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”.

 

Watercolour at Tate Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Blake Birthday Party and the Blake Society

As remarked in the news story at the beginning of this week, on Sunday 28 November the Blake Society organised a celebration to mark the anniversary of Blake’s birth at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain, which also served as an opportunity to note 25 years since it was founded.

The event was a great success, with more than 150 members of the society (as well as general public) in attendance to listen to a number of talks about Blake as well as two films: Caterpillar and Fly, a delightful and extremely charming short movie by Becky Adams of Reelscape Films, and Jerusalem, a biopic directed by Ryan Andrews and written by Philippa Goslett, starring Ray Winstone in the role of Blake. Musical interludes were provided by Fernand Péna, Guy Pearson, and Tally Koren: Fernand’s rock and roll approach to Blake has already featured on this site, and a review of his and Guy’s classical exposition of Blake’s poems will follow in the weeks ahead. Tally, “based in London by way of Israel and Mexico”, ended the day with a rousing performance of her song “Man on the Thames”, based on Blake’s poem “Why should I care for the men of thames”. You can download the song from Soundcloud.

Speakers included Keri Davies and Shirley Dent with some comments on future directions for Blake and the Blake Society, as well as Philippa Simpson from Tate Britain discussing the recent acquisition of Blake’s prints and yours truly indicating some of the exciting possibilities offered by web 2.0 and social media technologies for engaging with an audience of Blake enthusiasts. All speakers, singers and presenters were introduced by Tim Heath, the current chair of the Blake Society whose hard work for the day was deeply appreciated by all who attended.

Founded in 1985 and meeting regularly since 1986, the Blake Society – in its own words – sets out to “honour and celebrate” Blake, and anyone with an interest in the poet and artist should consider joining. It is an extremely open – and also extremely friendly – society, and over the years has brought together some of the most important scholars working in the field of Blake studies to share their findings and celebrated public figures, not least the current chairman, Philip Pullman. More than this, however, it has also celebrated the enthusiasm of many others who may not be academically involved with Blake but who often have a profound – and lifelong – fascination with this most remarkable of men.

The first 25 years of the Society has seen it become a rich source of all things Blakean, and over the next 25 it will surely become even more entrenched as a centre for all those who have a rich passion for Blake’s works. You can become a member of the Blake Society by visiting its web site, http://www.blakesociety.org.

Blake and Physiognomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blake’s Birthday and 25th Anniversary of the Blake Society

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of William Blake and, this year, the Blake Society is 25 years old. In celebration of both these events, a special event is being held at the Clore Gallery of Tate Britain.

The Society was founded in 1985 at St James’s Church, Picadilly to celebrate and honour Blake’s life and work and has been meeting regularly in London since 1986, with many speakers including some of the most eminent scholars working in the field. The Society aims to attract anyone with an interest in Blake and has monthly meetings usually in the City of Westminster Archives Centre in London.

The event at Tate Britain will include discussion between the surviving Chairs of the Society (David Worrall, Keri Davies, Shirley Dent, and Tim Heath), as well as musical interludes provided by Fernand Péna, Guy Pearson, and Tally Koren and two short films: Catterpillar and the Fly by Becky Adams, and Jerusalem, directed by Ryan Andrews and starring Ray Winstone. Philippa Simpson and Jason Whittaker will also provide two short talks, on the newly discovered Blake prints and the future of Blake online.

In conjunction with this event and to mark the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Zoamorphosis will have a week of additional material providing reviews of new books and displays, discussions of where the future of Blake studies lies online, and the launch of a new project which will explore how everyday users interact with the work of this most popular and illuminating of artists and poets. At the end of the week, we’ll also be announcing the winner of the William Blake Jukebox Competiton, so be sure to add your suggestions before the end of the week so that they can be added to the site.

For more information on the Blake Society, visit blakesociety.org.uk.

Blake and Physiognomy

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

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

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

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

The Romantics and The Sleeping Congregation

Having finally had an opportunity to visit the Romantics exhibition at Tate Britain this weekend, here are some of my own thoughts on this show as well as Richard Wright’s small curated display, The Sleeping Congregation.

One of the aims of The Romantics is to place three of the most important artists of the period – JMW Turner, John Constable and, of course, William Blake – in a wider context. A related ambition is to emphasise the potential links between the three artists, not so much in terms of their historical relations (though those certainly existed between Constable and Turner, though they were much less evident between these two and Blake) as in their current configuration as three figures who have come to define what is meant by British Romantic art, especially for Tate Britain.

The exhibition makes it clear that this is not to be a simple chronological arrangement of what constitutes Romantic art but is, rather, arranged thematically. This is rather sensible for this particular exhibition (significantly, the large Gaugin exhibition at Tate Modern, while making the same claims, cannot help but slip into very straightforward chronologies in the contextual rooms detailing Gaugin’s career – after all, one individual’s life cannot but help follow time’s arrow at some point). Thematic arrangements for The Romantics, by contrast, avoid this most simplistic – and frequently misleading – of metanarratives, and instead makes a series of choices based on other organisational principles. Some of these may be as equally misleading as the simple history of Romantic art, but at least one – Pictures for an Exhibition – struck me as an effective intervention on the spectacular nature of Romantic art (another, British Landscape: Photography after the Picturesque, seemed a rather perverse attempt at counterpoint that did not work for me, unfortunately).

For this particular review, of the various thematic arrangements (Introducing Romanticism, Late and Early Turner, Pictures for an Exhibition, Constable and Contemporaries: Sketching from Nature, Neo-Romantics, British Landscape, and Colour and Line: Tutner’s Experiments), that on Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the most pertinent. However, it is worth making some general observations about the rest of the exhibition, not only because how it does (and sometimes does not) help to contextualise Blake’s own practice, but because Blake is also frequently invoked throughout the rest of the exhibition. The first thing that greets the visitor as they enter the Clore gallery is a line from Jerusalem – “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”, demonstrating just how important Blake has become since his death as a rather minor figure on the fringe of the pre-Victorian art scene. Certainly Blake’s role in The Romantics is partly to frame the significance of such art as part of the national collection for the twenty-first century, in many respects he being one of the few British artists who exemplifies what could be considered a romantic attitude in the visual, as opposed to literary, arts.

It is very clear that this is the British Romantics, with little that could illustrate the burgeoning art of Europe, with only the occasional contribution by continental artists such as Delacroix, as is the impossibility to provide a few other contextual aspects from the period, such as the overlap with neoclassical art or new developments in portraiture (evident in another exhibition currently in London at the National Portrait Gallery, with Thomas Lawrence as its focus) – though this, of course, is to demand the impossible, an exhibition with unlimited space and funds to show every work from every possibly related genre. Instead, there are opportunities to view some of the best examples of what could be defined as British Romantic art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s Sir Brook Boothby or Henry Wallis’s famous and fantastical portrait of Chatterton, as well as witness some clever interrogations of commonly understood conventions, as with John Crome’s early nineteenth century paintings of a slate quarry.

It is, however, the late Turner who, as ever, continues to astound: while, of course, paintings such as Sunrise with Sea Monsters and Norham Castle are unfinished, Turner’s vivid, brilliant expositions of light demonstrate just how important he would be to later generations of artists (much more so than the dutiful history painter of the early period who, for me, always disappoints when one moves from the grandiose landscape in the style of Lorraine or Poussin to the rather lumpen smudges of figures scattered around the foreground).

Which brings us finally to Blake. Presented with one room, the focus of this exhibition is the new series of prints acquired by Tate in January 2010, which is both an opportunity and a product of necessity, many of the other great Blake images owned by Tate Britain currently being prepared for a large exhibition at the State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum next year. Accompanying the new prints are two other works by Blake, the marvellous Blasphemer, one of the biblical scenes painted for Thomas Butts around 1800, and the dark and poorly preserved tempera of the Bard after Thomas Gray, which had started to deteriorate during Blake’s lifetime. In addition, there are works by Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli (with his Titania and Bottom dominating one wall), Richard Dadd and Theodore Von Holst. The Fuseli connection is apt, though from this the curators appear to have moved to Dadd and Holst as emblematic of Romantic imagination in a way that may be true generally, but immediately loses its originality by the apposition with Blake’s small prints.

Fuseli is an artist whose star has fallen as Blake’s has risen and, looking at his slightly bombastic canvas it is not hard to see why: Fuseli captures a particular aspect of his audience’s imagination and presents it back to them, slightly modified, slightly repackaged, without ever really pushing them (and, I’m afraid, that I was much less impressed by his student, Holst). By contrast, I have always been fascinated by some of Richard Dadd’s art, especially The Fairy Fellow’s Master Stroke, displayed here. Nonetheless, its hyper-real, rather kitsch and Dali-esque style means that this particular painting often appears to me to be locked into an obsession that, while it may fascinate more than Fuseli’s suitably risque but slightly passé fantasies, also bars out the viewer from exercising his or her imagination while Blake’s work appears much more stimulating.

Of course, during his lifetime, “mad” Blake’s paintings attracted even less interest than Dadd’s in Bedlam, but the new series of prints was proving extremely popular (and was constantly surrounded during the time I was at the exhibition). This, in part, is almost certainly due to the narrative surrounding their discovery, and plenty has been written on that subject and the prints themselves. One thing that struck me very clearly upon viewing these prints is the new style of conservation and preservation, which offers a marked contrast to previous forms of presenting art works. The prints have not had an easy life, and while some of the worst damage has been removed not all traces of that material history have been erased. Thus, for example, stab marks where the prints were bound together, as well as some of the grime accumulated throughout their existence, remain very much in evidence. However, it is the colours of those small images which most strongly stand out. Many of Blake’s contemporaries and immediate followers were extremely dismissive about his use of colour, but the clear, vivid reds and blues of his images of Los, Thel and Urizen blaze brightly, so that the fluid, elegant forms – lacking the monomaniacal introversion of Dadd or the arch, slightly too-knowing grotesquery or titillation of Fuseli – rightly inscribe themselves in the viewer’s mind. Eventually, these prints will sink to a lower place in the public imagination, almost certainly supplanted by the more famous large colour prints of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar, but for the moment it is entirely appropriate that they have this moment of close inspection: Blake’s imagination is more bizarre than Dadd’s, far less conventional than Fuseli’s, but it also offers a portal to later generations that is as important philosophically as Turner’s art is formally: it is the insistence that any artist – indeed, any viewer, must create their own system or be enslaved by another’s.

While the new prints may eventually attract less attention than other works by Blake, some of my particular favourites – Blake’s woodcuts for Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s pastoral poetry – are scattered throughout the exhibition. These very minor illustrations, which diverted Blake but for a little time, were in many ways the most formally significant of Blake’s works, inspiring artists as diverse as Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, such influence being especially evident in many of the works that fill the Neo-Romantics room. Apparent insignificance and ephemerality is a theme of the room curated by Richard Wright and demonstrating the importance of the Contemporary Art Society, which has donated, or caused to be donated, many important works to the nation.

Entitled The Sleeping Congregation, Wright’s room takes its title from a print by Hogarth satirising a pompous sermon. Wright’s own collection is very low-key – so low-key that we walked past it twice, somewhat distracted by Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar aircraft in the Duveen Gallery. Wright, winner of the Turner Prize for 2009, provides a more liminal space that, as well as a fragment of a title page from Blake’s Europe and small prints by Blake, Palmer and Calvert includes curios such as one of Christo’s wrapped magazines. Wright offers a critique of post-sixties art’s obsession with using the techniques of manipulation and control drawn from the advertising industry, and which offers a very understated contrast with the Duveen exhibition in the gallery next door (though Banner’s work is the most fun I’ve seen in a long time). There is also, it must be said, a certain irony in visiting this curated collection after the Romantics, for if contemporary art is sometimes seduced by the media-manipulation techniques of the advertising industry, it is also quite clear that those techniques owe much to the revelling in spectacle that has been one of fine art’s own enduring contributions to the growth of mind-forg’d manacles, and was clearly sometimes as much the intended effect of Romantic art in the early nineteenth century as any liberation of the senses.

Richard Wright: The Sleeping Congregation

Richard Wright, winner of last year’s Turner Prize, is the third and final artist to curate the Contemporary Art Society series at Tate Britain from 13 September to 5 December 2010.

Wright, who lives and works in Glasgow, is an artist very much influenced by Blake’s visionary works in his own art, though the title of this exhibition takes its title from a 1763 Hogarth engraving, which mocks a tedious sermoniser and his bored audience.

Also included in the exhibition are pieces by William Blake (a posthumously produced fragment from Europe) and Kurt Schwitters. Wright’s aim with the exhibition is to address the need for more inspirational and exhortative forms of art that will rouse the sleeping congregation to renewed energy.

Founded in 1910, the Contemporary Art Society exists to support and develop public collections of contemporary art in the UK. It does so by raising the funds to purchase and commission new works of contemporary art for a national network of public collections, and by soliciting gifts of works to these collections for public benefit.

More information on the exhibition can be found on the Tate web site, and to learn more about the Contemporary Art Society visit www.contemporaryartsociety.org.

New exhibition: The Romantics

Tate Britain is to hold a major new exhibition that will open on 9 August and run until 31 December 2012.

The Romantics will explore the origins and legacies of Romantic art in Britain as part of a major, nine-room display in the Clore Gallery, with works drawn from the Tate’s collection. As well as works by Henry Fuseli, J. M. W. Turner, John Constable and Samuel Palmer, the recently acquired Blake prints will also be on display. (For information about the prints, click here.) Two rooms will also be devoted to the legacy of the Romantics on Graham Sutherland and other later artists.

Admission to the exhibition is free, and you can find more details including opening times on the Tate web site.

Burning Bright: two events in July

As well as a number of Blake displays and exhibitions currently on show for the Summer (see Blakean Summer Shows for more information), two events are taking place next month in the UK that will be of interest to Blake followers.

The first is Burning Bright in Concert, organised by the Blake Society. Tymon Dogg has set seventeen of William Blake’s poems to music?and will perform a selection of these on July 6, 6.30-8.00 pm at the City of Westminster Archives Centre. A singer-songwriter for more than 40 years, he has worked with artists as varied as The Clash and The Moody Blues. He is currently working with Susan de Muth, who has directed several theatre pieces including?‘The Greatest Ever dada Show’, to create a theatrical spectacle based on the songs.

Also, a reminder that St Aldgate’s Church, Oxford will host a two-day conference on Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century on July 15-16. The conference will explore present and future directions opened up since publication of Irene Taylor’s “The Woman Scaly”, exploring how critics have wrestled and struggled with, delighted in and savoured, Blake’s provocative and abundant sexual visions. The event will celebrate and build upon past knowledge as it reaches toward likely concerns of the future.