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William Blake at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Anna Henderson takes a trip to Blake’s Shadow and enjoys it, with a few reservations

Published on February 25th 2008.


William Blake at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Everybody loves William Blake.

For the Arts and Crafts Movement, he was a bridge between the fine and the applied arts. The Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from his use of colour, space and the human form. Patti Smith saw him as mystical seer and anti-establishment activist. ‘Because the Night’ you might say.

In the words of Walter Crane: ‘Blake is distinct and stands alone.’

Blake’s Shadow traces Blake’s influence on the art from the eighteenth century until today, presenting us with the thoughts, words and images of the artist, but also those of his devotees past and present. There’s a lot of useful background – on some of the most important works, such as the intense and touching Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Nothing, however, on the ironies of how his best-known legacy, the poem Jerusalem, adapted for music by Charles Parry, has been neutralised through over-use: darling of the Proms, hand-picked for royal weddings, lauded as alternative national anthem, embraced as school song. On the afternoon I visited, the curator reminded us also of England Rugby Union’s flirtation, and, with a nice-but-dim Radio 4 nod to pop culture, told us about the poem’s rendition by ‘a very strange band called The Fall’. Bless.

And here’s the danger of an exhibition that sees an artist as much through other peoples eyes as his own. Arguing for greatness through the weight of approval of others can distract us from the main event and main personality.

Despite this, most of the comparative exhibits work well, demonstrating just how strangely different and distinctive Blake is. The Pre-Raphaelites are overcomplicated and dated beside his pared-down simplicity; Eduardo Paolozzi’s chunky little bronze Newton can’t divide space and line as effectively as Blake’s Newton. Only Anish Kapoor’s aquatint series Blackness from her Womb has the dark lonely majesty of Blake’s universe.

There is also a corner of the exhibition devoted to pop culture tie-ins including an interview with Patti Smith, the chance to listen to four different versions of Jerusalem, and a clip of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004) with its half-Blake, half-Kurt Cobain central figure. But could there also be something to say about the links between Blake’s experiments in integrating word and image and graphic novels or comic artwork?Throughout Blake’s work, a beared figure repeats. Urizen, at his most striking as the exhibition’s poster-boy in The Ancient of Days, embodied for Blake the way in which man’s divine spirit is held back by ‘mind-forged manacles’. He’s an ambiguous figure – remote and absorbed rather than vengeful, and it’s not immediately clear that he’s the villain of these works. But Blake believed man’s rational impulse kills imagination, so Urizen appears time and again, deadening through deliberation. In The Ancient of Days he is crouched, animal-like, except for his windswept beard and the intensity of his focus.

‘Mind-forg’d manacles’, a phrase from Blake’s London, also gives its name to a related exhibition devoted to Blake’s anti-slavery stance and the context in which he was working. An etching entitled Europe supported by Africa and America parades its message with deceptively coy disapproval.

What sticks in the mind from this exhibition is the emphasis on bodily form: naked, muscled, pure and unselfconscious, it is both imprisoning and filled with a sense of potential. This owes a debt to Michelangelo, but also, in its strange naivety, seems to exist in a time before him.

And it is Blake’s elemental oddness, his alien quality that etches its impression on the onlooker despite the clamouring voices of the emulators and admirers. In the words of Victorian designer Walter Crane: ‘Blake is distinct and stands alone.’

Ultimately this is what makes the exhibition rewarding and worth visiting.

Blake’s Shadow is at the Whitworth Art Gallery until 20 April. Whitworth Art Gallery, Oxford Road, University. 0161 275 7450. www.whitworth.man.ac.uk

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

TonyFebruary 25th 2008.

Enjoyed the review! The link with graphic novels is interesting. The modern interpretation of Blake that always amazes me is the big version of Paolozzi's sculpture of Blake's Newton outside the British Library. What an irony - placing such a cramped, uncomfortable figure outside the country's temple to reason and enlightened enquiry! Seems to me to completely miss Blake's point.

RowenaFebruary 25th 2008.

Great review. Really interesting article. Keep up the good work.

JamesFebruary 25th 2008.

I find whatever Blake does, filled with emotion, power and a real love of individuality. Blake gets copied, others copy Blake. Good intelligent review, good to see how Manchester Confidential cover these subjects.

JaneFebruary 25th 2008.

I was a little disappointed in the exhibition as I found many of the works were badly hung and badly lit.

AnonymousFebruary 25th 2008.

...really enjoyed the article and the exhibition.

Invisible WormFebruary 25th 2008.

"Oh Rose, thou art sick! The invisible worm/ That flies in the night/in the howling storm. Has found out thy bedOf crimson joy/ And with his dark secret love/does thy life destroy."I love Blake, and I love his work and this exhibition is extremely good

visible wormFebruary 25th 2008.

Glad to see invisible worm loves Blake. Pity s/he doesn't love him enough to quote him accurately

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