Review: William Blake's 1809 Exhibition and Catalogue
The exhibition is in Room 8, Tate Britain. Daily until October 8th. Admission free.
William Blake: Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures Ed. Martin Myrone, Tate Publishing 2009
This exhibition and its accompanying book have been put together to celebrate—if that is the correct term—the only display of paintings that Blake held during his lifetime. In early 1809, Blake opened a small exhibition of his works in an upstairs room of the house in Broad Street, Golden Square, Soho where he had grown up and which had become his brother's hosiery shop. Blake showed sixteen paintings, of which ten are now on display at Tate Britain, and wrote an accompanying catalogue which can be taken as his definitive writing on his art. Sadly it is as frustratingly incomprehensible as some of the works on display, and merely adds to the difficulty of placing this artist within the context of English art history.
For some Blake is the archetypal English mystic: largely ignored in his own lifetime, he searched for a new, truer form of art which would return English painting to a higher moral plane. For others Blake represents the misguided fool, an artist low on skill and technique who could never attain the great heights to which he aspired. This exhibition and catalogue provides enough evidence for both camps to be satisfied, but to the impartial observer, there is nothing here to convince either way.
After the exhibition opened there was only one review, and that was by Robert Hunt, brother of Leigh, published on March 10th 1809 in The Examiner, a periodical run by the latter. The Examiner was radical in its political outlook and might therefore have been expected to take a sympathetic view of an artist whose stated aims in the catalogue preface included re-educating the public about the importance of natural colour as opposed to (as Blake saw it) the artificial light favoured by the Venetian artists Titian and Correggio. Hunt was clearly untouched by these high aims and wrote what Myrone describes as "the most outrageously vicious single attack on the artist." Myrone gives a long extract, and it is worth reproducing it here in full, since it needs to be read to understand just how unpleasant it is.
"If besides the stupid and mad-brained projects of their rulers, the sane part of the people of England required fresh proofs of the alarming increase of the efforts of insanity, they will be too well convinced from its having been spread into the hitherto sober regions of Art.
"The poor man fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures, some of which are unintelligible allegory, others an attempt at sober character by caricature representation, and the whole 'blotted and blurred' and very badly drawn. These he calls an Exhibition, of which he has published a Catalogue, or rather a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain."
Clearly Hunt was not taken in by Blake's attempt to elevate English art to what he claimed to be a higher moral plane. More seriously, however, in the light of the recreated exhibition, the question does have to be asked as to whether Hunt actually has a point. And here all kinds of problems begin to emerge, ones which would not have troubled Hunt at the time.
Viewing this exhibition in 2009, we bring to it many of our own preconceived ideas concerning art and artists, and one of the most problematic issues with this exhibition involves both the location and the artist himself. A special exhibition at Tate Britain of the revered William Blake, the inspiration behind the English Romantic movement, surely means that the art-historical establishment believes that these works are of serious artistic merit and important in terms of art history. But then we see the pictures themselves and begin to have serious doubts: the quality of some is poor, and, of course, others are missing. These have been replaced with blank white spaces which obviously connote significance, but also create an awkward absence. There is a conflict here which is perhaps deliberate on the part of the curators. Is this high-quality art, unappreciated by Hunt and other Blakean contemporaries, or was Hunt basically correct and, despite the generally accepted view of Blake as one of our major poets, as a visual artist he did not reach his own high expectations?
The Blake with whom most are familiar is the far-sighted genius, unappreciated in his own time. He fits well into the mould of the slightly mad eccentric, the mystic visionary, the toiling artist who spends his life dedicated to his art and only becomes well-known and understood after his death. (Of course, the most obvious match for this role is Van Gogh, but while there are biographical similarities between the two, the similarities end where their art is concerned.) The problem highlighted by this exhibition is that our expectations are not matched by our experience in front of the pictures. The tempera paintings, for example, have deteriorated to such an extent that they are extremely difficult to make any sense of. In fact, they are 'blotted and blurred,' just as Hunt described them; it would be very difficult for anyone to make a case for artistic merit when considering these particular works. The watercolours, however, are beautiful, and one can see in them glimpses of the artist that Blake aspired to be.
The accompanying catalogue to the exhibition is wholly satisfying, of a standard that we have come to expect from the Tate. An erudite and scholarly introduction takes us back to the original 1809 exhibition, the reproductions are faithful to the originals, and the book concludes with Blake's own Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, which is interesting but, sadly, forces one to side with Hunt.
It is a commonplace that artists are notoriously poor at writing about their own work. Few have succeeded in fully explaining in words what they are attempting to do in paint, and Blake is no exception. The glaring example from this exhibition and Blake's writing is the work The Canterbury Pilgrims, the largest picture shown in the exhibition. (A larger one, The Ancient Britons, is now lost and is represented by a white space.) Myrone makes interesting points about this picture in the introduction, suggesting, for example, that the work can be interpreted as a satire on corruption, with Pitt in the role of the Pardoner and George, Prince of Wales as the Host. That aside, the picture itself is a disappointment. Though a procession of Chaucer's wonderful characters, it has none of the Tales' vitality. The pilgrims are squeezed together with little space between them, five in the foreground, and the others behind. It is not unlike a wall painting from an ancient Egyptian tomb: the figures, all facing in the same direction, are flattened against an indistinguishable background, and the most important characters are drawn larger than the rest.
Clearly Blake had high hopes for the work, for his catalogue entry on it runs to a full eighteen pages. In it he uses Chaucer's own words to justify his treatment of each character, but the whole exercise is laboured and unconvincing when considered alongside the work itself, which does not bear out the claims that Blake makes for it. The group is static, like a tableau in a carnival, and although the artist writes about the importance of line over colour and his endeavour to return English art to a more honest condition, his explanation fails to convince, especially as it also contains barely-veiled attacks on those who had let him down and on Thomas Stothard, who had dared to produce a similar picture of Chaucer's pilgrims. (The engravings of it sold prodigiously, much to Blake's disgust.)
In one passage Blake seems to foresee his own failure, and can barely contain his anger. He writes:
"Designs for Blair's Grave (1) have left him to shift for himself, while others, more obedient to an employer's opinions and directions, are employed, at great expense, to produce works, in succession to his, by which they acquire public patronage. This has been his lot - to get patronage for others and then to be left and neglected, and his work, which gained that patronage, cried down as eccentricity and madness; as unfinished and neglected by the artist's violent temper, he is sure the works now exhibited will give the lie to such aspersions."
The overall impression left by the exhibition is one of worthiness. The scholarly research that located and brought together these works is of the highest quality, though the decision to mark absent works with white spaces is questionable. The inclusion of contemporary work by lesser artists is, frankly, bizarre, and does Blake no favours, as his own work does not shine above them. This is an exhibition that is well worth a visit, but is insufficient to convince us that Blake was a great artist, or that Hunt's vicious review was misguided.--Paul Flux
1) Blake had been commissioned by Robert Cromek to design a series of illustrations for Robert Blair's poem The Grave. They were accepted, but, against Blake's opposition, were engraved in conventional style by another artist, Luigi Schiavonetti. Blake had hoped that his Chaucer would be engraved also, but Cromek chose Stothard's work over his.
Review: Banksy versus Bristol Museum
Banksy has always had an affinity with the city of Bristol. It was where his first works appeared, and to many inhabitants he has a multi-layered appeal. Part folk-hero, part mystery, he is a kind of artistic Robin Hood, his subjects often ones which his audience love to see satirised.
'Exhibition' is surely a misnomer for what Banksy has done in co-operation with the three-storey Bristol Musuem and Art Gallery. The collaboration is a glorious celebration of street art, and, more importantly and seriously, a timely reminder of the power of visual images to move us. I need hardly belabour the point that we are surrounded by visual stimuli. From television and film to the print media with its manipulated images, we process thousands of images every day, and they rarely trouble us. Most people develop a kind of mental short-hand to assimilate the visual information they receive: a policeman denotes authority; a child, innocence; flowers, pleasure and peacefulness; a national flag, all that a country wishes itself to be. These signifiers are hugely powerful, so that to subvert them is to challenge the basis upon which we view the world around us and force us to consider that many of our most comfortable assumptions are perhaps deeply questionable.
Banksy has installed his works in hallowed art institutions before (the cave drawing of a man pushing a supermarket trolley, which he left in the British Museum, is now in their permanent collection) but this time he was invited to do so, and was also given access to the whole museum, not just one or two gallery spaces. The partnership between Bristol Museum and Banksy is one which, if not unique, is certainly one of the boldest from an established gallery that has been publicly owned for many years, and it enhances the reputation of both parties. For those who have never been to the museum, it houses some important works of art, from fine Renaissance paintings to modern masterpieces by the likes of Whistler, Renoir, Hepworth and Bomberg. It also has an exceptional (though, admittedly, not very fashionable) Natural History collection, a legacy from our late Victorian benefactors. It was a stroke of genius to allow an artist like Banksy, with his sharp instinct for modern street art, to add what he liked to the permanent displays. This is not an exhibition in one or two galleries, but a complicated and rich statement about what we expect to see in such public spaces, and how we react to that visual experience.
It is impossible to describe all, or even most, of what Banksy has done in the different sections, and despite spending more than two hours there I'm fairly certain that I missed some things. However, it might be useful to describe a few of the works within the context of the environments that Banksy chose for them, to try to draw out their significance and impact and explain why this event has been greeted with such enthusiasm by the people of Bristol.
Those familiar with Banksy's work will recognise certain image types in the first gallery space, The Art of Banksy, such as the riot police frolicking with flowers, and monkeys debating in Parliament. There are also copies of sculptures that have been altered, including Michelangelo's David wearing a mask and a body protector, and, in the second gallery space Unnatural History, constructed pieces: a lion covered in blood with a ringmaster's coat on the floor, an aging Tweety Pie on a swing in an empty cage with a solitary bell. So many of these works turn well-known images into something which makes us laugh at absurdity, while also commenting seriously on the way our lives are governed by forces outside our control. Banksy excels at this—it lies at the heart of the street art that made his name—but what makes this collective experience so powerful is the museum environment.
In the gallery spaces humour, pathos and serious comment mix together in images that take advantage of their familiarity to us, while displacing their original context. There is a small canvas which shows Thomas the Tank Engine sleeping under a street light: a safe, conservative image, reminding us of the innocence of childhood, except that in the foreground are two figures, one hooded, the other wearing a cap and mask, spraying their tags onto Thomas's side. Many of the children in the museum seemed to enjoy the humour of this work. However, below it was a smaller picture, but one which stopped me in my tracks. Teary Terrorist is a black-and-white stencilled figure, just head and torso. The face is covered with a face-mask so that only the eyes are showing, and over one shoulder is a bullet belt. And beneath the eyes are trails of tears. A little further on, and there is a life-size Venus and Adonis, with holes cut out so that people can put their faces or hands through the holes and have their photographs taken --all very 1920's English seaside territory, but with an art theme and in an art gallery.
As spectators leave the two galleries filled with Banksy's own works, they climb the stairs to enter the permanent exhibition space. This is where the power of what Banksy and the museum have achieved together really becomes apparent. In his book Wall and Piece, on the subject of art in galleries, Banksy wrote:
"Art is not like any other culture because its success is not made by its audience…... We the people, affect the making and quality of most of our culture, but not our art. The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires."
Now Banksy has been allowed inside those cabinets. The result is a kind of artistic hide-and-seek, where you go from exhibit to exhibit not entirely sure whether what you are seeing is serious museum display or subverted Banksy response. The first thing you see after leaving the ground floor illustrates this point perfectly.
Bristol Museum quite rightly tries to highlight the arts and crafts produced in the local area, and in the eighteenth century much fine porcelain and glassware was made in Bristol and nearby Worcester. Many visitors to the museum would find these small, delicately decorated bowls and jugs of little interest, locked away inside their glass cases. Just such a display case is situated half-way up the stairs; most people would glance at it quickly and move on. However, on a shelf near the bottom of the display-case there is now an ice-cream cone sitting at an angle in a circular mass of chocolate ice-cream.
The tone is set from this point on. What has Banksy done to the rest of the museum? The short answer is, quite a lot. The additions to the Charles Darwin celebration include labels asking 'Have we evolved from apes?' and 'Where do we fit in?' alongside a distinctly odd-looking skeleton, while a display case which houses a large wasp's nest and tries to explain how a wasp colony works has had an insect monitor trap added to it.
It can be difficult to distinguish between Banksy's contributions and the permanent installations, and one surprising side-effect of this is the care with which visitors now look at the latter—most are now peering closely at display cases and walls, and probably taking notice of all kinds of things that they would, in all likelihood, have ignored previously.
From a police-affixed penalty notice and eviction order on a beautiful nineteenth-century caravan to a Rokeby Venus after plastic surgery and a Renaissance Madonna and Child plugged into an iPod, Banksy leads us around the entire collection, making fun of the sometimes serious business of being in an art gallery. Some commentators have suggested that much of Banksy's work forces the viewer to consider the function of art. Having seen the exhibition, I'm not sure that this is true: the question is rather, what can art do? He shows that visual art can still challenge how we think about images, by placing familiar objects in unfamiliar situations and contexts. Of course, this has been done before, and Banksy can be seen as the next in a long line of artists whose work has been influenced by Magritte, Dalì and the other European Surrealists. Is Banksy's haddock fillet swimming around a fish bowl really much different to Dalì's lobster telephone?
Bristol should be very proud of both Banksy for producing such a successful and thought-provoking experience, and its museum for having the courage to allow him access to the whole collection, not just some empty gallery space. It is difficult to imagine quite where Banksy will go with his art next, but, if anything about Banksy can be certain, his next project will be unexpected, unpredictable, and probably offensive to someone. From comments in the guestbook, it is clear that art can still challenge and unsettle, as well as making us laugh, and as Bristolians continue to queue for up to three hours to see what Banksy has done to their city's museum and art gallery, thankfully there are still plenty of people to whom this matters.--Paul Flux