and this year Robin Hatton-Gore, the gardener in charge of the cemetary for many years, will talk about the topography of the site. The event takes place at noon on Sunday, August 15.

William Morris and the Art of the Book

After my somewhat relentless focus on contemporary figures who demonstrate the influence of William Blake’s art and/or poetry, the anniversary of the birth of William Morris provides me with an opportunity to explore a different vein. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself increasingly interested in Blake’s Victorian followers, not merely content to leave that field to friends (such as Shirley Dent) who have done a much better job than myself. Indeed, I’m gearing myself up to do some work on Algernon Swinburne, who wrote an exceptional study of Blake in the 1860s.

Morris – artist, designer, writer, socialist – cannot really be said to be one of Blake’s followers, and the fact that while he was often associated with many movements but rarely fully part of them (whether the Socialist League, which he founded but then broke with, or the Pre-Raphaelites), is actually one of the things I like about Morris, and an attitude of independence which I think he shares with Blake.

Obviously his friendship with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brought him into contact with the circle around Alexander Gilchrist that was renovating Blake’s reputation in the second half of the nineteenth century. Morris had little to do – at least in any explicit sense – with this renovation, but Blake’s combination of image and text in the sphere of design had an important effect on Morris’s work (as, indeed, was the case with other designers such as Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh). Morris’s relations with W. B. Yeats, another leading exponent of Blake’s art at the turn of the century, has also been noted by academics such as Margaret Rudd and Morton Seiden.

It was with the founding of the Kelmscott Press in 1891 in which something special can be seen of Blake’s line of the art of the book. The 1896 edition of Chaucer, which Morris produced with Burne-Jones, is rightly considered a masterpiece, and it is not my intention in the slightest to diminish the extraordinary effects of works such as this by making any claims that “Blake got there first” (a claim that would, in any case, look ridiculous compared to those marvellous precursors which also affected Morris such as medieval illuminated manuscripts). Rather, like Blake, Morris conceived of the book as a complete work of art, one in which the matter of printing and all elements of production were instrumental in achieving its status as an object of beauty.

Morris’s politics are also equally fascinating to me. His interest in socialism is, of course, well-documented and extremely important, but the 1880s and 1890s was also a period when anarchism often appeared to be the vibrant and truly international movement, and Morris befriended Peter Kropotkin when the Russian anarchist settled near London in the 1880s. Similarly, Engels was rather disgusted at that time by what he saw as Morris’s uncritical support of anarchists in the Socialist League at a period when animosity between Marxists and anarchists was building up after the failure of the First International. Morris was much more consistent and dedicated in his political activity than Blake, but I have always taken pleasure in the fact that old, staid, conservative Albion every so often produces such artists who have such revolutionary fire in their belly.

The Naked Tea Party

The latest edition of the poetry and writing journal Ekleksographia (ekleksographia.ahadadabooks.com) is a guest issue edited by Philip Davenport and entitled “William Blake and the Naked Tea Party”. The special edition, which went online with a live writing event by Sarah Sanders on 15 March, concentrates on the haptic nature of writing (especially handwriting), and the handmade nature of certain modes of communicating. As such, in the words of the editor, it owes a debt to outsider art and alternative traditions of poetics with “an IOU all the way back to Will Blake, he and the Mrs sitting on the lawn in London afternoons, naked, drinking tea”.

Contributions include essays by Kirstie Gregory, Holly Pester, Maggie O’Sullivan and Bob Cobbing, as well as examples of such handmade poetics by Sean Bonney, Tony Lopez, Geraldine Monk and David Tibet.

Philip Davenport also runs Applepie Editions, a “lab” for art objects, music, prints and books, and Davenport specialises in poems made from daily situations such as journalism, porn, txt messages and overheard voices. You can visit William Blake and the Naked Tea Party at http://ekleksographia.ahadadabooks.com/davenport/index.html.

The Last of England: Jarman’s Blakean vision

Another rather sombre anniversary today: Derek Jarman, artist, writer and film maker, died on February 19, 1994, from an AIDS-related illness aged 52, one of the few openly-gay artists in the UK at the time.

He is most widely known for films such as Jubilee (1977-8) and Caravaggio (1986), and the strongest influences on his style and content were Elizabethan figures such as Shakespeare, Marlowe and the magician, John Dee, yet Jarman also saw himself as a “Blakean leveller” and the leap from Renaissance England to Romantic artist was not such a hard one to make. Contemporaries and early critics of Blake saw his early works such as Poetical Sketches as a revival of Elizabethan poetry in contrast to the then-dominant Augustan style, and Blake himself was immersed in the worlds of Milton and English radicals of the Civil War and Interregnum.

A friend of mine, Mark Douglas, drew my attention to an obituary that appeared in Art Monthly after Jarman’s death, in which Roger Cook wrote:

When I think of Derek I think of William Blake’s fiery youthful giant Albion, incandescent with energy as represented in Blake’s engraving known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion. Like Blake, he identified the ecstasy of human sexuality with freedom and protested its bondage. It was this that made him so passionate and open.

Jarman had a fascination with England that is perhaps the strongest link between his work and that of Blake’s. In The Last of England, the book published from diaries written at the time he was making the film of that name, Jarman lamented how through the film Chariots of Fire reduced Blake’s vision to “some muscular Christianism and jingo, crypto-faggy Cambridge stuff set to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ – a minor poet who wrote this popular football hymn”. The sarcasm and bitterness in those words, with their deprecatory reference to Blake as a “minor poet”, are a jaundiced reflection on the success of what he saw as jingoism compared to his own, more complex view of England’s green and pleasant land. His more passionate view about the Romantic artist was summed up in a note to Jubilee:

“all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc… who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism… For William Blake.”