Revolutionary Light, The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester‘s art collection, has just opened its summer season (runs to 1 September). This programme is the final farewell before the gallery closes in the autumn for a major refurbishment, and the displays showcase highlights of the collection.

The season launched on 4th July with Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance piece “Coal on Cotton” as part of the Manchester International Festival which ran from sunrise on the Friday to sunset on the Sunday. By happenstance, this coincided with the sun finally emerging from the heavens to bring the some summer weather across the country (yes, including Manchester!). The sun and light are themes running through various aspects of the programme, most explicitly “Revolutionary Light” which brings together works by William Blake, J M W Turner and Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor’s series of etchings, Blackness from her Womb are seen in the distance as one enters the building (you can see the Tate’s set of the etchings on their website). He created the prints in response to his visit to the Tate’s blockbuster Blake exhibition in 2000. Each print combines a single colour with inky blackness, creating strange, visionary designs with an intense play on darkness and light.

The Blake works are a series of six illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (which you can view via the Blake Archive) and the iconic Ancient of Days (shown on the exhibition page). Originally the frontispiece to his poem Europe (1794), and reported to be a representation of a vision Blake had at his home in Lambeth, he later reworked the design as a separate plate, and it is thought that he was working on this copy on his deathbed. All seven watercolours were given to the Whitworth in 1892 by John Edward Taylor, proprietor and son of the founder (also called John Edward Taylor) of the Manchester Guardian (which became the Guardian in 1959).

I have yet to look into Taylor’s interest in Blake; all I know at the moment is that he owned one other work by Blake – curiously enough from my point of view, a copy of Blake’s Large Colour Print, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795) which he donated to the V&A in 1894 (you can view the work via the Blake Archive). What I would be interested to look into is whether Taylor realised how closely linked the Whitworth watercolours are: Europe, from which The Ancient of Days comes, is a kind of retelling of Milton’s Nativity Ode, and there is at least one clear iconographic link, between the compasses held by Urizen in The Ancient of Days and the figure of Peace in the first of the Milton illustrations (follow the links above to see for yourself). These points are well established in Blake scholarship now, and of course, you don’t need to have done the reading to spot the similarity between the compasses and Peace, but did Taylor know Europe well enough to realise that connection? Maybe I’ll look into it at some point.

As for the light in these images, well, the sun is at the centre of The Ancient of Days, but it is a dark sun, and seems to restrict the figure of Urizen. In the Nativity Ode we see dawn and night, blasts of light, stars and fire in this apocalyptic version of the Nativity.

Turner is famous for the presence of the sun in his works, and it is reported that his dying words were “The sun is god.” Alongside Blake and Kapoor, Turner’s sun-centric watercolours look relatively conventional. Blake and Turner is an enigma which I wonder about sometimes — although they were contemporaries, and both challenged the artistic conventions of their time (Turner rather more commercially successfully than Blake), there don’t seem to be any records of them ever meeting or commenting on one another’s works, but it is more than plausible that they were aware of one another.

There is plenty to delight in other displays at the Whitworth. “Continental Drift” showcases highlights of the collection by European artists and British artists with continental links. With or without my Blake hat on, a highlight were the Dürer woodcuts – several individual prints, plus the complete series to the Book of Revelation, displayed in dramatic lighting (you can see images of this series of prints, though not in order, via the British Museum’s website). According to the display caption, this was the first book ever created and published by an artist, making it a precursor to Blake’s own books, not to mention the profound influence the Book of Revelation had on Blake and his admiration for Dürer. Indeed, I think it was Samuel Palmer who reported that Blake had a print of Dürer‘s Melancholia I in his workshop (which is also currently on display at the Whitworth and can be seen via their website).

My visit hardly left me feeling melancholic, but I do feel that like that figure, I need to sit and ponder further on these rich displays.

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  1. Pingback: The Rhino and the Flea – “Curiosity” at Turner Contemporary | in tortures of Doubt & Despair

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