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.

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Blake & Black Sabbath

Is there a connection? I’m not sure, but a former reader of Marcia Pointon’s Milton and English Art (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1970) evidently thought so. The band did have an album called ‘Heaven and Hell’ (also the name of a group comprising some members of Black Sabbath active between 2006 and 2010) which could be a reference to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (please comment if you know), but the precise connection (if any) to the watercolour The Judgement of Adam and Eve alongside which the reader has left their mark is lost on me. Suggestions welcome!

 

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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?

Grayson Perry at the Manchester Art Gallery

Manchester Art Gallery is currently showing Perry’s tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences, created as part of a series of three programmes for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, which explored notions of class and taste in England.

The tapestries are a modern take on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings and engravings which tell the story of Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune at the death of his father, squanders it on wine, women and song, is thrown into debtor’s prison, and ends up insane the Bethlehem Hospital. Perry’s narrative charts the story of Tim Rakewell from his birth on a council estate in Sunderland, to becoming a middle-class businessman in Tunbridge Wells, a millionaire in the Cotswolds, and his death in a gutter.

The tapestries are as densely packed with symbolism as the Gallery’s famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Ford Maddox Brown’s Work and Holman Hunt’s Shadow of Death are particular highlights) – layers of references to Old Master paintings (explicit in the titles of five out of six of the works), cameo appearances by public figures and people Perry met when making the Channel 4 series.

Perry expertly combines craft, social commentary and humour in his work. He is a kind of artist-prophet – a role Blake also saw himself inhabiting but unlike Perry, who has recently expounded his thoughts on the art world from the establishment platform of the BBC’s Reith Lectures, Blake’s prophecy was not well-received in his lifetime. Blake also didn’t think much of Hogarth.

I wonder what Perry thinks of Blake and what Blake would make of Perry.