Blake(an?) stars at the Whitworth

As mentioned in my last post, this weekend marked the re-opening of the Whitworth Art Gallery. Blake was given a prominent role in the opening celebrations in a variety of weird and wonderful ways.

I’m going to begin by getting my grumble out of the way. Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of the opening celebrations was Cornelia Parker’s ‘Blakean Abstract’ which involved graphene — a new super-material created by scientists at the University of Manchester — made using a speck of graphite from the back of a Blake drawing in the Whitworth’s collection. The graphene was used to activate a meteor shower over Whitworth Park on Friday evening. This was hailed as a remarkable collaboration between art and science, a product of the gallery’s status as a university art gallery. Fair enough. But it was a show that was essentially put on for an invited audience as part of a launch party the evening before the gallery opened to the public. Apparently it was visible in the surrounding area, but the park itself in which the gallery is situated was closed, and it was not advertised as a happening that anyone could witness (I only found out the timing by asking, although in the end an ill-timed cold and a rain shower put me off hanging around outside on a cold, damp evening in the hope of a second-rate view of the piece). I do not begrudge VIPs their private party, but to make the headline happening a closed event seems to me a great shame. It is also not very Blakean to make art for VIPs  — he hated all forms of institutional hierarchy. Perhaps one could argue that the lack of advertising piece to the general public mirrors Blake’s own failure to promote his work, but the view available to those not invited to the party must have been an inferior one, so the injustice remains. Perhaps there was a worry about numbers, but I find it difficult to believe that the meteor shower would have attracted a (significantly) bigger crowd in the park than the fireworks which took place as part of the public programme on the Saturday night (more on that presently).

I’d also like to take issue with ‘abstract’. I assume Parker intended the term to be read in at least two ways: first, analogous to Blake’s poem ‘The Human Abstract‘ or the abstract that I will have to write to summarise my PhD thesis, the term can refer to the ‘abstract’ of the Blake drawing used to produce the graphene; second, in reference to the nebulous form of the piece. The latter reading makes ‘Blakean abstract’ an oxymoron; for Blake:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.

(A Descriptive Catalogue, 1809)

Having said that, the idea of lighting up the sky with sparks and stars does resonate with a lot of imagery in Blake’s works — both visual and verbal. One might also object that Blake would have shuddered at the idea of his work being brought together with science in light of his negative view of the contrary discipline, but he liked experimenting with materials as much as the next artist, so he might have embraced graphene just as quickly as Cornelia Parker.

Right, grumble over; I’m glad I got that out of my system! But this complaint did not take away from the marvellous day I had at the public opening extravaganza yesterday in which Blake’s presence continued.   Cornelia Parker’s show inside the gallery included further Blakean references in casts of the gaps between pavements at Bunhill Fields — where Blake is buried — and in Jerusalem — a place Blake visited frequently in his imagination but not in the flesh. Personally, I could take or leave these pieces, but the notion of making use of negative space does have some interesting resonances with Blake’s printing practices and his statement in The Everlasting Gospel‘thou readst black where I read white’ (although Parker doesn’t mention these points in her guide to the exhibition, so I might be trying too hard to read them through a Blakean lens).

Of greater interest to me are eight Blake works included in the display of watercolours that forms one of the ten opening exhibitions. Among other pieces in this display are views of eighteenth-century London and works by JMW Turner, thus presenting Blake alongside his contemporaries. The hang is Victorian-style, which means that the works are hung densely, and some above eye-level. This means that they are not all easily viewable, but it’s always refreshing to see works displayed in different ways, and one can spot different things by seeing works from different angles and alongside different neighbours. I look forward to returning to see these works again over the next few months — and eavesdropping on what other visitors have to say out them!

As darkness fell, some of the Blake works works were projected onto one of the new wings of the building (and, inexplicably, a drawing by Blake’s namesake William Blake Richmond). Blake himself wished that his works could be produced on a grand scale adorning public buildings, an ambition which was not realised in his lifetime, but which a digital projector now makes readily realisable (if not in the form which Blake himself imagined).   The evening closed with a firework display accompanied by (or accompanying) the Halle Youth Choir singing settings of Blake’s poems. It began with the rather ‘contrary’ juxtaposition of the pastoral ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Lamb’ and bursts of fire. But Blake himself delighted contraries and perhaps in the latter the aptly-named ‘Two Tigers Fireworks’ had in mind Blake’s fiery ‘Tyger‘ and the famous line ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ ‘The Lamb’ of course, is Jesus, but so is the Tyger — so the juxtaposition was, for me, a reminder that I need to do justice to the mild and the angry in Blake’s Christ in my thesis.

The final piece was the old favourite, Parry’s Jerusalem – ‘burning gold’, ‘chariot of fire’ and not least, on Valentine’s day, ‘arrows of desire’ were brought to life as fireworks. The arrangement rather too messed about with the rousing anthem for my liking, although I did enjoy the alteration of ‘the dark Satanic mills’ to ‘these dark Satanic mills.’ Blake was probably not, as some locals seem to think, talking about the mills of Manchester (at least, not specifically — as the title of this blog attests, he was quite capable of naming and shaming places when he wanted to), but nevertheless, the song speaks to Joseph Whitworth’s ambition to build a public space ‘for the perpetual gratification’ of the people who lived among Manchester’s mills. And now, Manchester’s New Jerusalem — or Golgonooza, Blake’s city of art — has been renewed once more.

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Fireworks by Two Tigers Fireworks to the soundtrack of Blake’s poetry bring an explosive close to the Whitworth Art Gallery’s opening celebrations on 14th February 2015.

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Missed un-misseds

2015 is upon us and among the various loose-ends I’ve been dealing with at the turn of the year, I discovered the beginnings of a post about a conference which I attended in July. My intention had been to write myself a summary of the conference, but after making a start on 23rd July, I never quite got round to finishing it. On the principle that something is better than nothing, and because it finishes at a point which is actually now quite timely, I’m posting it below.

 

There are other things that I intended to write about last year that didn’t even get the beginnings of a post; here’s a list of some of them – all exhibitions, which I’d recommend visiting (where still current):

Sublime: The Prints of JMW Turner and Thomas Moran – display at the New York Public Library (to 15 Feb)

I maintain a nostalgic interest in Turner since my time at his gallery in Margate (see also below), and Moran was a new discovery for me.

Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum – display at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York (to 11 Jan)

I was sent to MOBiA by a friend who wanted a copy of the catalogue from a previous exhibition, and by a happy coincidence, the current display showcased the work of master-printers who had turned their art to Biblical subjects. Although not mentioned in the title, Blake’s own Illustrations to the Book of Job were among the examples on display, alongside his revered Dürer and despised Rembrandt (as well as Tiepolo, Manet and Pechstein), although I would still have enjoyed the exhibition without the Blakes!

From Neo-Classicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings, 1800–1925 – display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (to 1 Feb)

I was in the NGA to see works by Blake in one of the study rooms, but had time during the lunch break to see a bit of the galleries (more than I managed in some other museums I visited for research appointments). The first part of the display was of particular interest, with some striking parallels between the Italian neo-classicism and the neo-classicism that marked Blake’s work in the 1780s (in itself clearly reflecting Italian influence, although he didn’t visit himself).

Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960 – exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (to 11 Jan)

My Christmas present to my parents was tickets to this exhibition. We all enjoyed the show and mum is now trying to get hold of a William Morris wallpaper for her latest decorating project. On Blake’s influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement, see ‘Burning Bright‘ — again! (somehow Morris didn’t feature directly, but he likewise was inspired by Blake).

Jeremy Deller: English Magic – exhibition at Turner Contemporary (to 11 Jan)

The NPG tracked Morris’ legacy to 1960; Deller’s show brings Morris alive again for the twenty-first century. Conceived for the Venice Biennale in 2013, ‘English Magic’ takes Morris as a central character, bringing him ‘back to life’ as an inspirational artist-protestor – a tradition in which Deller places himself (and in which both follow in a line which includes Blake).

 

I’m making no pretense at a resolution to blog more prolifically or consistently this year, so expect a continuation of ecclectic fits and bursts on Blake and other matters. (My main ambition for the year is to make it to the other side of the PhD).

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Again to London and to the Moon

The end of last week saw my fourth trip to London in the space of six weeks, this time for a conference on ‘Blake, the Flaxmans and Romantic Sociability’ at Birkbeck.

 

The venue itself, the Keynes Library, had a tangential Blake connection, being in the former house of the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose younger brother Sir Geoffrey Keynes was a Blake collector and scholar (I think JMK himself had some interest in Blake – certainly there was an interest in Blake among his circle of friends, the Bloomsbury Group).

 

John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and a friend and patron of William Blake (see his entry on the Tate website). The conference explored various aspects of the work of both artists and ways in which their work intersected. One example is Blake’s manuscript An Island in the Moon (1794) which (see the Blake Archive’s entry on the manuscript) seems to satirise the social circle of Harriet and Anthony Stephen Mathew of which both Blake and Flaxman were sometime members (although of course, with Blake, a single way of reading the work is never enough; wikipedia [approach with the usual caution] summarises some of the debates).

 

The proceedings opened with Michael Phillips discussing Blake’s confrontation with George Michael Moser, keeper at the Royal Academy. This gave a sneak preview of some of Phillips’ research for the exhibition which he is curating, William Blake: Apprentice and Master, which opens at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum this December.

…[ends]…

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Apprentice and Master is now showing until 1 March. Having spent much of today curled up, reading the catalogue for Phillips’ exhibition, I’m very much looking forward to paying a visit next week.

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.

Visions of London

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William Blake, ‘London’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy F. Relief etching, 1974. The Yale Center for British Art.

 

Visiting London always strikes Blakean chords; even making the short walk between Euston and St Pancras when I visit my parents in Canterbury involves walking past the British Library, where Paolozzi’s Newton. after Blake looms over the courtyard (see a previous post on London) and Blake’s Notebook is guarded by the librarians.

 

This week I have been able to spend a few days among the “charter’d streets” for a conference organised by the Art and Christianity Enquiry and King’s College London on “The Sacred City: London, art and the religious imaginary.” It’s given me more food for thought than I’m able to digest at the moment, so for now I’m just posting a fairly brief record of the week’s perambulations (mental and physical).

 

On Tuesday we explored “architecture and multiculturalism” – spaces and the people who use them in relation to a number of religious traditions. We were hosted by LSE’s new Faith Centre, against the backdrop of Christopher le Brun’s windows. The day began with a conversation between le Brun and the chaplain at LSE, James Walters which was broad-ranging from the challenges surrounding creating a space for interfaith use to the practicalities of making stained glass to the role(s) of the artist.  Several papers explored the theme further through various historical and faith lenses, then the afternoon saw us exploring various places of worship in East London. A highlight for me was the unexpected gem of St. Benet’s Chaplaincy at Queen Mary’s, University of London which is decorated by ‘sgraffito murals by Adam Kossowski. Finally, an evening lecture at from Sam Wells, rector of St. Martin in the Fields, examined the topic of “Arts and the Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields.” The lecture was held at St. Giles Cripplegate, a church I knew of from visiting the Barbican, but had never actually been inside before. Of interest for a Blakean is the fact that John Milton – a great influence on Blake – is buried there.

 

Yesterday we had a morning of papers at St. Giles in the Fields, an elegant, early eighteenth-century church which Blake may well have known and indeed Blake’s friend John Flaxman is buried there.  The day’s theme was “Medieval to Victorian Cities and focused on architectural visions of London. At lunchtime I dipped out of the scheduled activities to visit the Tate. I couldn’t resist another look at their Blake room, but my main reason for visiting was to see works by his contemporaries which were not on display when I last visited.

 

First, Henry Thomson’s Raising of Jairas’ Daughter (exh. 1820) which is utterly different from Blake’s version of this subject from twenty years previously. Second, a display entitled “Bodies of Nature” which focuses on representations of nymphs in late eighteenth-century art – a treat which combined scholarly research with playful subject matter. En route up to the Blake room, I was stopped in my tracks by Stanley Spencer’s monumental The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27), a work which is not new to me but which is so overwhelmingly powerful that I couldn’t not but stop for a few minutes in front of it. Upstairs in the Blake room, I had fun seeing some of my favourite Blakes again. I am always struck by how quiet this little room seems to be – not devoid of visitors, but audibly quiet, with people speaking only in very hushed tones. Perhaps it is the smallness and darkness of this room (necessary because of the fragile nature of Blake’s works) which lend the room a chapel-like quality which perhaps encourage (deliberately or otherwise) a special kind of reverence in this space. Or maybe people are simply self-conscious of being overheard  in a smaller space – I love eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in galleries, but there wasn’t much chance of that in the Blake room. Adjacent to the Blake room is a display which makes a striking juxtaposition: “The Nature of Common Life” opens by citing the artist and writer William Henry Pyne‘s 1806 statement that the artist should not make “an imaginary nature his model, or any other nature, but the nature of common life” – an utterly different attitude to Blake’s belief that “This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision.” I wonder if this is this another necessity of displaying works on paper in a suitable space, or a curatorial joke?

 

In the evening we were taken on a journey through London through the lens of Dante and in a fantastic lecture by Alison Milbank. We were shown who various artists have re-envisioned London via Dante and Milbank proposed that we can re-envision London today (and the world around us more broadly) as Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Our venue was the wonderful space of St. James’ Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised.

 

On Thursday we were back at St. Giles in the Fields to explore “Pilgrims and Holy Places,” including my own paper on Blake’s Magdalen, and also journeying to nineteenth-century Paris, Mecca via the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition and Willesden in North West London. I then made a couple of pilgrimages of my own to explore a bit of eighteenth-century London – the Foundling Museum and Sir John Soane’s Museum. I came away from the latter with an unexpected gem of a purchase in a teatowel which reproduces Blake’s title-page to Robert Blair’s poem The Grave. The evening saw a celebratory atmosphere with the award of ACE’s book prize and a closing dinner.

 

Finally, on Friday we were at Cheyneygates, Westminster Abbey – another site of Blakean interest, since the apprentice engraver William spent time drawing the monuments of the Abbey (see that previous London post again). The theme for the day was “contemporary art and the city” which took us from Florence, to Minneapolis, New York and sites in London, and mediums ranging from stained glass, to photography, cartoons, poetry, sculpture and light. A highlight was an in situ paper in the Abbey itself in which Emily Guerry shared her research about the wall paintings in what is now Poets’ Corner.

 

It was a treat to explore London in such multi-layered ways but a couple of days away from big cities in quiet Canterbury are now welcome!

Wandering London’s Charter’d Streets

I’m in the midst of a fortnight’s research in London. In addition to the primary purpose of seeing Blake works and rooting through archives for useful snippets of information, I have stumbled (quite literally, since I twisted my ankle earlier in the week) past many Blake-related places in London and I’ve sporadically kept a bit of a photo diary.

First stop this week was Tate Britain, which has one of the major collections of Blake works. I spent a couple of days in their archive and went to see various works currently in storage.

Monday lunchtime was bright and crisp so sitting outside in the open air (‘fresh’ is hardly appropriate for the atmosphere in London) was a welcome break from the dimly-lit archive room:

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Wednesday, by contrast was grey, as captured in this shot of the “charter’d Thames” whilst waiting for the gallery to open:

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Back to Tuesday, I also paid a brief visit to Westminster Abbey to make use of the new(-ish) cellarium cafe on another bright morning. Blake was sent to draw the monuments at the Abbey when he was an apprentice engraver (which I’ve written about for JRL’s ‘Burning Bright’):

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Thursday took in various places, including the library at the Royal Academy, an institution with which Blake fell out but which nevertheless holds useful information for researching him. Here it is in the sunshine:

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Sharing the quad at Burlington House is the Society of Antiquaries, for whom Blake’s master, James Basire, was the principle engraver, and for whom the drawings of the Westminster Abbey monuments were made:

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In Blake’s time, both of these institutions inhabited rooms at Somerset House, where I went on Friday, to see Stanley Spencer’s (a Blakean artist) paintings from the Sandham memorial chapel:

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Thursday also presented the opportunity to visit St. James’ Church, Piccadilly (just across the road from the RA), where Blake was baptised. I wanted a photo of the altar for thesis-purposes and also got some snaps of the font itself (by Grinling Gibbons) in which Blake was baptised:

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After my visit to Somerset House on Friday, I walked along the Strand to pick up the Northern Line at Charing Cross and passed a couple of other Blakean places. Somewhere near the Savoy and the Coal Hole Tavern was Blake’s last residence, at Fountain Court:

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Although the building has been destroyed, there is a painting by Frederick Shields depicting William Blake’s Room (1882) at Manchester Art Gallery.

A bit further along the Strand, roughly where the  Embassy of Zimbabwe now stands, was Henry Pars’ drawing school, where Blake was sent at the age of ten to learn the principles of drawing:

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Finally, I’ve been in and past the British Library a number of times this week. In the Piazza is Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze behemoth Newton, after Blake (1994), which towers over the many researchers who walk past it every day, reminding them not to become entrapped in ‘Single vision & Newton’s Sleep’ in their thinking (or at least, I presume that is the intention, whether or not it is the reality):

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Also of interest here is the current exhibition ‘Georgians Revealed’ which explores Blake’s time, and which I hope I may get to next week. In the courtyard is a Georgian garden installation by landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan:

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“In England’s green an pleasant land?”

Other permanent fixtures in the Piazza are two works by Antony Gormley. As I’ve written before, Gormley cites Blake as an influence on his own interest in bodies and forms.

Planets (2002) is a group of eight granite rocks, each inscribed with a figure crouching, curving, folding around the form of the piece of granite.

On his website, Gormley writes of these figures:

“I wanted to reverse Michelangelo’s slaves, where a quarried square rock had to conform to the represented body. In PLANETS…the outline of the body conforms to the stone, suggesting a dependency. The outline was carved to an adequate depth where the form was beginning to be self-revealed, so is on the cusp between a drawing and the arising of self-determined form.”

Blake might also be somewhere in the background; the scrunched-up, folded figures resemble Blake images such as plate 6 of The First Book of Urizen (1796):

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Gormley’s newer addition is Witness (2011) – an iron chair commissioned by the charity English Pen, which campaigns for the freedom to write to mark its 90th anniversary. A less obviously Blakean work, although surely a cause of which he would approve:

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