Exhibiting Blake: The Prints of Serge Arnoux

Robert Campbell Henderson — who has already shared his intriguing discovery of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake in two previous posts for us at Finding Blake — brings us up to date with his project to print the Blakean plates created by Serge Arnoux.


To recap, back in September 2018 Robert was rummaging in a scrap yard in the south of France for metal to make printing plates and stumbled across a bundle of paper-wrapped copper. On opening the first parcel Robert glimpsed what turned out to be a lost body of works by French artist Serge Arnoux. The plates depicted Arnoux’s interpretation of William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Finding Blake has been following the progress of the gradual reprinting of the plates and his research to try and establish why and how they were made. Robert has now reprinted all of the plates and has featured the full series of prints on his website along with the corresponding translation of the text.

Box set of The Proverbs of Hell' interprétations by Serge Arnoux
Box set of ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ interprétations by Serge Arnoux

Blakean plates 

Robert explained the technical aspects as follows: “The prints were etched on thick copper plates size 33cm x 24cm. They were made using the intaglio technique of hard ground and acid, whereby the ground is applied to a plate to protect it from the action of the mordant and drawn through with a fine needle. The longer the hard ground plate is exposed to the acid, the deeper and wider the line becomes. Everything has to be done in reverse and there is little room for error. This is particularly the case when working with text. A lot of the engravings contain some very fine lines and Arnoux when printing them actually adopted a technique to ink known as ‘a la poupee’ – a French term literally translated as ‘by the dolly’. It is usually more associated with dabbing and wiping different colours on different parts of a plate. Having now re-printed them, I can see why it could be effective. Based on the pristine condition of the plates, I also think that, for whatever reason, many of them never actually made it to the etching press — that is, until now!”

Detail of the copper plates with engravings by Arnoux.
Detail of the copper plates with engravings by Arnoux.

You can also see the prints until June 29th as part of the exhibition ‘Temporal Traces – Magical Manuscripts’ at L’Atelier Melusine, La Trimouille 86290, France.

'Resurrection' 25 prints based of 'The Proverbs of Hell' William Blake engravings by Serge Arnoux. Salvaged, re-printed and hand coloured by Robert Campbell Henderson
‘Resurrection’ 25 prints based of ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ William Blake engravings by Serge Arnoux. Salvaged, re-printed and hand coloured by Robert Campbell Henderson

Temporal Traces – Magical Manuscripts

Below is an extract from the press release for the exhibition:

“The exhibition is replete with history and magic, and follows an elegantly traced timeline spanning two millennia, and comprises a rich mix of visual and sound-based works which include tracings of original ancient Coptic and Greek papyri made by The Coptic Magical Papyri (University of Wurzburg) and Raquel Martín Hernández, alongside the original copper etchings made in the mid-twentieth century by Serge Arnoux, inspired by William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, and re-printed by Robert Campbell Henderson in 2019.

These prints and tracings occupy the first two floors of L’atelier Melusine, alongside an antique colour catalogue of plates by William Blake, in an eerie dialogue which demonstrates the similarity of the images despite the enormous temporal breach between their creation dates ……. “

Poster for the exhibition
Poster for the exhibition

You can view the prints and read more about the exhibition on Robert’s website at www.photokennel.com.

He tells us that the story still has a long way to run with connections to America and further exhibitions planned. He has also used the plates as the basis of some new work, creating a series of colour interpretations of all the engravings using computer painting techniques. Finding Blake plans to cover the development of the project in future posts.


Notes

Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com.

You can read Robert’s previous posts for Finding Blake: Serge Arnoux, Surrealism and William Blake and William Blake and Serge Arnoux.

William Blake and Serge Arnoux

In his first post for Finding Blake, Robert Campbell Henderson shared his intriguing discovery of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake. Searching a scrap yard, he found a number of copper plate etchings by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux. The etchings had a strong surrealist style and, at the time, little was know about them and why they ended up hours from almost being melted down. Here, Robert provides an update as to how things are progressing, as a prelude to sharing the full series of prints as a special Finding Blake gallery in a few weeks time. 


Who was the artist Serge Arnoux? If you do a search on him you will find very little. In fact you are more than likely to get confused by his rather more famous namesake who directed the film Moana in the South Pacific in 1959. Arnoux the artist lived in Glanes in the Lot region of France and had shops in St. Cere, St. Cirq-Lapopie and Bonafacio where, in order to make a living, he sold silk-screened cushions, scarves, dresses, wall hangings and lithographs.

Textile Lithograph by Serge Arnoux
Textile Lithograph by Serge Arnoux

 

On the death of his wife in 2016, a couple of years after him, their stock and furniture was sold at auction, but not, it would seem, the copper plates as they were not listed in the sales catalogue. Much of what they made was beautiful and craft orientated but I have anecdotal evidence that he longed to devote his time to what he considered real art, much to the annoyance of his wife who by all accounts was the more practical of the two. As such Arnoux forged relationships with other artists whenever he could, in what is a rather remote and provincial area of France. These connections seem to go some way to explain the story. 

Serge Arnoux & the poet connection

The relationship between Serge Arnoux and American poet MS Merwin, who is now based in Hawaii, was touched upon in my first post. Merwin, twice American Poet Laureate, had a house in Le Causse de Gramat in France and lived there in the sixties, where he wrote many of his poems, illustrated by Arnoux. When Merwin met with President Obama at the White House for the inaugural reading, in what was his second spell as Poet Laureate in 2010, he quoted William Blake:

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions…

MS Merwin is a strong conservationist (check out The Merwin Conservancy) and it would seem from the above that he may have been influenced by the work of Blake, so I think it’s a fair assumption that he in turn may have influenced Arnoux. Or maybe it was vice versa!

W S Merwin's first three broadside publications
W S Merwin’s first three broadside publications, simultaneously published with illustrations by Serge Arnoux
The Widow / Things / A Letter from Gussie

 

And then there is French poet, writer and composer Léo Ferré. Serge Arnoux met Ferré in the early sixties in St Cere and worked closely with him over the next decade. He actually found him a house, the 14th-century Château de Pechrigal near Gourdon, where Ferré lived along with his chimpanzee ‘Bubbles’.

Ferré and Arnoux worked together at the Chateau on a number of publications, even installing their own printing press. Ferré had long been associated with the surrealist movement from his time in Paris, although latterly he would reject the ideals of the movement and indeed ended up in a long dispute with Breton. It can only be an assumption on my part, but again more than likely much of this rubbed off and could have influenced Arnoux. Below is an illustration by Arnoux for the book Léo Ferré / Alma Matrix / La Mémoire et la Mer. Most of you will recognise the Last Judgement, one of the many copies based on the original painting by Blake. I’ll let you make up your own mind about any influence!

Illustration by Serge Arnoux for 'Léo Ferré / Alma Matrix / La Mémoire et la Mer', including Balke's The Last Judgement.
Illustration by Serge Arnoux for ‘Léo Ferré / Alma Matrix / La Mémoire et la Mer’, including Balke’s The Last Judgement.

The artist connection

A major breakthrough in the research into the background to the story was input from Martha Daura, daughter of Catalan/American artist Pierre Daura. After reading the initial post on Finding Blake she made contact and has provided, as you will read below, personal and first-hand knowledge of the period when Arnoux made his series of etchings based on the Proverbs of Hell.

As an artist, Pierre Daura mainly worked in landscape, portraiture and still-life. He began engraving and etching in the 1910’s and continued until 1939. He also sculpted for many decades. He spent his childhood in Barcelona before moving to Paris where he was a founding member of Cercle et Carré  (Circle and Square),  a group of avant-garde abstractionists which included the likes of Joaquín Torres-García, Hans Arp, Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. The group published a journal with the same name in three issues and in 1930 organised an exhibition in Paris showing 130 abstract works by various artists. The group was short-lived but Daura continued to work in abstraction throughout his career. Daura left Paris for St Cirq Lapopie in 1930 and subsequently moved to the US in 1939, spending only the summers in St. Cirq after the war up until 1974.

Cercle et Carré Publications 1929/30
Cercle et Carré Publications 1929/30

Arnoux moved to Glanes in the northern part of the Lot region in the mid-fifties and despite the distance between their houses he and Daura became great friends, meeting often and communicating by letter to discuss ideas and work. I have been told by Martha Daura that her father actually taught Arnoux printmaking. She also speculated, amongst loads of other great information, that the Blake prints were likely from around the late sixties/early seventies although it’s difficult to be precise, and that they were never actually intended for a book as I had first surmised but as a boxed portfolio.

St Cirq Lapopie became the home of the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, from 1950 until his death in 1966. He spent every summer there and was a neighbour and close friend of Daura. Breton and his entourage of artists were a big presence in the village and possibly influenced and interacted with Arnoux, hence his surrealist approach. Speculation but more than plausible!

A small selection of paintings and gravure covering the period 1929 - 1971, by Pierre Daura
A small selection of paintings and gravure covering the period 1929 – 1971 Pierre Daura

 

Pierre Dauras’ legacy was donated to the Georgia Museum of Art USA and includes all the correspondence between him and Arnoux, something which I feel will provide a deeper insight into the work. I am in contact with the Pierre Daura Archive who have kindly agreed to release and send me copies of this material.

They also hold nine original prints by Serge Arnoux in their permanent collection that were gifted to or were part of a collaboration with Daura. Part of my find in the scrapyard included five of the original copper plates for these prints. The two on the left are from the collection and I have a third of what to me seems like a triptych. I think these were made and destined for a poem or some sort of writing (probably not Blake, although they do have a rather mystic and surreal feel) as Arnoux rarely made prints as stand-alones. The original titles of the prints are View of a Town, Town with a Curtain and Lost in the Town.

Serge Arnoux circa 1970
Serge Arnoux circa 1970

The printmaking connection

As mentioned in the introduction, I am going to print the full series of twenty six etchings that I found and feature them here on the Finding Blake website as an exclusive gallery sometime in February. The actual prints will be printed on Fabriano paper with Chardonnel etching ink and are all the same size 33cm x 24 cm.

Proverbs of Hell - Interpretation by Serge Arnoux circa 1970
Proverbs of Hell – Interpretation by Serge Arnoux circa 1970
“The hours of folly are measur’d by the clock, but of wisdom: no clock can measure”
“Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep”
“Damm Braces : Bless Relaxes”

All of the prints are what is often referred to as ‘plate signed’ by Serge Arnoux, and all feature the French translation of the proverbs as part of the print. I will add the original English text of the corresponding proverb in pencil to each print.

As yet I have not established whether Serge Arnoux made etchings based on all the proverbs, but rest assured I make regular visits to the scrapyard on the off chance they make an appearance! I hope you will enjoy seeing the work and of course make any comment you see fit. There is already an exhibition of the prints planned for France in June of this year but if anyone is interested in an opportunity to show the work please get in touch. 


Notes

Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com.

You can read more about all of the above and lots more including a semiotic analysis of Exuberance is Beauty! by Dr Philip Rayner on the ongoing blog on Robert’s website. 

You can read Robert’s first post for Finding Blake here — and watch out for the gallery of his prints from Serge Arnoux’s plates, coming soon!

A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song

Joseph A. ThompsonWe welcome Joseph Andrew Thompson as our latest author for Finding Blake. Joseph is a composer, musician, writer and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. Their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, features their adaptation of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. This song is released today and Finding Blake is delighted to publish this account of its development to mark its release. 


William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience immediately enthralled me upon first read. A high school friend had lent me his worn copy, and I read, amazed by its elegant simplicity. It presented itself like a children’s storybook, complete with illustrations, perfect rhyme, and steady meter. Yet, beneath this playful facade was a masterwork, rife with meaning, craft, metaphor, and vision.

When I learned of the existence of other editions, I ventured to the bookstore to pore through any I might find. I would have been very delighted at purchasing my own illustrated copy, but with only a pittance to spare that day, settled instead on a text-only pocket version by Penguin that I found amidst the larger hardcovers.

Astralingua - Blake & Guitar
Astralingua – Blake & Guitar. Photo: Astralingua © 2018

Discovering A Poison Tree

The little songbook easily fit in my coat pocket and for the first six months of possessing it, I carried it around with me, reading it in quiet moments. It was still with me in college, when on many an evening, a fellow songwriter and I stood in my humble apartment, passing it back and forth, reading aloud the poems in different voices. Always a favorite, A Poison Tree was memorized, and often read in a voice not unlike Montresor’s, from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. In time, the book eventually made its way to a pocket of my carry bag, where still to this day it stays, like a most trusted talisman.

One evening a few years ago, while working on my band Astralingua’s coming album Safe Passage, my music partner Anne R. Thompson and I were at once struck by the idea of adapting one of Blake’s songs to music. Needing no deliberation, the obvious choice was A Poison Tree, as few among my friends had not at one time or another heard me slyly recite it. Excited by the idea, I retrieved my shoulder bag and found my little copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

As I flipped through the pages, I thought back to my college days with the book, and suddenly recalled an old song on which I had worked then. Absorbed in Romanticism, I had been writing in a Blakean mood of sorts, but dissatisfied with my lyrics, had since left the song unfinished. Now, I wondered if it might in some way fit A Poison Tree. Almost magically, with but a few changes to the original melody, it did so seamlessly, leaving me to wonder if this marriage of the two had not always been my true intent.

Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua.
Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua. Design: Astralingua © 2018

In the midst of Safe Passage

And thus our version was born and grew. That night, Anne and I giddily sang it together, myself on guitar, and her reading from my pocketbook, harmonizing the melody. In production, we tried to give it an Old World minstrel sound, to place it closer to Blake’s era. With the voice and melody, I sought to convey the revelling dark glee with which, in my imagination, I always hear it read. During the sequencing, the song was placed in the middle of the album, at a darker part of its narrative.

Safe Passage is a discussion on mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds. A Poison Tree, with its dual realities — that of the narrator and that of his unsuspecting foe — fits right in with the other tracks. Rich in possible interpretations, it helps press further the album’s central questions: How, if at all, can safe passage be attained? Who or what provides it? Who denies it?

Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson
Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. Photo: Lisa Siciliano © 2018

I hope our adaptation brings the listener just as much joy in hearing it as I got from creating it, and more so, brings a smile to the face of a great poet in the sky.

You can hear A Poison Tree from today via our bandcamp link here: 

Additional:

And you can now also enjoy this video presentation of Astralingua’s A Poison Tree — words and images by William Blake. 


Notes

Astralingua are composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. The nomadic space-folk duo explores life’s unknowns, blending haunting vocal harmonies, radiant strings, and otherworldly soundscapes into crafted songs that fall somewhere between classical, folk and psychedelia. You can discover more of their work at astralingua.com and at bandcamp.  

Their album Safe Passage is available for pre-order now, and will be released in early March 2019:

You can find Blake’s poem A Poison Tree at Poetry Foundation and there is a short analysis of “one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger … one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces” at interestingliterature.com. And don’t forget that there’s more to explore in the Blakean Articles and Other Blakean Artefacts pages in A Blakean Archive!