Tag Archives: William Blake

William Blake – Tate Britain

 

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

Genius or lunatic, William Blake was clearly a troubled man. You only need to look at his collection of despairing figures, prostrate bodies and muscular beasts painted in vivid reds and mournful blues clutching mercilessly at their prey to know that this was an artist channeling his demons, trying to make sense of the visions he experienced in a tumultuous period of British history. But Blake is so much more than that; poet, printmaker and artistic visionary, Tate Britain charts the evolution of his work in their new exhibition William Blake which places his output in its proper personal, social and political context, revealing a man born into respectability struggling to find an audience for his increasingly challenging work, and only through the patronage of a few key friends is William Blake remembered at all.

Opening to coincide with The Last Night of the Proms in which the rousingly nationalistic anthem Jerusalem is annually performed using Blake’s lyrics, the exhibition is a chronological catalogue of the numerous strands of Blake’s personal and professional life, as well as the many innovative techniques and approaches he applied to his art. There is an additional sense of the man as a commercial printer and engraver simultaneously producing work in a variety of forms and styles throughout his lifetime. We saw in Tate Britain’s equally revealing van Gogh show earlier this year that artists are rarely able to focus on one avenue and must respond to commissions or undertake other forms of work to support their lifestyles. Blake was the same and, as this exhibition strongly argues, it is at this intersection of the imaginative and commercial forces that resided within Blake which caused him so much trouble.

Blake was a devoted Londoner, born in Soho and rarely moving more than a few streets in either direction apart from a few years in Sussex.  He was born into a trading family who encouraged his interest in becoming an artist and supported his apprenticeship as an engraver, a pragmatic approach to fostering an outcome to his creativity that he could sell. The first suite of rooms are dedicated to Blake’s time at the Royal Academy and the classical forms he was encouraged to replicate.  As Constable would find just a few years later, the emphasis was on emulating the past, seeking to mirror the anatomical perfection of renaissance artists as well as copying from sculpture in lieu of life drawing of which Blake was not a fan.

These heavily muscled sketches can be seen again and again in his later work and Blake’s eye for bulging physical form seen through the sheerest of gowns and coverings is visible well into his later, more experimental work. It was also during his Royal Academy training that Blake develop the gesticulating figures with almost unreadable expression that also feature in his more mystical pieces later in the exhibition, including the ink and watercolour figure of ‘Moses Receiving the Law’ created in the 1780s. Referencing earlier artists that Blake admired, this white and grey depiction of the 10 Commandments is striking in its simplicity, managing to simultaneously evoke a sense of peace and biblical formality as Moses’s long beard flows into his loose gown, arms uplifted to the clouds holding the reverential word of God, his face a picture of a solemnity.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake c.1785Blake’s early work drew on these Old Testament stories presenting in paler form the hint of the fire and brimestone God he would later reveal in the coloured work he produced closer to the turn of the century. But seeing these early pieces side-by-side in the first section, you see  the consistency with which Blake created the idea of a brutal God. ‘Job, his Wife and Friends’ from 1785 is full of fear, the bearded horrified face of Job referencing the stone gargoyles of medieval churches – an image Blake returns to again and again in his work. This early piece is filled with people hunched in pleading supplication, fear or awe of some almighty force, awaiting the terrors about to befall them. The theme recurs in Blake’s three-picture representation of the Joseph story, his brothers come to plead for food, fearfully and sorrowfully gathering at the feet of the sibling they fail to recognise.

Contrast the motif of unhappiness with the lightness of spirit revealed in one of Blake’s most famous early works depicting much-loved characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing [c.1786], which depicts the wistful happiness of a party, and with Shakespeare drawings popular at the time, it suggests Blake made some attempts to create more salable pieces. Yet it’s perhaps not all it seems, note also the decision to include four fairies in a ring, an image that links directly to Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music Of Time dated about 150 years earlier which depicts the seasons and the circularity of human life, permanently linking the fruitfulness of summer with death and decay to come – a theme that troubled Blake increasingly as his own work matured.

The second group of rooms showcases Blake’s work as an engraver from the late 1780s, considering both the skills he developed to sustain a healthy trade and his contribution to developments in the industry, not all of them entirely welcome. Even early in his career as an artist the exhibition makes clear that Blake’s attempts to subvert expectation was a source of considerable frustration, unable to meet the commercial expectations of the market or to find a general acceptance of his work. This darkening of the mood is a key theme in Blake’s development and seemingly the less his work was appreciated and recognised the further his imagination went.

America A Prophecy Plate 10, William BlakeThroughout his career Blake wrote and illustrated his own books but not all of these were published. Prints from these various editions are on display across the exhibition and the curators thoughtfully introduce an interesting meta-discussion about the different experience of viewing these as works of art in glass frames rather than reading them as interlinking sections of a single volume as they were originally intended to be seen. Among his most famous pieces are excerpts from Songs of Innocence and Experience, still a classroom favourite, with elaborate margin decoration that links to the religious medieval manuscripts that Blake emulates, alongside America, a Prophecy. Some of these pages are very small so expect queues as you make your way round these sections but the introduction of colour is striking and Blake uses mauve and blue to create shadow, while a brighter red suggests patches of light as the familiar figure of a man in white robes clings to the rocks, arms as ever outstretched in sacrificial repose.

You see clearly the development of Blake’s more dramatic style in the creation of these works with ‘Los and Orc’ a notable turning point in the 1790s where Blake’s mythical creations and darker visions start to invade and consume his work more completely. ‘Lucifer and the Pope in Hell’ from 1794-6 is a dastardly vision of scary gargoyles and hell’s terrifying power as a reluctant clergymen is led unwillingly to the burning pit by a scaled devil – Blake’s view of the Catholic hierarchy clearly visible! These images from the Book of Designs and the Book of Urizen are filled with terrible visions of fire, pain, decay and peopled by alarming characters whose eyes bulge with fear. It’s then only a short imaginative leap, and a brief stroll into the next room, to understand how these tortured creatures became the more elaborate depictions of devils and dragons in Blake’s extraordinary work commissioned by Thomas Butts.

TThe Number of the Beast is 666, William Blake he third section of the exhibition looks at the influence of patronage on Blake’s freedom to create art of extraordinary power and darkness, and while some of his pieces retain their lighter religious symbolism or evoke the simple country aesthetic of English rural life, it is works such as ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,’ ‘The Number of the Beast is 666’ and ‘Satan in his Original Glory’ which Blake was creating around the same time which provide the most fascinating insight into the conflicting division within his style and presumably his soul at this time. While ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is notably absent from the show, Blake’s disturbing depiction of the many-headed devil with star-patterned wings standing imposingly like Colossus over the oceanic gargoyles is fascinating. Likewise the ‘Number of the Beast is 666’ is an astoundingly nightmarish creation, that classical muscularity of body distorted and rippled as an imposing figure stands over another equally deformed being. Also in this room a chance to see the frightening and improbably muscled figures in Blake’s illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in ‘Route of the Rebel Angels’ are given a near human form as the upside down bodies clutch their heads in agony – it makes for a sharp contrast with the wispy simplicity of Shakespeare’s dancing fairies only a couple of rooms and 20 years before.

From here the show moves to Blake’s most famous larger prints in which he employed another new monotyping technique using ink pressing and watercolour to create the famous image of Newton bent over his mathematical workings – turned into a large-scale statue at the British Library – the exquisite purple-blue shading of the rocks echoing the prints in America, a Prophecy, while nodding to the spread of Enlightenment ideals that would soon banish creationist notions from scientific discourse. Here also is the brutal image of Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all-fours, the flesh of his thighs slowly morphing into the haunches of a beast as that familiarly bearded face that haunts so many Blake pieces stares out in desperation. ‘The House of Death‘ in the same room uses less vivid colours than these other works but shows Blake experimenting with approaches to better convey his subject matter, lines from Milton foreshadowing the painful destruction of mankind with gaunt figures printed largely in ghostly grey and white.

The exhibition concludes with a small recreation of Blake’s disastrous and poorly attended 1809 exhibition at his Soho home which plunged him into depression for many years, angered by the lack of acclaim for his work and the refusal of art’s governing bodies including the Royal Academy to exhibit his work appropriately. And through the curation of this engaging exhibition the viewer has felt the inevitability of this outcome, that the increasingly imaginative and disturbing elements of Blake’s work came to dominate his artistic expression in a world still used to the safety of Gainsborough and the compliant portrait painters Blake so detested. There is a sense as you wander through these rooms of a mind freeing itself of all restraint, and of a fantasy life, like the Red Dragon, imposing itself on Blake’s commercial output as well, leading to a final rupture that left the artist in exile for some years.

But the Tate wants to send you home with hope and the final section which contains the illustrated text of Jerusalem is about rediscovery and the late recognition Blake received thorough partnerships with younger artists discovering his work afresh – and in 1818 it should be noted after the revolutionary fervor of the continent had died down with the final defeat of Napoleon – leading to a reappraisal of the value of Blake’s work beyond the shock and fear it once induced. So genius or lunatic? Well almost certainly both, but as this comprehensive exhibition so clearly argues there was always a duality in Blake’s artistic contribution, balancing the commercial with the personal, the two constantly overlapping as he strove for recognition. Blake was perhaps not a person it would have been easy to know but he is certainly not an artist you can ignore, and while we may never fully know if the visions he claimed to see were a sign of madness, this guided tour through the brilliant recesses of his imagination with all its classical symbolism, medieval symmetry and eventual descent into hellish vistas will haunt you for the rest of the week.

William Blake is at Tate Britain until 2 February. Tickets are £18 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Paul Nash – Tate Britain

totes-meer-paul-nash

Paul Nash was one of the most revered and influential war artists of the twentieth-century, producing work across the two world wars that deliberately painted a “truthful” picture of the nature of the conflicts he served in. And it has been a very long time since he was given a proper retrospective in the UK which Tate Britain has rectified with their new show that unites his war art with a considerable number of pieces which flirt with ideas of surrealism and mysticism.

The Tate claims that this show will ‘reveal Nash’s important to modern art’ – which is something I think we already knew – and in its thematic layout charts Nash’s changing interests in landscapes, still life, surrealism and his involvement in particular exhibitions and artistic movements. For some reason, modern galleries seem particularly afraid of showing work in chronological order, and the Tate’s themed approach implies separation between all these elements of Nash’s work, whereas if you look at the dates these pieces reveal he was trying out several different approaches simultaneously. And with varying degrees of success; an artist who, I would argue, needed the drive of war to shape the emotional impact and style of his work.

Launched at the end of this summer’s Somme commemorations and to coincide with Remembrance Day, this exhibition will largely attract those interested in Nash’s superb images of conflict, which surprisingly are few and far between. It opens with some pre-First World War mysticism images influenced by William Blake and Gabriel Rossetti which are a charming introduction to the exhibition and reiterate the notion that the V&A suggested in their fantastic Constable show two years ago, that artists initially learn by copying the style of their forebears, something you can see in Nash’s approach.

But for many the second room ‘We are Making a New World’ will be a key draw and here Nash’s experience in the First World War led to some of the most important and extraordinary paintings of the era. By Nash’s own admission, he saw himself as a “messenger who will bring back word… to those who want the war to last forever”, and in his fantastic oil paintings, full of drama, suffering and devastation he does exactly that. On display, and dominating the room, is ‘The Menin Road’ which he painted on commission from the Ministry of Information to feature in an exhibition of remembrance which was never created. It shows two soldiers running between craters filled with water and shell-damaged trees, with two beams of light shining through the clouds – either referencing God or canons depending on your interpretation. Also in the room is the painting that gives this section its title, depicting ravaged trees on an undulating red landscape as the sun beams through the clouds – no people, just nature, one of Nash’s core themes. There’s also a nicely executed, and rarely seen, image of stretcher bearers carrying soldiers in Passchendale, entitled ‘Wounded’ which contrasts the smoky lightness of the sky and its reflections in the water – often a feature of Nash’s work – with the brown ravaged landscape and people.

Yet from here it all starts to go a bit wrong and what follows are several rooms that zig zag across the 1920s and 30s taking in a large amount of Nash’s work that covers several types of expression… the trouble is, on the whole most of it is just not very good and the space the Tate has given to it is rather unnecessary. In Room 3, ‘Places’ the focus is on Nash’s post-war obsession with particular locations, views of the countryside and places like Dymchurch by the sea. Strangely in the same picture you can see a clash of highly skilled work and elements that are mediocre at best if not bordering on amateur. In one scene Nash paints the edge of a barn with clusters of trees around it, and while the trees are distinctively Nash, going right back to his pre-war styles of lollipop foliage and cutting the tops in straight-ish lines, the building itself has an off perspective, crudely drawn and sitting uncomfortably in the foreground. Similarly a particular poor image of Dymchurch promenade gets the straight lines of the walk all wrong, while the sea is full and vivid.

While the Tate is trying to make the case that Nash’s work in these new avenues is important and varied, by contrast – if you defy the layout and take the work chronologically – you see an artist who is experimenting with style and form alongside his more recognisable landscapes and natural subjects, managing to produce work which is highly variable in quality. By ramming it together thematically, the Tate makes Nash look like a poorer artists than maybe he is, whereas he was just doing lots of things but found his core purpose and focus in times of war.

There are still some accomplished pieces in these rooms including a series of plant paintings which have a delicate simplicity reminiscent of early twentieth-century French styles, which are more naturalistic and display Nash’s ability to compose nature in more angular forms. One series shows a vase of flowers set against a window which are particularly good, while another sets the same vase on a table which angles against a bookcase and is extremely effective. Take these alongside the 1930 picture ‘Wood on the Downs’, an almost sculpted copse, against flowing hillsides, this reiterates the idea that Nash hadn’t abandoned his First World War style but continued it alongside rather than instead of other approaches.

There’s a whole section devoted to Unit One, a group of artists who exhibited everything from painting to photography at an exhibition in the mid-1930s, which contains more work by other people than by Nash himself which only delays your progress to the Second World War where once again the Nash we know and admire finally comes to the fore. His obsession with aircraft by this time results in a number of important and beautifully constructed works of British and German planes crashing into the tree-filled landscape including ‘Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park’.

While the Tate doesn’t seem to have gotten hold of ‘The Battle of Britain’ it does have what could be considered Nash’s finest picture ‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’, an image he took from a real life graveyard for broken Allied and enemy planes. In this picture the angular wings and edges of the planes, peak and wave across the picture, their ruined grey-blue exteriors glinting in the moonlight as they seem to crash against the sandy bank. Although the curators argue that this picture has come from Nash’s surrealist work in the 1930s, on the contrary it sits consistently among his fascination with landscape, water and movement that go back beyond the First World War.

It ends with a bit of whimper unfortunately, some more surrealist stuff that explores the sun and moon, some of which is produced before the stunning war work in the previous room. Nothing here really catches the eye and seems a shame to send people home with this as a final image. The work here – including ‘Eclipse of the Sunflower’ which looks like a mug and a sun, as well as ‘Flight of the Magnolia’ which has an unfolding flower and an egg-shaped structure – is a little underwhelming, but again shows that Nash was doing this work as well as producing his stunning Second World War pictures, which frankly should have ended this show.

Paul Nash was a very fine war artist but on the basis of this exhibition, it’s hard to consider the effect of his work on anything else. Possibly just the curation is at fault here, but Nash was clearly a man who found his greatest expression in wartime when the emotional and physical consequences of his experiences gave rise to some of the greatest work of the last century. Yet while he continued to experiment with other forms, I’m not convinced the Tate full backs-up its claim that his influence is equally felt in these areas. With a lot of not that interesting work given a lot of space, this is not the Nash show it could have been. This show is going on tour to Salisbury and Newcastle in 2017, but rather than pay £16.50 to see his brilliant war work, just wait till they’re back in the Imperial War Museum when you can see them for free.

Paul Nash is at Tate Britain until 5 March 2017. Tickets cost £16.50 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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