Head down to Pimlico tube station and then watch the storm clouds start to gather as I set off on the ten minute walk to get to Tate Britain. The nearer I get to the gallery, the darker the skies become and I’m expecting to get a disheartening dousing on the final fifty yard dash along Atterbury Street and down the steps that descend into the Manton Entrance. But I guess that the gods must have got distracted today, maybe trying to agree a position on whether to send lightening bolts down on Boris Johnson during his party performance in Manchester. At any rate, somewhat to my surprise, the rain fails to fall on Millbank and I manage to make it through the doors of the grand old gallery undrenched, undampened, unsoggified and with my umbrella ultimately ununfurled.
There are two big new temporary exhibitions recently opened here which I fancy taking a look at so I’m doubly thankful to have a members card since, otherwise, the combined full price entrance charges would be a hugely off-putting £31. And, writing this report retrospectively, having now seen both shows, I’m even more pleased to have had my members card to hand.* The reason being that Mark Leckey‘s triple bill of video installations entitled O’ Magic Power of Bleakness seemed to me to be so uncaptivating that I exited after about three or four minutes and would have felt cheesed off in the extreme if I’d have had to have paid £13 to find out just how strong was the urge to not bother watching it. Although, I suppose there’s a counter argument that might go along the lines that if I’d actually steeled myself to make a specific cash investment to see the show then I would’t have made up my mind quite so quickly to give up on it. After all, the entire suite of cinematical projections runs for about forty minutes so my ten percent taster might not be entirely representative Although here the debate then gets into the problem of sunk costs, relating to both time and money, and the question of when is the appropriate moment to cut one’s losses and concede defeat quickly or else accede to an obligation to linger longer in the hope of consequently discovering that the artwork improves with time and rewards a more considered contemplation.
As it is, watching grainy old film footage of kids in flares amateurishly dancing about to some disco tunes from forty years ago just doesn’t really strike me as art. It looks more like an excerpt from the kind of dull kitchen sink TV documentary or Open University sociology segment that I might find when insomniacally channel chasing at two in the morning. And I don’t see how projecting it up onto two main cine-sized screens, plus a further six smaller side screens that highlight separate sections of the main action sequence, improves it. OK, so maybe if I’d given it time, the beats would have grown stronger, the singing got more falsetto and a youthful John Travolta would have made a guest appearance as Tony Manero strutting his stuff, twirling about and jangling his gold chains – but while that might have been marginally more entertaining, I’m not sure I’d call that art either. And anyway, if I want to risk coming down with a Saturday Night Fever I’m sure I could buy a longer lasting DVD for a fraction of the cost of seeing this half-baked version.**
As for the other show here at Tate Britain, an extraordinarily comprehensive exhibition of works by William Blake, which consists of half a dozen large rooms full of smallish prints – many filled with tiny inscriptions – plus a few not very big paintings, well, to do justice to the show would require several return visits. Indeed, such is the manic intensity of Blake‘s peculiar visions of the worlds spiritual and temporal, that after spending an hour or so peering at the works in the first few rooms, I definitely feel in need of a break. And even now, having, in fact, made a couple of visits to the exhibition, I still don’t really feel that I’ve got much of a handle on what Blake was all about other than the fact that he was clearly prolific in his obsessional need to document his visionary expressions of spiritual exploration. There definitely seems to be a compulsive aspect to Blake‘s artistic production which, combined with the frequently oblique manifestation of the arcane and mystical set of personal symbolistic references with which he dramatises his artworks, led some of his contemporary critics to question his sanity. Even now the debate as to whether he might more rightly be categorised as inspired genius or manic outsider artist seems unresolved.
Looking at a typical selection of Blake‘s prints with their mixture of craggy Old Testament prophets complete with long hair, long beards and long flowing robes either admonishing or administering to their flocks of swooning female relatives and followers, it’s easy to imagine the artist himself would have been similarly hirsute, sartorially ill-kempt and led a life of either scrupulous ascetic self-denial or hypocritical dissolute recklessness – the opposite poles of eccentricity that seem to appeal to those of a wildly devotional nature. But the reality is perhaps even more unlikely and if the portrait painted by Thomas Phillips (see above) is anything to go by then Blake seems to have been an utterly respectable and moderately successful small bourgeois businessman. And indeed, in many respects that is exactly what Blake was since he seems to have had no difficulty alternating between producing to order the standardised commercial print reproductions of other artists’ paintings that provided him with a steady domfortable income and the idiosyncratic narrative illustrations that characterised his own personal stylistic enterprise.
As already mentioned, many of the works on display here are reasonably naturalistic – if somewhat extravagantly executed – renderings of scenes from the Bible or else other home grown stories of similarly mystical and mythical design. And while Blake seems to have sometimes delighted in choosing the more obscure religious texts for inspiration and illustration – Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab – or dreamed up similarly peculiar moral parables from his own imagination – Har Blessing Tiriel while Mnetha Comforts Heva (see above) – the presentation of these oddities is relatively straightforward. As Blake‘s career progressed, however, he seems to have become much more emboldened and confident of his own abilities to stretch the sense of realism and to expand it into a realm of more symbolistic expressionistic permissiveness. And it’s during this period that he produces sequences of images that remain surprisingly striking even now in out own time of excess. One of the real highpoints of the current exhibition comes when confronted with the suite of large monoprints that Blake referred to as his frescoes, with scenes from Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible that include his famous representations of the likes of Nebuchadnezzar (below)and Newton (further below) as well as other less specific allegorical formulations.
Whereas this suite of stunners has a direct immediate forceful impact, Blake‘s other main innovatory artistic contributions comes by way of the slower, more cumulative accretion of imagery contained in his books of illustrated poetry. Apparently Blake invented his own special new system of printmaking that allowed for this combination of words and pictures and he seems to have been equally adept at putting together his punchy rhyming couplets as then adding the various decorative adornments in a sort of updated echo of the main designs and marginalia used to embellish the pages of ancient medieval manuscripts. There are dozens of examples of these separated out sheets of text and imagery to pore over, with sections from Blake‘s best known work, the Songs of Innocence and Experience as well as extracts from less familiar works like his America, A Prophecy, an odd tract that seems to offer what must have been fairly contentious support to the recently created former colony. But while it’s good to be able to see the original first printings of these important and impressive works, it’s not really possible to pay them more than passing attention and certainly impractical to attempt to read more than a few random lines of the small convoluted script.
Elsewhere there are many, many more of Blake‘s detailed drawings to deliberate upon, ranging from his illustrations to accompany such classics as Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales and Pilgrim’s Progress on to his own Gothic fantasy tales of ancient kingdoms and their mythical intrigues. It’s all utterly overwhelming and really does warrant repeated visits to do justice to the endlessly prolific mind of this enigmatic emblem of British exceptionalistic eccentricity. A thought that sticks in my mind as I depart the exhibition and find that the benign gods who allowed me to enter the gallery unassailed have had a change of heart and decide that, after all, I now deserve to be in receipt of the full torrent of cleansing inundation – if only Blake were around to witness the event I’m sure he would relish the prospect or recording a sinner receiving his just desserts.
*Annual membership giving free entry to temporary shows at all the Tate galleries currently costs £78.
**A second hand DVD of Saturday Night Fever can currently be bought from CEX for £1 plus additional post and packing.