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.

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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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!

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

Revolutionary Light, The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester‘s art collection, has just opened its summer season (runs to 1 September). This programme is the final farewell before the gallery closes in the autumn for a major refurbishment, and the displays showcase highlights of the collection.

The season launched on 4th July with Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance piece “Coal on Cotton” as part of the Manchester International Festival which ran from sunrise on the Friday to sunset on the Sunday. By happenstance, this coincided with the sun finally emerging from the heavens to bring the some summer weather across the country (yes, including Manchester!). The sun and light are themes running through various aspects of the programme, most explicitly “Revolutionary Light” which brings together works by William Blake, J M W Turner and Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor’s series of etchings, Blackness from her Womb are seen in the distance as one enters the building (you can see the Tate’s set of the etchings on their website). He created the prints in response to his visit to the Tate’s blockbuster Blake exhibition in 2000. Each print combines a single colour with inky blackness, creating strange, visionary designs with an intense play on darkness and light.

The Blake works are a series of six illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (which you can view via the Blake Archive) and the iconic Ancient of Days (shown on the exhibition page). Originally the frontispiece to his poem Europe (1794), and reported to be a representation of a vision Blake had at his home in Lambeth, he later reworked the design as a separate plate, and it is thought that he was working on this copy on his deathbed. All seven watercolours were given to the Whitworth in 1892 by John Edward Taylor, proprietor and son of the founder (also called John Edward Taylor) of the Manchester Guardian (which became the Guardian in 1959).

I have yet to look into Taylor’s interest in Blake; all I know at the moment is that he owned one other work by Blake – curiously enough from my point of view, a copy of Blake’s Large Colour Print, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795) which he donated to the V&A in 1894 (you can view the work via the Blake Archive). What I would be interested to look into is whether Taylor realised how closely linked the Whitworth watercolours are: Europe, from which The Ancient of Days comes, is a kind of retelling of Milton’s Nativity Ode, and there is at least one clear iconographic link, between the compasses held by Urizen in The Ancient of Days and the figure of Peace in the first of the Milton illustrations (follow the links above to see for yourself). These points are well established in Blake scholarship now, and of course, you don’t need to have done the reading to spot the similarity between the compasses and Peace, but did Taylor know Europe well enough to realise that connection? Maybe I’ll look into it at some point.

As for the light in these images, well, the sun is at the centre of The Ancient of Days, but it is a dark sun, and seems to restrict the figure of Urizen. In the Nativity Ode we see dawn and night, blasts of light, stars and fire in this apocalyptic version of the Nativity.

Turner is famous for the presence of the sun in his works, and it is reported that his dying words were “The sun is god.” Alongside Blake and Kapoor, Turner’s sun-centric watercolours look relatively conventional. Blake and Turner is an enigma which I wonder about sometimes — although they were contemporaries, and both challenged the artistic conventions of their time (Turner rather more commercially successfully than Blake), there don’t seem to be any records of them ever meeting or commenting on one another’s works, but it is more than plausible that they were aware of one another.

There is plenty to delight in other displays at the Whitworth. “Continental Drift” showcases highlights of the collection by European artists and British artists with continental links. With or without my Blake hat on, a highlight were the Dürer woodcuts – several individual prints, plus the complete series to the Book of Revelation, displayed in dramatic lighting (you can see images of this series of prints, though not in order, via the British Museum’s website). According to the display caption, this was the first book ever created and published by an artist, making it a precursor to Blake’s own books, not to mention the profound influence the Book of Revelation had on Blake and his admiration for Dürer. Indeed, I think it was Samuel Palmer who reported that Blake had a print of Dürer‘s Melancholia I in his workshop (which is also currently on display at the Whitworth and can be seen via their website).

My visit hardly left me feeling melancholic, but I do feel that like that figure, I need to sit and ponder further on these rich displays.

Another busy patch.

I handed in various documents for my end of year panel earlier this week after an extended fight with Word to get all my illustrations to behave themselves (it seems surprising that in 2013, pictures still have a tendency to jump around within a document when you do something as simple as close it and re-open it). Not for the first time since starting my PhD, I felt rather like the figure of Milton on plate 15 of Blake’s poem Milton, who seems to be attempting to sculpt the figure of Urizen. You can view the image via the Blake Archive.

In other news, my online version of the John Rylands Blake exhibition should be going live soon, when the last of the technical work is done – watch this space for an announcement!

Meanwhile, Blake continues to take me in unexpected directions. On Friday I was looking at various oriental manuscripts and books in the John Rylands Library which were owned by a collector who probably knew Blake and so plausibly he may have seen. I didn’t find anything that’s going to radically transform my PhD (which is probably a good thing!) but I did come across various motifs which resonate with things in Blake’s works, although nothing specific enough to argue for a direct borrowing. And it was certainly a treat to see some beautiful pieces of artistry.

I’ve also been looking again at some of Blake’s own works in a new display at the Whitworth Art Gallery, which I’ll write a separate post on presently.

There is a Blakean in the House

Today I gave a paper at the Ecclesiastical History Society’s Postgraduate Colloquim at the John Rylands Library. Papers were on “any topic in the history of Christianity,” thus allowing me to speak about Blake under the surprising auspices of a society which in name in manifestly un-Blakean (for Blake’s opinion of institutional Christianity, see his “Garden of Love” and “The Little Vagabond”).

I spoke about Blake’s illustrations of the Temptations of Christ — a subject with liturgical resonance in Lent, although Blake does typically innovative things with it. I think my audience enjoyed a dose of pictures as a change from parish records, and some of the papers I heard gave me some useful food for thought.

With delegates from both History and Religious Studies departments, there were quite a few discussions about disciplinary distinctions. Lots of people asked me whether I am an Art Historian; in a sense of course, I am, although I have always studied under the auspices of Religious Studies. Blake resists disciplinary distinctions, which is part of his appeal for me – indeed, as I’ve written before, one of the reasons I chose Religious Studies as my first degree was the range of disciplines it encompasses.

Meanwhile, my first panel is out of the way. This is a biannual “exam” to discuss the progress of my research with my two supervisors and a third person from within the university. I actually have a member of staff from the Whitworth Art Gallery as my third panel member; it was good to have an external perspective on my work and having someone from outside academia proper brought some enriching suggestions for my work. So I’m now moving on in earnest to my first chapter, which is on Blake’s conception of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels. More on that in due course.