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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Some Favourite London Paintings

This week I spotted Time Out’s ‘100 best paintings in London‘ doing the rounds on twitter.

 

Ask my brother what response you’ll get if you ask me what ‘the best’ or ‘my favourite’ is, and he’ll tell you (because he’s seen it frequently) that I’ll roll my eyes and give an equivocal response along the lines of “Well I like this about X and that about Y.”

 

So I couldn’t expect to agree with Time Out’s pick because I don’t really see how you can rank Piero della Francesca’s 1450 Baptism of Christ (which clocks in at #5, National Gallery) against Richard Dadd’s 1855 The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (at #21, Tate). I was also, of course, interested to see where, if at all, any of Blake’s works were placed – in case you’re interested, Tate’s Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20) clock in at #42, just about JMW Turner’s 1839 The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery), which was once voted the Nation’s favourite painting and seemed to be the only Turner work many visitors to Turner Contemporary wanted to see when I worked there (but had failed to check whether it was actually on loan there, which it wasn’t; cue lots of of disappointed/angry visitors).

 

Nevertheless, this did get me thinking about my favourite London paintings, so here it goes. First, a few disclaimers. As a resident of the North, I should add that London doesn’t have a monopoly on great paintings, and perhaps I’ll get round to writing about a few of my Manchester favourites at some point, but as a sometime Londoner, this is my take on Time Out’s survey. These are in no particular order – just numbered for sake of knowing how many I’ve got up to. It’s a highly personal selection – these are all paintings that have stayed with me in some way. I’ve also limited myself to one work per artist per collection, and I haven’t included any works on paper. Apologies for hyperlinks rather than illustrations; chasing permissions for reproductions is rather involved!

 

1. Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27, Tate). Oddly enough, it was this rather than a Blake work that first popped into my head as missing from Time Out’s list. This is a monumental painting, which always stops me in my tracks when I see it.

 

2. William Blake’s The Agony in the Garden (c.1799-1800, Tate). This is Blake at his most innovative – handling a popular subject in Christian art in an idiosyncratic way.

 

3. Blake’s The Christ Child Asleep on a Wooden Cross (c.1799-1800, V&A). Like The Agony in the Garden, this is one of about fifty tempera paintings illustrating the Bible which Blake produced for the Civil Servant Thomas Butts, one of Blake’s most important patrons. I wrote about this work in a piece of coursework when I was an undergraduate, which was the starting point of my fascination with Blake’s pictorial works. I also used to include it in tours when I was a volunteer guide at the V&A.

 

4. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450, National Gallery; see above). I have to agree with Time Out putting this among the top picks. A masterpiece in composition and symbolism. Although there’s no way Blake could have known this work, I find it a helpful pendant for reading his version of this subject in his watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Regained (c.1816-20, Fitzwilliam Museum).

 

5. I also agree that Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (1855, Tate; see above) is a top pick. I’d like to learn more about Dadd, but this is another work that I always stop at when I’m wandering around the Tate (though in contrast to Spencer’s Resurrection, this is a work to be viewed at close-quarters).

 

6. The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99, National Gallery) came somewhere near the bottom of  Time Out’s 100. This is an English masterpiece, whose importance is enormous, in spite of its small size. I remember an engaging lecture about this work when I was an undergraduate, as well as looking at it during my MA.

 

7. Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891, National Gallery). One of the first paintings I can remember learning about – aged about eight, when our teacher gave us a potted history of art, got us to create our own versions of masterpieces (including this one, which might still be somewhere are my parents’ house), and took us on a trip to the National Gallery to see some of them. I wonder if he knew Blake’s Tyger.

 

8. Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (c.1496, National Gallery). This is a work I wrote an essay on for my Master’s at King’s College London, which was taught in collaboration with the National Gallery. It’s a little devotional panel which depicts St. Jerome in the wilderness on one side and a fiery vision on the other. There’s a great article on this painting by Andrew Graham Dixon for the Independent, available here.

 

9. JMW Turner, The New Moon; or, ‘I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop’ (exhibited 1840, Tate). There had to be a Turner picture given the many hours I spent with Turner pictures during my stint as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary. This one was the headline image for the big Turner show that was on whilst I was there, ‘Turner and the Elements‘ so in a way it stands for the exhibition as a whole. This image was a favourite among visitors and staff alike, with its charming subject and its location near to the site of the gallery in Margate. I don’t know if it was cleaned at some point in recent years, but the image on the exhibition website is closer to my memory of the colours than that on the Tate’s website.

 

10. Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery). Another well-known favourite which came somewhere fairly high in Time Out’s list. It’s another of those pictures that grabs you as soon as you enter the gallery it’s in (fortunately it’s hung high enough that it can easily be seen over the inevitable crowd hovering around it) with its extraordinary vividness and drama. It’s also here because mention of Caravaggio always brings to mind my brother doing an impression of one of our school teacher who was a particular fan of the artist.

 

11. Pietro Gerini, The Baptism of Christ (1387, National Gallery). This is another work which brings back memories of my MA. This work was included in the exhibitonDevotion by Design’ which ran the summer at the end of my MA, prior to which it underwent a year and a half’s conservation (you can hear/read about the conservation here). One of the courses on the MA taught at the National Gallery focused on altarpieces and the other on John the Baptist and this work encompasses both themes. Why it really sticks in the memory is that we got to visit the conservation studio during the cleaning process and got to see some bonus fish in the river which had been added by a later hand and were subsequently removed to restore the work closer to its original state.

 

12. John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919, Imperial War Museum). This iconic image from the First World War reminds me of taking A-Level English Literature for which our synoptic unit was literature from and about the First World War, so we were encouraged to read and see as much material as possible on that theme. I took myself off to the Imperial War Museum, where this painting hangs, on the way to a university open day (which is actually the first time I can remember making a solo excursion to a museum or gallery). Like Spencer’s Resurrection, this work has special resonance in this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War and it’s re-entered my consciousness via John Keane’s 1991 Ecstasy of Fumbling which is currently in the exhibition ‘Sensory War’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Keane was an official war artist in the Gulf War; this is a self-portrait of the artist during a gas alert taking its title from a line in Wilfred Owen’s First World War Poem Dulce et Decorum est which describes a gas attack. A postcard of Sargent’s painting is among the collage elements of Keane’s work.

 

13. William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress (1733, Sir John Soane’s Museum). This is actually a set of eight paintings which were the basis for a set of prints which tell the rise and fall of the fictional character Tom Rakewell (you can read about the narrative by following the link). They’re in here largely because of the experience of visiting them at the Soane’s Museum (which I only got around to doing this summer), where they’re hung in a room eccentrically, but ingeniously, containing a series of panels hidden behind the wall panels – a design which both increases hanging space and protects works on the inner layers from the light. A Rake’s Progress has inspired some brilliant re-workings of Hogarth’s moral tale, including Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries, which we had at Manchester Art Gallery earlier this year and were fun to discuss with visitors. I also ended up seeing them again at the Foundling Museum in the summer, where I ended up getting into conversation with some other visitors to impart my MAG guide knowledge.

 

14. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3, Tate). John Martin’s paintings are awesome in the true sense of the word. Some years younger than Blake, they’re sometimes compared as religious eccentrics, although their careers took rather different paths – John Martin was far more (commercially) successful in his lifetime (although he is less well-known now). They also handled their subjects in very different ways; to make a gross generalisation, their modes of composition were: Blake = dominate a small canvas/piece of paper with figures and go easy on the scenery; Martin = dwarf a few tiny figures in a vast, dramatic landscape with brooding sky on a large canvas.

 

15. Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (1899), or ‘The Bridge’, as I think of it. Another seemingly unimaginative choice, perhaps, but this is another work that takes me back to primary school, when another teacher got us to create out own version of the painting, no doubt destroying numerous paintings making all the ‘dots’. Mine still hangs over the fireplace in my parents’ living room.

 

16. The Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon (c.1400, British Museum). This icon celebrates the end of the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium in 843 – a subject I wrote essays on during both my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees. This work sort of stands for Byzantine icons in general, which I find interesting for the rich theology behind them and the sheer ancientness of some extant examples (although this icon is from several centuries after the end of the iconoclast controversy).

 

So there’s sixteen works off the top of my head; I’ll probably realise I’ve forgotten some others I love before to long, but if nothing else, I’m glad this has set me thinking about pictures other than Blake’s!

More Musical Blake

One of the treats of Christmas in Canterbury is the service of lessons and carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

Marking the death of John Taverner this November, one of the choral pieces was the late composer’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb,‘ a piece also featured in the most famous Christmas Eve service, King’s College Cambridge’s Nine Lessons and Carols this year. In fact, Blake was doubly honoured at King’s, with their new  commission for this year’s service being a setting of ‘Hear the voice of the Bard‘ by Thea Musgrave. (Incidentally, King’s is home to Copy W of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which both poems come; this copy is generally considered to be one of the finest printed by Blake and is among the most widely reproduced and therefore familiar.)

‘The Lamb’ is a somewhat fitting, if unusual, piece for Christmas, in that it can be read as a reflection on Christ as the Lamb who, as stated in the poem “became a little child.’

‘Hear the voice of the Bard’ is a less well known poem and was apparently one of a long list of suggestions made by the director of music at King’s, Stephen Cleobury. On her website, Musgrave writes that ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ “jumped right off the page” when she read the list; she states that she was “drawn to this poem because it reaches out for the larger beauty and mystery of our existence on earth independent of specific religious affiliation…Blake finds our ‘lapsed’ human souls in need of the refreshment and constancy of nature’s magical cycles — and also of the artist’s role in the musical ‘voice of the Bard.'”

It is not the most obvious Blakean poem for Christmas, but it can be read in Incarnational terms, speaking of ‘The Holy Word’ and of the Earth’s renewal. Its place in the service, between the first (God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head – Genesis 3) and second (God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – Genesis 22) lessons reflected the prophetic nature of Blake’s bardic voice (although Blake of course thought that the advent of Christ was not received as it should have been and that the world had slumbered for eighteen-hundred years until he came along).

As for the settings themselves, Taverner’s was familiar, Musgrave’s of course was new. I found both perfectly nice pieces of music but there is an inherent strangeness in Blake’s words being sung in such an establishment styles and settings as by the choirs of Canterbury and King’s (notwithstanding Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’), so that they end up not feeling very Blakean.

There was, however, a truly (proto-)Blakean treat at Canterbury – a marvellous setting of Robert Southwell’s ‘The Burning Babe‘  by Jonathan Wikeley. I’m not the first to notice that Southwell’s poem could almost be a description of Blake’s painting The Nativity, although it seems unlikely that Blake might have known it, but they could be drawing on shared older sources. Anyway, the poem was a new discovery for me and the setting was full of the drama and energy in Southwell’s words. This doesn’t seem to have yet made it to the realm of the internet, but I will be keeping my eyes and ears out for a recording.

Happy Christmastide!

A Tyger?

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Endpaper. David Bindman, William Blake: His Art and Times (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982). Manchester Metropolitan University Library.

MMU is home to the Manchester School of Art, thus, I suppose, the more creative than average intervention to this book. Is it a Tyger?