Tree of Life. Tree of Death.

Some months ago I wrote a post about a seminar series I began last spring which brings together researchers from humanities and sciences to talk about their research in the informal setting of a pub.

Last week it fell to me to give the humanities talk. Immediately I was faced with the difficulty of not having a projector to show images, so I had to go for the old-fashioned solution of a handout. I decided that rather than speaking in broad terms about my project I would instead speak about one image, or rather to discuss the image with the group. And I began by being somewhat provocative by quoting Blake’s late aphorism ‘Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.’ In the spirit in which the event is intended, I hoped that we could prove Blake wrong.

The image we talked about was The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods from Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (1809). I chose this image for a number of reasons: the set of watercolours is in the University’s soon-to-reopen Whitworth Art Gallery so anyone interested enough can go and see it easily very soon (there’s also another set of watercolour illustrations to the poem in the Huntington Library in California); it contains lots of symbols to unpack; it reproduces roughly actual size when printed on A4 paper.

So I was hoping that having begun by provoking a chorus of boos and heckles my audience would be determined to put Blake in his place. I wouldn’t say that there were any ground-breaking new insights into the image, but we covered all the salient points with observations from both sides (incidentally, I haven’t written at any length about these works in my thesis as they’ve already been analysed in detail elsewhere). I did, however, have minor palpitations when the reproductions of the whole series which I passed around to illustrate the context for the image were dispered in different directions (by a scientist); whilst the Nativity Ode illustrations happily remain together in the Whitworth, many of Blake’s works in series are dispersed across the world which presents frustrations and difficulties for the researcher.

Someone asked me quietly afterwards if I agreed with Blake, to which my response was twofold. First, in the aphorism I quoted, Blake was clearly being polemical. His attitude to science was generally quite negative (as epitomised in his portrait of Newton – at least in the standard reading of this figure), but it was not a black-and-white wholesale rejection (and in any case, ‘art’ and ‘science’ would not have meant exactly the same things for Blake as in the contemporary world). Second, if I really did think that ‘Science is the Tree of Death’ (and quite aside from the fact that I am dependent on the fruits of science in many aspects of my life – not least the digital technology that aids my study of Blake!), I would not have been in that room. And if I was in any doubt before organising these seminars, the events are a monthly reminder of the creativity that exists in both the arts and the sciences – and to not always take Blake too seriously!

Laden with Blakean fruit

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Blake’s ‘To Autumn‘ is a favourite of mine.

Here in America, the season is of course, known as Fall, and glorious it is too – parks resplendent with deep, fiery hues, and skies crisp and clear; here’s a shot taken at Yale’s Cross Campus:

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I think Blake would have enjoyed the intensity of Fall colour – lovely as Autumn is, there is a different quality to the colours here.

I haven’t come across many trees ‘laden with fruit‘, but I’ve been able to see much fruit of the Blakean kind (i.e. Blake works), both at the Yale Center for British Art where I’m based, and on a long weekend in to New York, where I took in works at the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

It’s wonderful to be able to see so many works in person, and I’m looking not only at works that I’ve already done quite a lot of research on, but also at things that I might not otherwise be because they are on hand – both works by Blake himself and by his contemporaries. Whilst I’m here, I’m giving the business of writing up a bit of distance – I’m taking stock of what I’ve written so far and thinking about what I need to write to fill in the gaps, but not writing or editing in earnest. I’m sure when I get back to working on the script more intensely on my return, it will be the richer for spending time with the works themselves.

Beyond the walls of museums, Blake’s habit of cropping up all over the place confronted me twice during my ‘off-duty’ time in New York.

First, I was staying near Columbia University, and therefore had the chance to take in Corpus Christi Church (see picture below), where in a seemingly unlikely combination of life events, Thomas Merton became a Catholic whilst writing his Masters’ dissertation on Blake!

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Second, and more well-known, was Lee Lawrie’s ‘Wisdom’ above the entrance to the GE Building at the Rockefeller Center, inspired by Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days.’

10422138_10153572063845961_1645421751290256258_nLike Paolozzi’s (rather later) fellow compass*-bearing ‘Newton’ at the British Library, this figure towers over a place where large numbers of people pass every day. Both of these monumental sculptures seem to incite the beholder away from the tyrannical, short-sighted worldview which the plates that inspired them symbolise (at least, that’s the standard readings of the figures in both Blake plates, although both have been read in alternative ways, but that’s a matter better saved for discussion elsewhere) to a ‘wiser’ take on the world.

At more or less the halfway point in my time at the YCBA, the compasses can also serve as a metaphor of pointing two ways: a cause to reflect on my time here thus far, and to look forward to making the most of the fruits available for the remainder of my time.

* Last week during a talk on Blake, I was corrected by a mathematician than Newton and the Ancient of Days are in fact holding dividers, rather than compasses. This is of course a fair point, but ‘compasses’ is rather too ingrained in Blake scholarship for me to give up the habit of using the term.

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!

Noah (and Blake)

Since I’m involved in organising a conference on “Religions, Environments and Popular Culture” (*shameless plug* for this 26 September event with a CFP live until 20 June) it was fairly essential that I should see the Noah movie, and it provided the perfect excuse for a committee social.

 

I went wearing my cynical hat and I left feeling shell-shocked from sitting too close to the screen for being bombarded with the CGI sequences (note to self – arrive earlier than normal on the day of the week when a certain mobile network offers 2for1 tickets). I’m neither inclined nor really able to add anything of substance to most of the fields of discussion which the film has prompted. Instead I’m going to run with a few thoughts on “what would Blake make of it?”

 

Broadly-defined as a re-telling of a Biblical story, the genre of Aronofsky’s epic is a long tradition in which Blake participated, by which he was deeply influenced (Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance), and which he has probably influenced in turn. For instance, in Jerusalem, he re-tells the story of Jesus’ birth, imagining Mary as an adulteress, and he writes his own “Everlasting Gospel” which retells various events in the life of Jesus.

 

What Blake would do with today’s technology if he were alive today is the silly sort of question which gets thrown around now and again. The physicality of Blake’s works is strongly felt and expressed in his writings on art which makes it tempting to say that he would dismiss digital technology, but had he grown up in the twentieth/twenty-first centuries his ideas might have been rather different!

 

Specific details of Aronofsky’s epic might, however, be more substantively reflected upon qua Blake. For instance, one of the oddest details for me was the CGI Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: they looked like shop mannequins made of nuclear matter – strange, glowing figures, lacking in proper human musculature. Of this, I’m fairly sure Blake would not approve: he celebrates the full physicality of the human form to the point that his own figures are supra-real, with exaggerated musculature and ridiculously long limbs (this wasn’t because he couldn’t draw bodies accurately – we know he could because there are drawings from his formative years where he’s copying from classical sculptures). See, for example, his own depictions of Eden, illustrating Paradise Lost (and on bodies, see my post All manner of bodies – there will probably be more to come  in this vein so I will resist rambling on further here).

 

As far as is known, Blake never depicted the Flood itself. It was, however, quite a popular subject for painters in Blake’s time, appealing to the aesthetic of the sublime – famous examples include those of JMW Turner, John Martin (see below) and Francis Danby. But for Blake, the sublime was not to be found in vast, dramatic landscapes, but in grains of sand, wild flowers and the terrifying ghost of a flea (perhaps there is, after all, a hint here to what Blake might make of the big-screen epic – Martin’s paintings are, after all, often cited as a pre-cursor to the cinematic epic).

 

John Martin, 1789-1854, British, The Deluge, 1834, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

John Martin (1789-1854), The Deluge, 1834, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

 

Although he doesn’t depict the Flood, Blake does refer to it, and to other parts of the Noah narrative, in a number of works.  The example I’ve found most interesting (bearing in mind I’ve only really looked into this after seeing the film) is the inclusion Noah and his sons Shem and Japhet in his Vision of the Last Judgement, representing “Poetry Painting & Music the three Powers in Man of conversing with Paradise which the flood did not Sweep away.” The Flood resonates with his idea of “cleansing the doors of perception” or, in the language of A Vision of the Last Judgement, “whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual.”

 

If Blake had built an Ark, we can have a good idea of some of those he would want to be swept away by the waters of the flood – Joshua Reynolds, Bishop Watson, Newton, Bacon and Locke are just a few of those who meet the wrath of Blake’s pen. Who he would save is less straightforward to answer. I wonder if he’d welcome Aronofsky on board?

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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