This week, I visited two art exhibitions in Oxford that have been in my diary for a long time. At the first, I was greeting on entry by the immense William Morris tapestry “The Attainment” with its depiction of the three knights – Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval who, having at last found the Holy Grail, are surrounded by a host of angels and, in the case of Galahad, in honour of his great purity, a burst of white lilies. These three knights are positioned, in their proximity to the grail, according to their degree of so-called purity, with Galahad kneeling in the very doorway of the room that contains the holy treasure, the other two stood some way behind, one behind the other. This exhibition “Love is Enough” amounted to what sounded like an uneasy marriage on paper – the work of William Morris combined with that of Andy Warhol – and walked me through a display that was three major rooms long and yet this first exhibit is the one that stuck with me the longest, both stunning and thought-provoking (in a way I will get back to) in equal parts. As for Morris, I explored my long-running relationship with his work in some detail in a recent post “Of peacocks and dragons” so will resist repeating myself.
This exhibition went on to do what it said on the tin; plucking out several things Morris and (a hundred years later) Warhol had in common, and even if the latter’s work still leaves me fairly cold, I do see curator Jeremy Deller’s point. Both with their egalitarian approach to art, both with the wherewithal to speak out about the cultural shortcomings of their era (Warhol made the leap from his iconic celebrity portraits typified by the bright-red lipped Joan Collins and a Marilyn Monroe wall hanging in the exhibition to produce stark images of electric chairs, Soviet missile bases and Chairman Mao; you could say, his own marriage of heaven of hell across the span of a career). They were both natural collaborators with other artists and, while Morris abhorred industrialisation, Warhol parodied it in the form of his studio, The Factory. Morris, we are told, confessed to feeling deeply uncomfortable with the types who could afford to purchase his artistic output; being the very social types he abhorred politically. Then there is a strange moment when you notice how the sample-piece of a Morris wallpaper shown, from one end to the other, across all the progressive stages as layers of colour and detail are added, looks at its simpler end almost exactly the same as a Warhol design on the adjacent wall. The artist’s role as the social-conscience-mouthpiece of an era, combined with this insight into the printing process, led me nicely to the next exhibition on my list.
So we moved onto our second exhibition, William Blake in his printer guise celebrated in “Apprentice and Master” at the Ashmolean. Its funny how our ideas of artists from the past, the bit that sticks to the sides of our memory, are the culturally emphasised bits; like the art-world equivalent of how the newspapers spin the news stories of our world (shallowly, pessimistically), what we mostly remember is whatever is served up to us most repeatedly as the stereotype of what they were “all about”. Think of Morris and you probably think of swirly, floral wallpaper patterns, think of Warhol and you conjure up Marilyn Monroe or John Collins before you think of riot police and missiles…yet my morning exhibition had done a reasonable job of digging to a deeper level of both artists’ preoccupations.
When it comes to Blake, I suspect most people’s first associations tend to be images of fire and brimstone, horned dragons, eyes bulging in terror at the gates of hell (I was more than a little hesitant about whether my daughter would enjoy this exhibition) and the poster art did nothing to dispel this! I had studied Blake’s poetry as part of my degree and yet these stereotypes were still what informed the man, for me, all these many years later as I headed up the three flights of stairs at the Ashmolean.
And yet something made me want to visit this exhibition with a vengeance. Blake lay in my mind’s eye like unfinished business, tiny threads having led me back there enough times to stoke an unexplainable interest, to plant on my bookcase the glorious Folio Society silk and leather bound edition of his “Jerusalem” with glorious full-colour plates (the long version, not the tiny poem, an introduction to Milton, that we all know as the anthem “Jerusalem“; a favourite of mine, by the way) though I hardly knew why I purchased it at the time. An intention to explore him some more felt like a mental stick-it note on my to-do list that always remained somewhere fairly near the top of my priorities lately. Like the last one, this well-curated exhibition served my purpose in a timely and thorough manner, cropping up just as I – obviously – felt I needed to take this thread further (just as “Love is Enough” tied off the end of a handful of months spent in pursuit of Morris via the London exhibition and a trip to Kelmscott last autumn: see my other post for all that). Blake was like a throw-back to the deep; in fact, chronologically, it was like being taken back a century before Morris came on the scene, to where the very germ of a similar belief (in the artisan and the social commentary roles of the artist in the face of industrialisation) was just birthing, so that you could almost have merged the two exhibitions together into one huge space, a triple-comparison. Yet, with startling modernity, Blake also felt like the more developed idea than Warhol, leaving him and Morris as the also rans against his own blow-your-mind, broader than historical context, visionary view of things…because Blake was that very thing; primarily, a visionary artist tuned into, and informed by, an inspired and authoritative vision of the biggest possible picture of the world; incorporating where that world had been, where it was in his now and where it was going. What he delivered through his art was a narrative that was well before its time and utterly outside the usual preoccupations of his place in history. In his own way, although less romanticised than Morris’ version, he too was in endless search of the holy grail…that divine spark in action, here on earth…and a journey’s end that would be utterly transformative for humanity.
To start with, this exhibition was an extremely informative journey through the printing process that was surprising for how much it engaged me (as a non-printer); but then my daughter has been studying all the different printing modalities in her art lessons at school recently and that only fanned our flames. Traditionally (and as an apprentice to the trade, this is what Blake was taught), copper plate printing involved etching a design then applying mordant (effectively, ink and a binder) into those grooves to make the impression. I became fascinated by how Blake turned the whole process on its head, taking away the negative spaces – or the bits that weren’t wanted – by painting his image, in reverse, using an acid-resistant varnish (around which mordant was then applied) leaving untouched and in situ on the plate those parts of the image that were actually required to hold the ink and make the mark. The example (right) shows the use of both techniques side-by-side, the background etched in the traditional manner, the figures using his newly developing technique. I ended up explaining this mind-bender so many times, to my daughter, that I suddenly realised I had an audience and a little nervous laughter ensued between me and my group of listeners (I was only just getting to grips with this process myself) as I sidled away to the next display but I really was very enthusiastic to learn this about Blake.
The reason why is that, first of all, this is exactly how I paint – its a technique I’ve developed where I “go at” the canvas in a very free-form way, to start with (resulting in a very muddled-looking painting, sometimes an almighty mess), and then I gradually trim away what I don’t want at the later sittings, blanking out or scratching away anything that doesn’t feel like it should be there or what doesn’t enhance the overall perfection of the picture. In other words, I hone and refine by removing the surplus paint from around the edges of the initial free-for-all; and yet, without the absolute unfettered spontaneity of that beginning stage, I would not have some of the most inspired aspects of my finished painting. The fact I am able to do this so successfully using the medium is why I love to work with oils. Not only that but, for me, the way I paint has developed in tandem with my entire philosophy of life. Valuing where you have been yet only keeping what you want instead of focusing on what you don’t want is something of a pivotal philosophy of mine, the journey of honing and refining that “picture” of life through an exercise of choice being the whole purpose of life’s journey…and so I wasn’t surprised to discover that, to Blake, his new printing process became a metaphor for some of the very subject-matter he was dealing with in his self-inspired work; suddenly, my interest in him began to pique.
It seems, Blake was utterly opposed to the empiricism that was such a dominant belief-system at the time, typified by the views of philosopher John Locke, who regarded the human mind as a blank piece of paper at birth, just waiting to be written on by the moral teaching and experiences of life, which ultimately formed the human “self”. Rather, Blake believed that “Man brings all that he has or can have into the world with him. Man is born like a garden ready planted and sewn” which is much closer to my own viewpoint.
Locke’s view of the human mind was that it was virtually the same as the blank copper plate prepared for etching. By contrast, Blake’s method of etching “in relief”, where what doesn’t serve and isn’t wanted is blanked out or “melted away” to reveal the poetry, the art-form, that is already there in potential…well, you can see where Blake was going with this and it very-much corresponds with my own view of life. It is something like the view of the sculptor who intuits that the block of stone already holds the potential for a particular form and regards his own process as one of releasing all that potential with his chisel. Blake’s fundamental belief in the possession of innate knowledge runs through so much of his work, not least “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, which deals with “awakening” the divine man within, regaining the “paradise lost“, that was only ever mislaid, by owning the contrary nature of all things, which is simply a reflection of the contrary nature of god.
This viewpoint coloured how he regarded, and so treated, children as the possessors of all this innate knowledge (an outrageously modern viewpoint for his day). For instance, the front cover of his work “Songs of innocence” depicts children reading to (teaching) the adult…very much his perspective of things; plus he abhorred the popular idea of children being taught in schoolrooms inside shuttered buildings; his own children were allowed to play outdoors in nature, by streams and running in fields. Blake’s depiction of out-of door children reading to an adult was in direct contrast with how the process of teaching (or of delivering the “moral instruction” to) children was popularly depicted by his contemporaries. A typical book in circulation at the time shows two children dressed as mini-adults being instructed by a governess inside a schoolroom, the adult pointing out to them what they must pay attention to while they listen intently. Blake’s frontispiece is an almost blatant parody of this, depicting everything in reverse and, note also, the title states these are songs “of” innocence, not “for” innocence. He was so obviously making a point.
Going back to the printing process, the innovative new method he had developed wasn’t the only technique that marked out Blake as an artist-at-heart in his approach to printing because he took his process to where he was also producing writing using this method – that is, blanking it out, in reverse, and of course necessarily writing it all backwards ready for the printing press (something at which he became hugely adept, producing incredibly ornamental writing) in order to use his beloved engraved lettering in the printing process rather than the uniform typeset that was the norm and which he disliked so much. Like Morris a hundred years later, he was so evidently the artisan at heart and treasured these intimate processes above anything automated. He also introduced illumination of his texts in a way that would also have been very close to Morris’ heart and editions were altered and embellished, no two being uniform or the same and with multiple different versions of any one illustration – with different postures, facial expressions, hand gestures, hair and clothing trialled across many prints. As a fellow artist, this emphasis upon unique, experimental and highly individualised editions speaks to me hugely, mass-production being the very nemesis of what I do. The large colour prints on display in the exhibition show the process he developed of painting directly onto the printing plates in a way that would evolve into monotype, then adding broad areas of colour pigment containing glue and gums (to help it adhere), then defining the final print with stokes drawn using pen and ink or even scraping with a sharp tool, perhaps adding watercolour glazes as a final touch. There is something so obviously painterly about the way he approached the printing process that appeals to me enormously as a painter!
But then, what really began to leap out of this exhibition, for me, was Blake’s subject-matter; daring, subversive even (he was brought to trial once, charged with sedition….), visionary, optimistic. He believed himself to be inspired, to be receiving information direct from a divine source and so to have a duty to deliver this to any who would hear it (he regarded his role as that of “prophet” and described how he was “under the direction of messengers from heaven daily and nightly“), his subject often mystical, his information delivered by means of a complex allegorical landscape peopled by interchangeable characters and concepts that have had scholars scratching their heads and theorising wildly for two hundred years. Mind boggling his references may be but, after a day spent immersed in Blake, certain themes begin to ring out and an engraving “Laocoon” in the exhibition, literally scribbled with inscriptions all around it, provides a fair summary of what he refers to as “his creed” (worth zooming the image to take a look).
He held a personal philosophy – one that was hugely daring for his times – of liberation and freedom from all versions of restraint, whatever form that might take including politics and religion and incorporating what he considered the abhorrent issues of slavery, colonialism, industrialism and sexual repression. He particularly made distinction between what it was to be Christian and the idea of religion, resisting the latter in all its forms: “All religions are one and there is no natural religion” declared one of his prints, authoritatively, from the wall. Interestingly (given I’ve just written about Avebury stone circle), he even abhorred the ancient circles of his beloved England, depicting Stonehenge on the same page as his most famous words “dark satanic mills“, equating them with all the “priesthood” and “ceremony” of the Druids, so also with the impositions of all organised religion and now industrialism (itself a form of organised religion, a creed and an oppressive force), and therefore with so much bloodshed, slavery and sacrifice imposed upon the free people of this land.
Albion is a big theme, perhaps the one I felt I knew the most about before entering the exhibition and yet, I find, I knew relatively little about Blake’s personal spin on it, for all it is he who made the concept so mainstream in our culture. Neither strictly a place nor a person to Blake, Albion is more of an idea of a possibility, a potential that was always there and never left, something ripe for revival, to be chiseled out of the land by the artist’s hand. Yes, Albion is clearly equated with an England that, at time of writing, Blake considered to have “soul disease“, but also harking back to ancient days, a golden era that could come around again, a theme that runs through my own heart like a deep knowing that I can’t explain and yet is always there; likewise it was always there for Blake. He draws on stories, the mystic knowing that many share, that in that golden era, Christ came to these shores and walked these hallowed hills (the opening lines of my favourite anthem again “And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountain green: And was the holy Lamb of God, On England’s pleasant pastures seen!“). He seems to suggest, also, that those times will occur again, if not literally then in the sense of a Christ consciousness returning to the people and a golden era birthing.
So we have Albion, this land personified; the most striking depiction being “Albion Rose”, stood one-legged in a pose that is such a perfect balance between stasis and dynamic tension that it could almost be yoga in action; so much so, I found myself seeking a description of it across yoga websites and found this ideal quote to describe what I felt I was looking at: “The great silence is the stillness impregnated with waiting, or tension caused by absence; it is a stasis of emptiness which is utter moment…because of the potential to be” (read much more of this here). It is the most in-the-moment pose as it could be, complete in and of itself; needing to go nowhere to be done and yet with all the unbirthed potential of the next move held suspended there. Albion himself is depicted as a fresh-faced, golden young man, unfettered, free-spirited, dancing, literally at one with the sunrise, his limbs are the very rays of light, his head all a-glow with the sun. The rays of the sun (Blake’s depiction of sun, stars, skies, rainbows and celestial bodies being amongst my very favourite things) have a butterfly wing quality about them and, as the butterfly/moth totem is one that Blake employed as a symbol of the soul (no less, it is one of mine), here you have the sense of a chrysalis into butterfly moment occurring before your very eyes, spiritually speaking. Stood one-legged on his hilltop, Albion is clearly of the earth and on the earth yet there is no sense of him being held down by it in any way. The figure is in stark contrast with Blake’s other motif, one noticed many times across the exhibition – the human crouched or huddled-up tightly, arms held in defensive posture, made utterly small in a self-created prison.
Jerusalem is Albion’s emanation; its female counterpart that has become separated, and he sees that original separation…and their ultimate reunion…as first the reason for mankind’s loss of way and then the key to the door of a transformative new age that is beckoning (and what am I always talking about myself but male and female energies weaving together, reuniting, crossing over in places where the ancient people gathered – see my Avebury post for a classic example of this – and in places and circumstances where current-day transformation happens). She is also, to Blake, the symbol of divine vision and of true liberty, the very antidote to leaden times.
And then, another allegorical character, there is Los (subject of the exhibition’s poster art, above), who is the artist’s imagination at work in a physical world, often portrayed as the blacksmith forging objects out of metal and (he evolves as a persona across several works; so by the time of writing “Jerusalem”) Los appears to be Christ personified too – that is, the loving, gentle Christianity of the New Testament that Blake gravitated to over the Old. It has been suggested that the name Los could hint at “paradise lost” (thus he is set about searching) or could be Sol spelt backwards; I half suspect it is both. The “art” in which Los is engaged is the work of the passionate imagination…which is god in form…and which, in Blake’s opinion, will save the world from dull reason: “Man is all Imagination and God is Man and exists in us and we in him. The eternal body of Man is the Imagination and that is God Himself.” So, to Blake, god is all of us; again a perspective I subscribe to, and the imagination is the eternal world (the physical world its shadow)…and it is the artist (a term used in its widest sense) who connects with this eternal world most readily and who is prepared to create what he envisions with his hands.
If Los is the blacksmith-artist then hell is seen as the forge, its fiery pits the womb of creation. What speaks to me over and over is Blake’s depiction of hell as this rather necessary aspect of the human condition, this workshop out of whose cleansing fires we determine what we are all about and start to create what we envision and choose, from our imaginations (which connect us to the divine), bringing that divine inspiration into form. Take this passage, for instance, from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, overtly referring to his innovative relief-etching method – you can read the full version to the side – but also talking about a new age coming at the end of six thousand years (can’t help noticing the start of that time span would be when the first parts of Avebury were being constructed by the Ancients of my own recent post):
“But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite that was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Those traditional opposites…heaven and hell…are used as motifs, time and time again, of a necessary state of equilibrium, the contrary nature of god embodied. In this marriage, “hell” is all the energetic creativity of the artist and “heaven” is the rational organiser aspect; neither can exist without the other, together they make the world go round. Its a world of contraries best captured in another Blake classic “Auguries of Innocence” with its immortal opening line “To see the world in a grain of sand…” and there lies another clue to the depth of a man who could perceive both the paradox and the truth in such a statement.
A far cry from Morris’ idealised state of grace, the long quested and barely attainable holy grail – kept at arms distance even after it is found – the state of grace that Blake depicts is an oft-experienced one that exists side-by-side with its very opposite, as part of a very real, contrasty human existence in which the imagination plugs us all in to the divine state whenever we call on it (and the more we do so, the freer we become from the shackles of a materialistic world). To quote his wife “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise” and he considered himself to have had a blessed life, for all its trials and tribulations. To Blake’s mind, those that subscribe to the imagination, speak their truth and carve their own liberty with their hands gain such a state with remarkable regularity (I can attest to that) whilst helping to create such a world for all (I like to think so). In that sense, Morris shared such a dream and did much to birth it through the artistic and social principles he helped to revive and propagate. Even Warhol, in his own style, spoke graphically of his truth in a way that made contemporaries uncomfortable; and no less so did Blake. Yet, somehow, Blake seemed to make it this unlikely marriage of heaven and hell a workable, living-human reality; his version of them the reconciled parts to an existence that brings paradise into daily form…an utterly attainable holy grail…right here and now.
Another thing that leapt out at me, in the final stages of the exhibition, was how Blake returned to some of his earlier work (this Joseph of Arimathea print, originally engraved when he was an apprentice but newly reworked in the 1820s being the classic example), adding dramatic bursts of light to them, including lightning bolts, rays, stars, glints and reflections, using various scraping implements and a technique that he had developed that involved burnishing away some of the markings (traditionally reserved for correcting mistakes…now, ironically, turned around and used to vastly improve what was already there). He also added much darker areas to these same images using thick, wormy marks so that these new highlights would stand out all the more. A lesson learned in my own process – when painting light you really do have to have strongly contrasting elements of dark to counterbalance them; and (as Blake was acutely aware since it was one of his themes) this seems to be a great truth in life.
In his vision of a heaven that is married to all the grit and gumption of a physical life, I believe I have found in Blake something of a kindred spirit though I have barely scraped the surface of his work. Also, as the artist who saw the merit of both dark and light, in fact both entirely necessary to create the light that shines from his more mature work, I find I have a compatriot. He was an artist that dared to see what was going on in his world and to be outspoken about what he saw; I like that too. One who put exploring his own processes and his inspiration fully above all else, not clipping them at the wing to keep others appeased or to generate a more stable livelihood from his skills (something he was more than equipped to do but, inevitably, his peculiarities and the controversy he generated had a knock-on effect on the regularity of his income). In fact, a driving force behind the development of his own printing processes was his desire for the finished article of his efforts to avoid censorship by never leaving his own hands; he was certainly no man’s puppet, no slave to money nor to patronage, although the commission work that he chose to take on often tugged him from the very brink of destitution. I love the way he regarded children as all-knowing innocents, not yet tarnished by cultural conditioning and hand-me-down knowledge; a viewpoint that was well-before its time and which I share. His vision of Albion’s green and pleasant land has been a steadying hand for me all the years of my life, though I hardly knew it; because, through the words of a song he never got to hear, his fingers reached through time and handed me the deep knowing of a possibility that has never left my side, through thick and thin; as so many of my country-fellows, having pounded out its words through all of their schooldays, will attest. And that self-same Albion, I am newly reminded, is not just “England” but, rather, heaven here on earth; a starting wave from a geographical pinpoint of the heart (it could be any of the places I write about that I have felt in that heart-connected way; and it could be any of your own) that ripples out like a love-wave to tip over all the many ways that we have allowed ourselves to forget that this is how we started out (at one, at liberty and divinely plugged-in), before we got so sidetracked and into the kind of mess that Blake and Morris and Warhol – in unison – lamented. His vision of art as the saving grace in all this is one that is shared by all three artists and by myself. Above all, most surprising to me, is that what Blake delivered, by the end of an exhibition and an evening pouring over everything I could read about him, was an overriding sense of optimism; and the fact that what he foresaw was not delivered in his lifetime does not make him wrong, it simply marks him out as the great prophet and visionary that he was. On another level, what he foresaw was already there before him and he knew it; the kind of grace he envisioned (unlike some elusive holy grail) was utterly attainable every day, from the very midst of life. Finally, Blake demonstrates that art never loses its relevance; not even when taken out of its time, in fact its message can become even more powerful when delivered completely out of cultural context (what a wonderful thing for the artist to know). I love that this exhibition came about right now; the timing feels quite perfect and we never needed the reminder of it more.