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.

Zoapod 7: Dreams Unlimited – J. G. Ballard and Blake (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 7. This podcast will concentrate on an author who has actually been a longer (though not as deep) influence on my own life and thought, J. G. Ballard, who died in April 2009. I first began reading Ballard’s science fiction when I was thirteen, around the same time that I first really started to become interested in Surrealism. Although my interest in both was slightly displaced by a love for the Romantics (which I had tried – and failed – to read around the same time), both Ballard and Surrealism were in many ways a primer for my own love of Blake’s writing and art.

2. Ballard’s own fascination with Surrealism influenced his speculative novels, whether those set in almost familiar locales in near future settings, such as Vermilion Sands or The Drowned World, or impossible dreamscapes such as The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company (as well, of course, as absurdist contemporary dramas, of which Crash and Cocaine Nights are the most famous examples). It is in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) that Ballard comes closest to Blake’s vision of London, having as it does a central character called Blake and loosely following the unfolding lines of Milton a Poem.

3. In Blake’s Milton, the poem begins with Milton unhappy though in heaven who, upon hearing the song of a bard about the struggles between Satan as one of the self-righteous and his brothers Palamabron and Rintrah, leaves Paradise to reclaim the lost female part of himself that he abandoned to enter this restrictive Eden. There he encounters both Blake and the projected, eternal form of Blake, the Prophet Los, and also Satan who he realises is his own shadow. In Ballard’s novel, there is no bardic prophecy in heaven: rather Blake is a psychologically disturbed young man working in a London airport who steals a Cessna airplane and crashes it in Shepperton, the suburb where Ballard lived for most of his adult life. Before providing these details, The Unlimited Dream Company opens with a sacred and profane, mundane and exotic description of the streets that owes much both to the beautiful nightmares of the Surrealists and Blake’s visionary psychogeography of London:

4. Soon there will be too many deserted towns for them to count. Along the Thames valley, all over Europe and the Americas, spreading outwards across Asia and Africa, ten thousand similar suburbs will empty as people gather to make their first man-powered flights. (UDC 9-10).

These lines echo those in Milton, where Ololon says:

5. Where once the Cherubs of Jerusalem spread to Lambeths Vale
Milcahs Pillars shine from Harrow to Hampstead where Hoglah
On Highgates heights magnificent Weaves over trembling Thames
To Shooters Hill and thence to Blackheath the dark Woof! Loud
Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth let down
On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on
Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds
Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South (35.10-17, E135)

6. In Milton, this scene depicts the spread of the druidic death cult across the world, Blake’s code for organised religion and materialist philosophy of his day. Ballard’s infestation of the world is more ambivalent, a return to a rampant, chaotic, psychotically gorgeous proliferation of jewelled nature. Before this can happen, however, his protagonist realises that he cannot leave Shepperton, cannot cross the wasteland that lies between the suburb and London. Attempting to prove his domination, he indulges a sick dream within the city, engorging himself in magical, illusory masculinity that gains power by rape and dreams of rampant fecundity, literally absorbing the inhabitants of the town as he attempts to gain the strength to fly away from the mundane highways and shopping centres.

7. For a time it almost appears that Ballard wishes us to indulge his antihero’s sickness, so compelling is the vivid life-in-death that supplants the monochrome existence of Shepperton’s ordinary inhabitants. He is Luvah-Orc bursting out as a pagan deity, a mixture of Aztec god and Charles Manson. Blake believes that if only he can absorb enough energy he will be able to fly:

8. Alone now in the sky, I moved in huge strides across the air. I had become an archangelic being of enormous power, at last strong enough to make my escape… I needed their young bodies and spirits to give me strength. They would play forever within me, running across the dark meadows of my heart. (UDC 160, 163)

9. For all this apparent energy, however, this superhuman strength, Blake becomes less able to leave than ever. Only slowly he realises that his sadism and violence is not the energy of release, but instead binds him to this hell that continues to sicken him even as it burns more brightly with his own infernal colours. Submitting to the desires of his libido to overturn the repressive super-ego that had beaten him into a poverty of existence in daily life, his apparent sovereignty merely exchanges one master for another. It is only when he recognises his own guilt that he is able to confront and forgive the demon that prevents him leaving this inferno, the skeleton of the dead pilot that lies in the Thames. This struggle echoes that of Milton at the end of the original poem:

10. Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate
And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle
A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes
And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering.
Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity
Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation …
Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches
Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach
Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness
Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on
In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn
Thy Laws & terrors[.] (38.29-42, E139)

11. In The Unlimited Dream Company, Blake is dead, and the corpse he confronts is his own. Unable to cast off the remnants of his former life, clinging to desires of selfhood that have only brought him woe, Ballard’s Blake is a re-reading and transformative salvation of William Blake, having him descend to Shepperton to cast off his own religious righteousness in the same way that the Romantic poet had rewritten the works, philosophy and theology of John Milton.