Another Great Opening

This Saturday, Valentine’s Day, is a long-awaited day for art-lovers in Manchester: the Whitworth Art Gallery re-opens after a major redevelopment project. I was lucky enough last weekend to attend the ‘friends and family’ preview evening. The atmosphere was one of celebration and excitement; it was great to be back in the building, and to see some favourite works back on display (not least the magnificent Blake watercolours), as well as new gallery spaces and installations.

 

The director, Maria Balshaw told us that as ‘friends and family’ we were both privileged pre-viewers, and the test-drivers of the new building – the idea being that any minor hiccups could be ironed out before the real opening on Saturday. There were not many that I was aware of; one that she apologised for was that there were not enough wine glasses which meant that wine was being served in tumblers. There was really no need for this apology, because drinking wine from a tumbler is actually a Blakean practice – he liked drinking from a tumbler because he thought wine glasses were silly – and Blake is not only a star of the watercolour collection which is among the opening displays, but also has also inspired the headline show and opening spectacle from Cornelia Parker (which you can read about in an article from the Guardian).

 

So here’s a Blakean cheers (from a tumbler) to new Whitworth! I’m looking forward to Saturday.

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Escaping doubt and despair

Blake’s words about Manchester have been haunting me recently. With those wonderful days in the print room of the Yale Center for British Art seeming to be a distant memory and the conference I was organising that provided a temporary distraction over and done with, I am now faced with eight months to finish my thesis (‘less than one pregnancy’ as a friend of mine has pointed out). This time will largely be spent revising the chapters I’ve been writing over the past two years or so, and I’m also trying to make mental head space to think about the next project in order to apply for jobs. So my version of the January blues has been an identification with Manchester and Liverpool’s ‘tortures of doubt and despair.’

What I needed was something to reinvigorate me; to remind me that once upon a time I was excited to be starting my research project, and something to spark ideas to spur me on in the coming months. The conference held to coincide with the Ashmolean’s exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ on Saturday was just the thing.

The day began with Martin Myrone of the Tate speaking about Blake and the Gothic. He richly illustrated that ‘Gothic’ is a complex, even messy term, which applies to Blake’s works from a number of angles, beginning and ending with reflections on the image from The First Book of Urizen which is the poster-boy for the exhibition (and on the Tate’s separate print of the plate).

Next up was a panel on satire, with David Worrall arguing that Blake’s satirical manuscript An Island in the Moon is an experiment in writing for the theatre, and Susan Matthews exploring the fascinating Copy D of Europe and its annotations, thought to be by George Cumberland (noting that we have had a stark reminder of the resonance of ‘satire’ and ‘Europe’ in recent weeks).

After lunch was a panel on some of Blake’s interactions with literary texts. Michael Phillips (curator of the exhibition) presenting Shakespearean aspects of Blake, and Luisa Cale (who organised the conference) on Blake’s engagement with the subject of the Lazar house from Paradise Lost. The highlight for me here was Bethan Stevens’ paper on Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil which wonderfully illustrated the need to attend to the text Blake is illustrating here, which has been virtually overlooked in scholarship on these designs, which has focused primarily on the oddity of these woodcuts within Blake’s oeuvre and the influence of the designs on the so-called [see below] ‘Ancients’. So a trip to see the copy at the John Rylands Library is on the cards for me.

After everyone had had a quick caffeine boost, Andrew Lincoln discussed a passage from The Four Zoas in which Blake uses violent imagery of harvest in a vision of the Last Judgement; I’ve recently been thinking about several images by Blake which use related imagery, so the paper highlighted to me some interesting parallels and differences in this passage which I haven’t really given any thought to until now (albeit later than the images I’ve been looking at). We then heard from Nicholas Shrimpton, speaking about Francis Oliver Finch, a lesser-known member of the so-called ‘Ancients’; ‘so-called’ because, as Shrimpton demonstrated, this term was probably only given to the group retrospectively.

Finally, Saree Makdisi (in a glimpse of his forthcoming book Reading William Blake) spoke about ‘Blake, Time and Eternity’ arguing that Blake’s works seek to displace the reader-viewer’s perception of linear time through their constantly shifting, non-linear, overlapping, looping (non-)narratives and as such take the reader-viewer into the state of eternity. Not only was this a compelling reading of the problematic nature of Blake’s books, but, to extrapolate from Makdisi’s argument, also the kind of repetitions, parallels and disjunctures that had emerged in the various perspectives on Blake presented throughout the day. As in a particular Blake book, so with the universal Blake – the difficulty with reading the complex web of interconnections between his works should be viewed sub specie aeternitatis.

With that tall order — and numerous ‘minute particulars’ to chase up — I came away feeling altogether more positive about the prospect of the next eight months of Blake.

Epiphany with #AshBlake

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I spent yesterday, Epiphany, in Oxford, visiting the current exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ at the Ashmolean Museum. The visit was specifically to write a review of the exhibition, so I won’t say too much about it here, but it did spark a three more general — and various — thoughts which I’ll share here.

1. Although I’ve written reviews of exhibitions before (and/or ramble about them on here) this was the first time I had visited an exhibition with the primary purpose of writing a review. Especially because it’s a topic so close to my own work (and still more because I’d read the catalogue before visiting), I really had to take a step back and tried to place myself in the shoes of the prospective visitor who might be reading my review (so I was thinking specifically about the readers of the journal I’m writing for). Watch this space for the results!

2. I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of a Blake exhibition being held in one of the ancient universities which he poked fun at, calling them (ironically) ‘Places of Thought’ (see previous about Cambridge here and here).

3. An amble around the permanent displays took me into a gallery devoted to eighteenth-century Britain. It seems a shame that this isn’t flagged up for visitors to the exhibition as it illustrates how different Blake’s aesthetic was from the fashions of his time. I had a similar, indeed more striking, such experience, at the Rhode Island School of Design (see my post, ‘Take a Seat‘), where a Blake picture was placed in a room devoted to the eighteenth-century interior, as illustrated below (the Blake picture was behind me).

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Blakean Illuminations

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Earlier this week I was in London for a part-work, part leisure trip – taking in a couple of exhibitions and getting my hands on an obscure pamphlet on a Blake picture in the National Art Library.

Among the exhibitions was the British Library’s ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which traces the rich cultural phenomena of the Gothic from the eighteenth century to the present day. The early part of the exhibition took me back to thinking about Blake and Gothic for ‘Burning Bright’ at the John Rylands Library in 2012. There were a number of familiar objects in the display here, including Blake’s own Night Thoughts engravings and several pages from Vala/The Four Zoas.

There were no huge (/terrifying) surprises in the narrative set out here, but it was good to be introduced to some objects I was not familiar with, and particularly to find out more about later iterations of Gothic.

That evening, however, I did encounter a gothic surprise: on a stroll around London’s Christmas lights, I turned off Oxford Street onto South Molton Street to see the scene above. 17 South Molton Street is where Blake lived after his return to London in 1803 (following three years in Felpham, Sussex), and is the only one of his London residences still standing.

Although a brief internet search suggests that these lights have been on South Molton Street for several years, I don’t recall seeing them before. What I could not find out was whether or not the lights are intended to be Blakean – if any reader knows, I would be delighted to hear from you. But whether intentionally so or otherwise, the gothic arches of light are appropriate for this Blakean setting. Blake called Gothic ‘living form’ (On Virgil) and Gothic motifs appear frequently in his images – a famous example is Angels Hovering over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805) in which the angels form an arch reminiscent of the gothic ‘ogee’ arches Blake knew from Westminster Abbey.

The Blakean resonance of the illuminations is further reinforced in their fourfold structure. In Blake’s mythos, to be fourfold is a characteristic of the spiritual state; thus, the spiritual London is fourfold, the Human is fourfold, there are four gates to the celestial city of Golgonooza, and so on.

Is this mere accident? Are the lights celebrating Blake or the posh shops that now populate South Molton Street. Either way, if the ghost of Blake happens to visit his former home, I hope he’d appreciate the former and enjoy the irony of the latter.

All manner of bodies

If ever another b-word vied for dominance in my current vocabulary over the name of a certain artist, “bodies” is currently putting up a good fight.

 

As mentioned previously, I’m involved in organising a postgraduate symposium called “Untouchable Bodies?” which will explore how interact with bodies (in various senses) and the social, political, ethical, religious and other constraints and concerns which influence these encounters. The event is on Friday (at the wonderful John Rylands Library), so we’ve been finalising details like how to structure the discussions around the Special Collections items we’re using, as well as more banal logistics like catering (accommodating the various bodily needs/choices of our delegates’ diets!).

 

I’m also involved in Manchester’s strand of the Research Councils UK ‘Schools and Universities Partnership’ as a ‘PhD Demonstrator’ for the Whitworth Art Gallery. My role is to deliver workshops, together with a science PhD researcher, on “Drawing Anatomy.” This will explore anatomy from both scientific and artistic approaches, and will in part be shaped by our own research interests.

 

As the Whitworth Art Gallery is currently closed, we are using the Manchester Museum as our venue. On Monday, we had a training session to develop the workshop, working with Denise Bowler (Secondary & Post-16 Coordinator at the Whitworth) and artist Sarah Sanders. We had fun trying to identify animals from their skeletons in the museum displays, and tried out various drawing activities. We have a trial session next month to test the workshop in action. Here is a piece of quick collaborative drawing – a monkey by me, to which Denise gave a friend:

 

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Meanwhile, at Manchester Art Gallery, Grayson Perry’s tapestries have given way to an exhibition exploring twentieth-century sculpture and last week I spent a morning exploring it as part of a training day for the gallery’s volunteer guides (of which I am one). ‘Sculptural Forms: A Century of Experiment’ explores a broad range of sculptural practices in the twentieth century through three themes: ‘The Human Condition,’ ‘Abstraction’ and ‘Transformation.’

 

‘The Human Condition’ is obviously most pertinent to my interest in bodies. I’ll limit myself to mentioning two works here to avoid an overly-long post. The earliest work is the gallery’s cast of Rodin’s iconic ‘The Age of Bronze‘; first modelled in 1876, this work sparked controversy when it first appeared for its extremely life-like appearance (people thought that it had been cast from life), not conforming to the formal, idealised types of human figures which had dominated the art of sculpture. Rodin made numerous casts of this work; Manchester Art Gallery’s was cast in 1911 and was specially commissioned by the gallery as the first sculptural work in the collection.

 

Nearby is Eric Gill’s ‘Sleeping Christ‘ (c.1924). I’m a bit of a fan of Gill’s work (in fact, I recently had an essay published on Gill’s Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral published by the Catholic Archives Society) so I was pleased to see this work on show. It also makes an interesting counterpoint to the Rodin for tour purposes – Gill championed ‘direct carving’ whereby the sculptor responds to the material s/he is working with to ‘find’ the form of the work within the material rather than first making a model (in clay, for instance) and he did not think much of Rodin. It seemed to go down quite well in my tour today.

 

Across the river in Salford, on Thursday night I went to the opening of another exhibition ‘Encountering Corpses‘ at Sacred Trinity Church which is part of a project at Manchester Metropolitan University. The exhibition features works by various artists which respond to the theme of death and the body. The launch put me in mind of Blake’s poem ‘The Little Vagabond‘ for the church was full of art, poetry, song, wine and spectacular cakes (see below). However, it was so busy that I barely managed to look at the works on display, but will be returning as part of ‘Untouchable Bodies?’ on Friday.

 

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Finally, in thesis-land, I have been looking at Blake’s depictions of the crucifixion and therefore thinking about the ways he depicts Christ’s body on the cross and the implications this has for us as members of Christ’s corporate “Divine Body” (only accidentally well-timed for Lent). I’ll end with one example, Plate 76 of ‘Copy E’ of Jerusalem from the Yale Center for British Art (where I am excited to be going later this year):

 

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Print made by William Blake, 1757-1827, British, Jerusalem, Plate 76, 1804 to 1820, Relief etching printed in orange with pen and black ink, watercolor, and gold on moderately thick, smooth, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection