Scene Through Wood: A Century of Modern Wood Engraving @ the Heath Robinson Museum

The British Society of Wood Engravers (SWE) was founded just over 100 years ago, in 1920, by leading artists including Lucien Pissarro and John Nash. Its aim was to promote wood engraving for modern artists.

This lovely exhibition, ‘Scene Through Wood’, was first shown at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2020 to commemorate the Society’s centenary. Now, a few years later, it has come to the small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, north west London and you really should go and see it.

‘Scene Through Wood’ brings together about 70 wood engravings, from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the Society of Wood Engravers’ collection as well as private collections, and by artist engravers around the world, including Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, the USA, China and Japan. It is curated by noted engraver and artist Anne Desmet (RA).

The exhibition amounts not only to a visual feast of some of the finest wood engravings from the past 100 years, but introduces you to some 50 not-so-well-known artists who have specialised in this format. And, as you slowly patiently make your way round the exhibits, you begin to get a feel of the great variety of styles and approaches which are possible in this monochrome format.

‘The Cyder Feast’ by Edward Calvert (1828)

Sections

The exhibition is arranged into a number of sections and so is my review.

1. Beginnings

‘Beginnings’ starts with by far the earliest piece in the exhibition, ‘Christ in Limbo’ by Albrecht Dürer from 1510. Dürer was one of the first European artists to use printmaking and produced produced around 346 woodcuts during his career.

But woodcuts are different from wood engravings, and wood engraving, apparently, has the distinction of being one of the only art forms to have been invented in Britain. By the 1770s Thomas Bewick was engraving end-grain boxwood using bespoke tools. His ‘invention’ quickly spread around the industrialised world and was adapted for a variety of purposes, commercial and fine arts. The first display case contains a selection of steel engraving tools, and a roundel of end-grain boxwood the surface of which has been ground perfectly smooth and level and ready for engraving.

Put very simply, the artist etches a design into the hardwood which is then inked. The wood which has remained etched takes the ink and this part is printed on paper when the inked block is applied to it. The parts of the wood which have been gouged, striated, etched or scratched do not take the ink and thus show up white in the print.

Early experimenters included the prolific poet-artist, William Blake, Edward Calvert and the wonderful painter Samuel Palmer, all represented here. When I was a teenager I read the Complete William Blake, memorised the Songs of Innocence and Experience, devoted many hours to memorising Blake’s convoluted personal mythology. But later, in my 30s, I found myself warming very much to the delicate, mysterious magic of Samuel Palmer’s paintings. ‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ is the only wood engraving Palmer ever made and it’s tiny.

‘Harvesters under a Crescent Moon’ by Samuel Palmer (1826)

Size matters

This brings me to a general point about the exhibition as a whole, which is size. It would be easy for your initial impression of the exhibition to be that all the works are a bit samey. Almost all the exhibits are black and white. And they also tend to be on the small size, A4 size or so. Half a dozen are strikingly bigger than this but plenty are smaller and some are minuscule.

Hence the gallery supplies a number of magnifying glasses because the thing about wood prints, as a general rule, is that you really have to lean and and study them. Oil paintings and watercolours can afford to be on a huge scale and make great sweeping gestures of colour which immediately leap out and grab you. Almost all these wood engravings, by contrast, require you to lean in and pay attention.

2. A sense of scale

In fact the second section in the exhibition is called ‘A sense of scale’ and explores the question of size, exploring the range of sizes possible with wood engravings, juxtaposing the tiny Samuel Palmer with the biggest thing in the show, ‘Mirage I’ (2014) by the Chinese artist Shi Lei. From a distance the Shi Lei piece looks like the face of a man wearing glasses regarding us with a withering look, except that the entire image appears to be bubbling and melting, maybe some post-nuclear holocaust atrocity.

‘Mirage I’ by Shi Lei (2014)

Only when you look closely do you realise that a) it’s a composite image which has been created out of nine separate blocks  and then stuck together, and b) that the overall image is, rather in the style of Salvador Dali, itself made up of figures of writhing naked bodies. Because of the uneasy, rather sickening effect, this was by far my least favourite image in the exhibition.

David Gentleman

In fact, talking of size and scale, arguably both the largest and the smallest engravings cited in the show were produced by the same artist, David Gentleman (born 1930), one of the most successful commercial artists of his day. Because among his huge range of work are:

1. Postage stamps commissioned by Royal Mail, in this case a 9p Christmas stamp from 1977 showing a partridge in a pear tree.

Christmas stamp by David Gentleman (1977)

2. And the huge mural lining the platforms at Charing Cross underground station in London. I doubt if many other wood engravings have been reproduced at such scale.

Mural at Charing Cross underground station by David Gentleman (1979)

3. The theatre of life

This is followed by a wall of images all falling under the loose heading ‘The theatre of life’. This brings together images of types of people or human activities, such as:

  • Peter Blake’s engravings of four characters from a circus (1974 to 78)
  • dark and powerful images from the 1930s depicting the Great Depression in America Clare Leighton
  • images of ‘Bowlplayers in Sunlight’ by Gwendolen Raverat (1922), the first woman engraver to come to prominence

Comparing and contrasting these figures made you realise that engraving does best when it goes with the tendency to stylisation intrinsic in the form. Trying to achieve the sinuous curves and slow of organic objects is a big ask for an art form which works with chisels and incising tools, and so I thought a piece like Point-to-Point by Rachel Reckitt (1936) didn’t really work. Or I didn’t like the way it worked. By contrast in Le Sporting Bar (1929), it seemed to me that Ian Macnab had worked with the grain of the form to create a kind of semi-geometric stylisation which I enjoyed. But then I love Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists and all varieties of geometric modernism.

The standout piece in this section was a much more recent work, ‘Fallen Angel’ (2006) by Hilary Paynter, not particularly geometric, certainly not a thing of hard edges and angles, a showcase of how soft and mysterious and rather wonderful a wood engraving can be.

Fallen Angel’ by Hilary Paynter (2006)

4. Construction and destruction

Following on from this is a section titled ‘Construction and destruction’. If we’ve just been looking at human recreation, sports and leisure time, here are people at war, or coping with fires and floods. It includes:

  • ‘Minesweeping Gear’ by James Taylor Dolby (1947)
  • ‘Northern Waters’ (1942) and ‘Sharp Attack’ (1944) by Geoffrey Wales
  • ‘Mill Fire’ (1997) and ‘Deluge’ (2000) by Ian Corfe-Stephens
  • ‘Shot’ (2010) by Chris Pig where ambulancemen and bystanders crowd round someone lying on a stretcher who has, apparently, just been shot

For me the standout piece, and one which typifies many of the strengths of wood engraving, is a marvellous piece by Hilary Paynter, titled ‘Tree with a Long Memory’ (2003).

Tree with a Long Memory’ by Hilary Paynter (2003)

This is a classic example of the need to lean in and look closer at a wood engraving. The more I looked, the more the piece delivered up its wonders. For a start it took me a few moments to realise that the shape of the image represents the trunk of a mature tress which has been sliced across, as when a tree is cut down with a chainsaw revealing the rings of growth for you to count.

Anyway, only when I really peered into the image did I realise that it contains a wonderful set of symbols of humanity’s achievements over the past 3,000 years or so, namely Stonehenge, the Parthenon and a Roman amphitheatre (at the bottom), what might be a Renaissance encampment such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold hanging upside down in the middle, on the left rows and rows of white crosses as in a First World War cemetery, in the top left a jet plane looping the loop, and on the top right the sinewy shape of a 6-lane motorway snaking into the distance. And on the lower right-hand side the timeless labour of working the land, ploughing and sowing which was once done by horse-drawn ploughs, now by diesel-driven machinery, but the eternal round of sowing and reaping which is the basis of all civilisation, the row upon row of furrows echoing the growth lines of the tree.

5. The built environment

Next up is a section titled ‘The built environment’. Given the form’s predisposition to angles and edges, buildings, rooftops, windows, streets of terraced houses and so on are tailor made subjects for engraving. Thus I loved the very first piece in this section, ‘Yorkshire’ (1920) by the noted Modernist artist Edward Wadsworth.

‘Yorkshire’ by Edward Wadsworth (1920)

This section is dominated by an impressive set of unusually large engravings of a view of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, each coloured differently, by the exhibition curator, Anne Desmet. Desmet is on record as saying the sequence was in part inspired by Monet’s set of paintings of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. They can be viewed on Desmet’s website.

This section also contains some interesting technical experiments by Desmet. ‘Babel Tower Revisited’ (2018) is round and uses slightly convex glass cover so give the impression the image is bulging out into the room. ‘Fires of London’ (2015) in which slender prints of engravings of the Great Fire have been cut out to form narrow tall images and glued onto 18 razor shells.

It also contains the striking (and tinted) ‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004).

‘Petra I’ by Geri Waddington (2004)

6. Storytelling (books)

Wood engraving is nowadays both an independent, creative art form and a versatile medium for commercial images. A display case demonstrates how the tendency to simplify and abstract subject matter can result in very striking images which can be used for book illustration. There are illustrations of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (by Garrick Palmer, 1994) and Goblin Market (Hilary Paynter, 2003).

More commercially, editions of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have been printed with dramatic wood engraved front covers by Andrew Davidson (2013). And, best of all, the fabulous engravings produced by Chris Wormell for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ sequence of novels, which are outstanding.

‘La Belle Sauvage.’ Cover illustration for ‘The Book of Dust’ by Philip Pullman (2017) based on a wood engraving by Chris Wormell

This section also contains:

  • ‘The Crucifixion’ (1927) by the famous poet-artist David Jones
  • ‘The Entombment’ (1930) by Claughton Pellew
  • ‘The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God’ (1932) by John Farleigh, for George Bernard Shaw
  • Illustrations for ‘The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta’ (1933) by Eric Ravilious
  • a vivid scene from ‘Moby Dick’ (1974) by Garrick Palmer
  • Illustrations for ‘Erewhon’ (1932) by Blair Hughes-Stanton

And another series or set of images (cf Desant’s Brooklyn Bridge), this time a set of 9 highly detailed studies of a bust of the Roman emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius’, depicted with the opposite of abstraction, with astonishing photographic accuracy by Simon Brett (2002).

Another part of the display tells us that wood engravings have been used to create entirely text-free books of illustration, where the reader is free to verbalise a sequence of images, exemplified by the work of the Belgian artist, Franz Masereel, whose text-free books of narrative images – such as ‘The Idea’ and ‘Story Without Words’, both on display here – were very popular, especially in Germany, during the era of silent movies, and can be counted among the forerunners of modern graphic novels.

I’d never really given it much thought but those labels you get which you can write your name on and stick in the front page of good quality books, bookplates, often feature exquisite miniature wood engravings. Examples included here are by Joan Hassall, 1946, Vladimir Kortovitch, 1990, and Grigory Babitch, 2004.

7. Abstraction and detail

This section is dominated by a work by a very distinctive artist who produced woodcuts and engravings of wonderful, beguiling and mind-bending visual puzzles, the Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher.

‘Fish and Scales’ by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1959)

8. The natural world

This is the biggest section, with the most examples, and so a fascinating opportunity to analyse and compare the very wide range of wood engraving styles available. There’s a ‘Stonehenge’ from 1962 by Gertrude Hermes which looks as if the sky is made out of angrily cross-hatched icebergs.

By complete contrast is ‘Dead Trees – Sheppey’ by Monica Poole (1976) where the trees look as if they’re touching a sky which is like an inverted pond, with dynamic ripples spreading out from the trees’ touch in a surreal manner which echoes Paul Nash in the 1930s.

There are also two different artist’s views of a car headlights at night illuminating a road scene through the windscreen, ‘Through the Windscreen’ (1929) by Gertrude Hermes and ‘The Night Drive’ (1937) by Joan Hassall.

Probably my favourite work was ‘Long-tailed Duck and Whiting’ by Colin See-Paynton (1988), possibly because the fish look identical to the fish in Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks. Aren’t the ducks extraordinarily realistic? From that level of precise naturalistic detail to another large and pleasing, semi-abstract image, in the slightly mysterious Paul Nash style:

‘Under water’ by Monica Poole (1986)

Go see and enjoy this lovely, fascinating, eye-opening and deeply pleasurable exhibition.

The video (6’24”)

Anne Desmet RA is one of only three wood engravers to be elected as Academicians in the Royal Academy’s nearly 250-year history. In this video she takes us through each step in creating a wood engraving, from tracing the original drawing through to printing a first proof.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness @ Serpentine South

‘States of Oneness’ is a new exhibition of paintings and drawings at the main Serpentine Gallery (Serpentine South, as it’s now known) by pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

‘Two Women (Eve and Eve)’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

It brings together works in a variety of media, including:

  • numerous oil paintings
  • a number of early charcoal drawings
  • oil painting on leather drums
  • decorated vases or calabashes
  • a set of 5 Quranic prayers, photocopies of Arabic text which she has decorated with ink and acrylic paint
  • one large painted wooden screen

As usual, the plain white walls and light open spaces of the Serpentine’s rooms make an excellent setting for this major survey of an artist who is, I think, little known in the UK.

Installation view of ‘States of Oneness’ showing a) a big painting on the back wall b) the five framed Quranic prayers on the wall to the right and c) two painted calabashes in the foreground © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Ishag’s biography

Born in 1939, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag has practiced since the 1960s and become a defining figure of modern Arab and African art. In the early to mid-1960s, Ishag was part of the Khartoum School, an influential Sudanese modernist movement, which collectively forged an identity for the newly independent nation by drawing on both Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.

Ishag in London

Ishag was among the first women artists to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963, and she followed this with studies in Mural Painting at the RCA in London from 1964 to 1966, and Lithography, Typography and Illustration from 1968 to 1969. During her time in London – the press handout tells us – she was subject to three strong influences:

  • she was drawn to the visionary tone of William Blake’s poetry and etchings
  • she was affected by Francis Bacon’s distorted figures
  • and she was struck by the distorted reflections of human faces and figures she saw in the curved windows of Underground trains

One of the exhibition’s rooms features some big paintings from the 1970s which directly reference Bacon, showing human figures in very dark colours, midnight blues and angsty purples, confined in dimly visible cages, with titles like ‘Loneliness’. Striking but not typical of her work.

Loneliness (1987) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Much more important, though, is the spiritualist and other-worldly vibe which you can feel flowing through all her work.

The Crystalist movement

In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the Crystalists, a postmodern, conceptual group which challenged the male-dominated and identity-focused Sudanese art scene and advocated for a new aesthetic modelled on diversity, transparency and existentialist theory. Her Wikipedia tells us more about the Crystalists:

The Crystalist Group broke away from traditional practices in the Sudanese art scene. Their intention was to distinguish themselves from the Khartoum School of painting and their traditional male-centred outlook. This new approach in Sudanese painting was marked by a public declaration in the form of the so-called Crystalist Manifesto. This document presented an artistic vision that attempted to work beyond the Sudanese-Islamic framework of the Khartoum School. Moreover, the Crystalists sought to internationalize their art by embracing an existentialist avant-garde, more akin to European aesthetics.

“The Cosmos is a project of a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth. The truth is that the Crystalists’ perception of time and space is different from that of others. The goal of the Crystalists is to bring back to life the language of the crystal and to transform language into something more transparent, in which no word can veil another – no selectivity in language. […] We are living a new life, and this life needs a new language and new poetry.”
(The Crystalist Group, Khartoum, 1971)

Events have moved on in Khartoum and the wider world in the half century since then, but you can hear the stands of mysticism, feminism and internationalism which have informed her work to this day.

Spiritualism in Ishag’s art

The Crystalists may have come and gone as a movement but Ishag’s interest in spiritualism and reaching beyond the veil has endured. Working out way to depict the many ‘states of oneness’. According to the press handout, this derives from the stories of spirits told by her mother and grandmothers, and the field research she carried out with spiritualist women convening healing Zar ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region.

In terms of the work, this has resulted in a very distinctive handling of the human body and face, transforming human beings into willowy, undulating shapes, boneless spirits, barely embodied. In the most recurring instances I thought her people were transforming into spermatazoa, heads with wriggly tails for bodies. That’s what the tadpoles wriggling round the bottom of this picture remind me of.

‘Procession’ (Zaar) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Or as here, in the untitled decoration of a leather drum, where the bodies are made to taper parallel to palm trees, in an image obviously influenced by the landscape of Sudan.

Composition by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

And above all her faces. So many of the faces which appear in these paintings are doubled, as if split, as if she is capturing the duality of human experience in every portrait. As mentioned above, this owes something to her seeing faces of people travelling on the Tube curved and distorted and refracted in Tube carriage windows.

‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

But looking at some of them, I thought about Freud and psychoanalytical notions of the conscious and unconscious selves, or wider depth psychology ideas about the multitude of selves we contain within ourselves. Looking at others I thought about the most basic tenet of most religions which is that we are made of body and soul, are made of bodily instincts and soulful longings. Then again, the ones with multiple eyes reminded me of Picasso or the Picasso which his philistine critics liked to mock, two eyes on the same side of the nose, that sort of thing.

Detail of ‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

These and many more interpretations are possible. I like art which allows indeterminacy of interpretation, allows thoughts and reflections to rise and connect and free associate.

Nature in Ishag’s art

The other really important aspect of her work is nature, to be precise, trees and leaves and flowers. There are many images of trees and leaves and of people’s willowy bodies undulating in line with arboreal curves. For example, the image at the top of this review of two women floating amid a sea of bright green leaves, or the spectacular ‘Lady grown in a tree’.

‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

This lady really is deeply embroiled with her tree. The idea made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and all those figures from Greek mythology, mostly women, who turns into flowers or trees.

‘Nothing now remained of my dear sister except her face: all the rest was tree.’
(Iole describing the fate of her sister, Dryope, transformed into a tree, in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

But looking up close, it struck me the lady’s face is very reminiscent of the African mask-inspired faced of Picasso’s famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from a hundred and ten years earlier, in 1907.

Detail of ‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

The people who float around at a gallery like the Serpentine and are available to answer questions are called ‘visitor assistants’. They are always extremely helpful and very well informed. I got chatting to one visitor assistant who pointed out that many of these images of trees and flowers derive from the plants in Ishag’s own garden in Khartoum. Some – like the palm trees on the drum I mentioned above – are obviously nods to Sudan’s wider landscape. But many not only show flowers but convey a very feminine sense of sociability in a calm, leafy, civilised space. Hence the stylised but still very evocative painting ‘Gathering’ from 2015.

‘Gathering’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

I assume this is a meeting of (rather ghoulish-looking) ladies who are drinking tea or a light beverage from the long glasses with tiny handles, or maybe just water, which symbolises the water of life. Maybe the glasses are both on the table and floating off it (at the same time) and the picture captures the way it’s the same water as feeds the trees and plants in her garden, which can’t live without it. So the water in the human glasses is one with the water feeding nature and so the plants can be thought of as growing out of the water in the glasses as it is all one.

The more you look, the more you see images of greenery – flowers, plants, tendrils and leaves, either as central motifs for a picture or as decorative elements furling around the split faces and swimming spermatazoa, or of people turning into trees, or of trees containing human faces.

Take the image at the top of this review, ‘Two Women’, if you look carefully at the trees, you’ll see they both contain a human face. In fact at the bottom of both trees, especially the one on the right, you can see a pair of human feet. This painting in particular, made me think of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, giants in tree form.

The more you look, the more you see leaves, flowers, tendrils, trees everywhere, images of wholeness and healing to set against her continually disturbing depiction of human faces.

Detail of ‘Two figures in two balls’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

‘Blues for the Martyrs’

As might be obvious by now but I think Ishag’s most recent work is her best. In the big paintings from the last decade or so all her themes – willowy people, strange split faces, trees and tendrils – emerge with most force and power. Some artists peak early and fade; Ishag strikes me as getting better and better with every year. Long may she continue.

Thus it is that arguably the most striking image in the entire show is the most recent. It’s titled ‘Blues for the Martyrs’ and it was made this year, 2022. One of those visitor assistants I was talking about explained it to me. In 2019 there were student protests in Khartoum. The police cracked down with violence. They beat up and threw protesters into the river (Nile). Hence the deep blue of the painting which portrays the river and the tendrils of river weeds billowing up through the water.

And the faces in their bubbles? Ishag is using the faux naif style she has perfected over decades to convey the sense of the souls of the dead, protected in hermetic bubbles, enduring, living on, smiling blissfully, a little childishly, maybe. They’re certainly strikingly unlike the troubled split faces, the ghoul faces, of virtually all her previous work. ‘Smiley face for the martyrs.’

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2022) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ is pretty much the most striking painting in the exhibition, not least because it marks such a complete departure from the palette of almost all the other works. Much of the other stuff, whether painted on drums or calabashes or canvas, is predominantly brown or sand, colours of a hot desert country, sprinkled with green leaves, splashes of plantlife in the desert.

By contrast this painting is huge and painted a powerfully deep rich blue. It’s a very striking image but I’ve saved it till last because it’s so uncharacteristic of everything which came before it. Maybe it’s a one-off or…maybe it marks a new departure in Ishag’s work, which is still very much ongoing.

Summary

This is an unusual, unexpected, strange and often very beautiful exhibition, beautifully laid out in the Serpentine’s main big white gallery space. And it’s FREE. Well worth making a detour through the park to see.

Here’s the artist herself, pushing 83 and still rocking it.

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. Photo © Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed


Related links

Other Serpentine reviews

Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Symbolist Art by Edward Lucie-Smith (1972)

Symbolist art does not depict nature as it actually exists, but brings together various impressions received by the mind of the artist, to create a new and different world, governed by its own subjective mood. (p.151)

Although this book is 45 years-old, I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop to compare and contrast with Michael Gibson’s account of Symbolism. Gibson’s massive books is packed with brilliant full-colour reproductions but, as I read it, I did increasingly find myself wondering where ‘Symbolism’ ended and where the simply fantastic or morbid or sensationalist began. So I read this book to further explore whether Symbolism was really a movement in a narrow definable way – or is just the word given to a kind of mood or feeling of other-worldliness apparent in a huge range of artists between about 1880 and 1910.

The World of Art series

Symbolist Art is a typical product of Thames and Hudson’s renowned ‘World of Art series’ in that, although there are 185 illustrations, only 24 of them are in colour. So you’re not buying it for the pictures, which can be better seen, in full colour, in numerous other books (or online); you’re buying it for the text.

Edward Lucie-Smith

Lucie-Smith was born in 1933 and is still alive (aged 84). Public school, Oxford, the RAF during the war, then freelance poet, art critic, essayist, author and curator, he has written over 100 books. His book comes over as significantly more learned and informative than Gibson’s.

Symbolism in Renaissance painting

He starts with a basic consideration of symbols in art starting back in the Renaissance. Renaissance art is packed with symbols – classical gods and goddesses are accompanied by their attributes, kings and queens are shown in allegorical paintings accompanied by war or peace or the triumph of the arts and so on.

To get the most out of Renaissance art you undoubtedly have to have a good eye for its religious, political and cultural symbolism. For example, spot the symbolism in this masterpiece by Rubens.

(In this picture the portrait of Marie de’ Medici – daughter of the Grandduke of Tuscany – is being presented to Henry IV, the king of France, and her future husband. The gods of marriage and love – Hymen and Amor (Cupid), to the left and right – hover in midair. From up in heaven the king and queen of the gods, Jupiter and Juno, look down in approval. Jupiter’s symbol, the eagle of war, clutching lightning bolts in his talons, is literally being squeezed out of the picture, to the left, while Juno’s symbols, the peacocks of love and peace strut (the male) and look down at the scene of love (the female). A pink ribbon symbolising their marriage binds them together. The chariot the peahen sits in bears a gold relief on the front showing Cupid standing on/triumphing over (another) eagle, and holding a garland (symbol of marriage). Behind Henry stands the personification of France, wearing French blue silk embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys (the coat of arms of the French monarchy). She is reassuring Henry that it is a good match for the nation. The burning town in the distance and the dark clouds to the left of the picture, beneath the eagle, symbolise War, as do the helmet and shield at the foot of the painting. These must all be abandoned so that Henry can concentrate on the lighter, feminine arts of peace, subtly emphasised by the light source for the whole scene coming from the right, the side of the Future, peace and harmony.)

Lucie-Smith draws the distinction between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ symbolism.

Open symbolism is the use of publicly available and traditional imagery. All of the symbolism in the Rubens picture is ‘open’ in the sense that any educated person could spot it.

Closed symbolism refers to ‘secret’ knowledge, available only to ‘initiates’. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art features numerous painters who included closed symbolism in their works: some has been investigated and explicated by later scholars; some remains obscure to this day.

Watteau

In other words, symbolism as a strategy or technique, is absolutely intrinsic to the Western artistic tradition.

What Lucie-Smith brings out is the strand of artists over the past few hundred years who brought something extra to the idea: who incorporated open symbolism or straightforward allegory (where x stands for y, where, for example, an hourglass stands for ‘Time’), but something else as well.

He takes an example from the wonderful Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). On the face of it Watteau was painting fashionable fête galantes for the French aristocracy, scenes of dressing up and carefree flirtations in an idealised classical setting, thus:

Yet (apart from the fabulous rhythmic compositions, the draughtsmanship of the figures, the wonderful use of colour) what makes Watteau ‘magical’ is the sense he achieves of a deeper meaning which somehow diffuses a mysterious influence around itself. According to Lucie-Smith, Watteau:

had already abandoned conventional allegory in favour of a use of symbolism which was more pervasive, more powerful and more mysterious. (p.21)

Something else is conveyed above and beyond the ostensible subject and its over symbolism. Somehow it achieves a sense of mystery.

The Romantic roots of Symbolism

There follows a chapter about Romanticism, a movement which I, personally, find boring, maybe because I’ve read too much about it and seen too many times the same old paintings by Fuseli (The Nightmare), Goya (The sleep of reason produces monsters) or Caspar David Friedrich (The Cross in the mountains).

Lucie-Smith’s purpose is to show that ‘Romanticism’ is (quite obviously) the godfather to modern Symbolism – in its use of obscure but meaningful images, nightmares and dreams, scary women and looming monsters – in the use of pseudo-religious imagery which has lost its literal meaning but acquired a spooky, Gothic, purely imaginative resonance.

Victorian symbolists

The next chapter looks at symbolist currents in British art during the 19th century, starting with the self-taught mythomane, William Blake. It then moves on to consider the group of artists who claimed to be his followers and called themselves ‘the Ancients’, including Edward Calvert and the wonderful Samuel Palmer, with his strange visionary depictions of rural Kent (Coming from Evening Church).

Then we arrive at the pre-Raphaelites. Lucie-Smith identifies Dante Gabriel Rossetti as the most ‘symbolist’ of these young idealistic painters, not least because his technique was quite limited. Rossetti wasn’t very good at perspective or realistic settings and so his mature paintings often have a vague, misty background which helps to emphasise the ‘timeless other-worldliness’ of the main subject (generally cupid-lipped, horse-necked ‘stunners’ [as the lads used to call them] as in Astarte Syriaca).

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877)

Burne-Jones and Watts

Lucie-Smith credits Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) with developing the medieval and dream-like elements of pre-Raphaelitism to their fullest extent and in so doing creating a stream of late works devoted to expressionless women moving through heavily meaningful landscapes.

Burne-Jones exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889, where he won a first-class medal. (Intriguing to think the Impressionists were almost entirely excluded from this show and forced to mount an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini – as described in in Belinda Thompson’s book about the Post-Impressionists.)

French symbolist artists were well aware of Burne-Jones’s work. But the most overtly ‘symbolist’ of the late Victorian artists was George Frederick Watts. He was quite clear about his intentions and his own words give quite a good summary of the symbolist impulse:

I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity. (quoted page 47)

His many contemporary fans and supporters considered Watts a ‘seer’ and suggested his work be hung in a temple not a gallery (an ambition which sort of came true with the dedication of his final home and studio in the village of Compton, Surrey, to his work, a venue you can now visit – the Watts Gallery).

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

The dweller of the innermost by Watts (1886)

‘The dweller of the innermost’ is obviously someone important, and something very meaningful is going on in this painting – but who? and what?

Symbolism

All this background is covered in the first 50 pages of this 220-page book in order to get us to the Symbolist movement proper.

Symbolism in the narrow sense was a literary movement, embodied in the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1870s and 1880s. They used real world images but set in shimmering, vague and allusive contexts. By the late 1880s this kind of literary worldview overlapped strongly with a revival of a so-called ‘decadent’ style, in both writing and painting. It was largely to distinguish between the two outlooks that the minor poet Jean Moréas in 1886 wrote the essay which introduced the term ‘symbolist’ and ‘symbolism’.

According to Moréas, both symbolism and decadence turned away from the oppressive mundaneness of the everyday bourgeois world but whereas the symbolists emphasized dreams and ideals, the Decadents cultivated heavily ornamented or hermetic styles and morbid subject matter.

Lucie-Smith asserts that the first phase of symbolism lasted from Moréas’s 1886 essay until he himself rejected the name in 1891. Its central figure was the poet Mallarmé. Lucie-Smith lists the qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry, and points out how they can also be found in the symbolist painters of the day:

  • deliberate ambiguity
  • hermeticism (i.e. closed to easy interpretation)
  • use of the symbol as catalyst i.e. to prompt a reaction in the soul of the beholder
  • the idea that art exists in a world separate and apart from the everyday one
  • synthesis not analysis i.e. while the Impressionists analysed light and its effects, the symbolists brought together elements of the real world – from tradition, myth and legends – into strange and new combinations or syntheses

An important element of synthesis was not only the unexpected combination of real-world elements, but the notion that all the arts could and should borrow from each other. Symbolism always hovered around the idea of a ‘total work of art’ which combines music, dance, art, even smells and touches. Everyone in the 1880s was entranced by Wagner’s massive operas which aspired to just this condition of being Gesamtkunstwerks or ‘total works of art’. The idea was very powerful and lingered through to the First World War – the Russian composer Scriabin composed works deliberately designed to evoke colourful fantasias and artists like Wassily Kandinsky in the 1900s theories about the closeness of painting and music.

Here’s a Symbolist depiction of the hero of one of Wagner’s massive operas, the pure and holy knight Parsifal.

Gustave Moreau (1826-98)

Moreau is the painter most associated with the first phase of Symbolism. He developed an ornate jewel-studded style of treating subjects from the Bible or classical legend.

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau (1895)

Reviewing the Salon of 1880, the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans singled out Moreau’s work for being mysterious and disturbing. Four years later in his classic novel A Rebours, which describes a decadent aristocrat who retires to his country house to cultivate sensual pleasures and experiences, Huysmans singled out Moreau as the patron painter of his decadent lifestyle, using a lexicon of late-19th century decadent terms: Moreau’s art is ‘disquieting… sinister… sorrowful symbols of superhuman perversities’ and so on.

Of his own painting Jupiter and Semele, Moreau wrote:

It is an ascent towards superior spheres, a rising up of superior beings towards the Divine – terrestrial death and apotheosis in Immortality. The great Mystery completes itself, the whole of nature is impregnated with the ideal and the divine, everything is transformed. (quoted page 66)

That gives you a strong sense of Symbolist rhetoric.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

Huysmans also includes Redon in his short list of artists favoured in the country sensorium of his decadent hero, Des Esseintes. Redon seems to me by far the more symbolist painter of the two, and the polar opposite of Moreau. Whereas Moreau paints relatively conventional mythical subjects in a super-detail-encrusted fashion, Redon strips away all detail to portray the subject in a genuinely mysterious and allusive simplicity.

Redon wrote of his own work:

The sense of mystery is a matter of being all the time amid the equivocal, in double and triple aspects, and hints of aspects (images within images), forms which are coming to birth according to the state of mind of the observer. (quoted page 76)

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)

Puvis wanted to revive the academic tradition and his compositions of figures in landscapes in one way hearken back to the posed landscapes of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1661). But he did so in a strange dreamlike way which pointed forward, towards the semi-abstraction of Cézanne. He wrote to a friend that he preferred low skies, solitary plains, bad weather – a temperament which resulted in melancholy often mysterious paintings.

I don’t like Puvis because of what I take to be his rather ropey draughtsmanship – his figures seem angular and uncomfortable, especially the faces.

Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)

Lucie-Smith doesn’t like Carrière much because he developed one subject – family members, especially mother and baby – and painted them over and over again, in a very distinctive way, as if seen through a thick brown mist. I can see how this would quickly grow tiresome, but in brief selections Carriere comes over as a powerful element of the symbolist scene.

At about this point in the book it struck me that a quick way of distinguishing between post-Impressionist and Symbolist painters is that the former were experimenting with ways of depicting reality, whereas the latter are experimenting with ways to try and depict what lies behind reality. Of the former, contemporary critics asked, ‘What is it meant to be depicting?’, of the latter they would ask, ‘I can see what it’s depicting – but what does it mean?’

Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven school

Gauguin the post-Impressionist is included? Yes, because in the several summers he spent painting at Pont-Aven in Brittany, Gauguin attracted young disciples who both inspired him to become more abstract and ‘primitive’, but also came back to Paris to spread his influence.

The young Paul Sérusier organised a group of like-minded young artists at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian, which included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis – and christened them the ‘Nabis’ (Hebrew for ‘prophets’). Without really intending to, Gauguin found himself being lauded as a prophet to the Symbolists. When he set off for the Pacific he was given a going-away party by the Symbolists, presided over by Mallarmé himself.

Here’s a work from Gauguin’s South Sea period.

Lucie-Smith says it is symbolist work because it has mystery, ambiguity and is clearly an invitation to seek some deeper meaning lying beneath the surface. Well, yes… I find several works by other Nabis more convincingly symbolist:

Lucie-Smith devotes a chapter to the Salon of the Rose+Cross founded by Joséphin Péladan in 1892, which held a series of six exhibitions from 1892 to 1897 at which they invited Symbolist painters to exhibit. Featured artists included Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler, Jan Toorop, Gaetano Previati, Jean Delville, Carlos Schwabe and Charles Filiger.

The Salon combined rituals and ideas from Medieval Rosicrucianism with elements of Kabbala and other aspects of esoteric lore. Charming and distracting though much of this arcane knowledge may be to devotees, it is also, at bottom, a profoundly useless waste of time and intellect. However, the Salon of the Rose+Cross’s practical impact was to bring together and promote a wide range of painters who shared the symbolist mindset:

More impressive are Soul of the Forest by Edgar Maxence (1898) and:

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Orpheus by Jean Delville (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)

An illustrator who created line drawings in black ink, Beardley’s big breakthrough came in 1894 when Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, was published in a version with Beardsley’s woodcuts and caused a succès de scandale. Well aware of fashionable taste, Beardsley tackled favourite Symbolist themes like the medieval dreamworld of King Arthur, the femme fatale, Wagner’s operas, and pretty risqué pornography, as in his illustrations to the classic play, Lysistrata.

Beardsley’s clarity of line and hard-edged arabesques make him one of the founders of Art Nouveau.

Symbolists in other countries

This summary only takes us up to half way through the book which beings to risk – like Gibson’s book – turning into simply a list of relevant painters with a paragraph or so on each.

Part of this is because Symbolism was so thoroughly international a style, with offshoots all across Europe. Lucie-Smith makes the point that it was a little like the Mannerism of the end of the 16th century – the product of a unified and homogenous culture, and of a social and artistic élite determined to emphasise the gap between itself – with all its sensitivity and refinement – and the ghastly mob, with its crude newspapers and penny-dreadful entertainments.

Later chapters describe the Symbolist artists of America, Holland (Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker),  Russia (Diaghilev, Bakst and the World of Art circle), Italy (Giovanni Segantini, Gaetano Previati), Czechoslovakia (Franz Kupka), Germany-Switzerland (Arnold Böckin, Max Klinger, Otto Greiner, Alfred Kubin, Ferdinand Hodler, Franz von Stuck).

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

The kiss of the Sphinx by Franz von Stuck (1895)

I particularly liked:

The books ends with extended sections devoted to James Ensor, Edvard Munch (who Lucie-Smith considers the most avant-garde painter working anywhere in the mid-1890s) and Gustav Klimt.

Modernists who had symbolist phases

Like Gibson, Lucie-Smith points out that a number of the great Modernists first passed through identifiable symbolist phases before finding their final styles.

Two great examples are Wassily Kandinsky, whose pre-abstract paintings are admittedly influenced by Fauve and Divisionist techniques but as, Lucie-Smith points out, depict undeniably Arthurian and medieval subject matter, and so qualify for the symbolist team.

The other is Piet Mondrian, the Dutchman nowadays known for his black-lined grids of white squares and rectangles, enlivened with the occasional yellow or red exception. But before he perfected the style that made him famous (about 1914), Mondrian had gone through a florid Symbolist period in the 1910s – in fact he was a keen theosophist (member of a spiritual movement akin to Rosicrucianism).

In a final, surprise move, Lucie-Smith makes a claim for Picasso to have gone through a Symbolist phase, before becoming the father of modern art.

He quotes Evocation, which does look remarkably like something by Odilon Redon (Picasso was only 19 at the time) and whose subject is a characteristically fin-de-siecle one of suicide and death. Or take Life, which uses a handful of meaningful figures to address this rather large topic, not unlike the confessional approach of Edvard Munch just a few years earlier.

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Life by Pablo Picasso (1903)

Finale

As with Michael Gibson’s book, I felt that Lucie-Smith pulled in so many outriders and fringe symbolists that he watered down the core vision and essence of Symbolism.

Beardsley? Gauguin? Whistler? Ye-e-e-s… but no. Beardsley is an illustrator who anticipates Art Nouveau design. Gauguin is a post-Impressionist. Whistler is a type of Impressionist with little or no interest in ‘religion’ or ‘the beyond’…

But that is the difficulty with the Symbolism as an-ism, it is extremely broad and covers themes, topics, ideas which spilled over from earlier movements, spilled into contemporary movements, which touched artists (and illustrators and designers) of all types and genres. At its broadest, it was the spirit of the age. All we can say with complete certainty is that the Great War utterly destroyed it, and ushered in a new, anti-spiritual age, in literature, poetry, music and the visual arts.

And, turning back to the immense and beautifully illustrated Gibson coffee-table book, I’d say that if you were only going to own one of these books, Gibson’s is the one: Lucie-Smith’s text is thorough and informative but Gibson’s illustrations are to die for.


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