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!

 

Serge Arnoux, Surrealism and William Blake

Robert Campbell Henderson becomes our latest contributor, beginning a series of posts for Finding Blake with this intriguing account of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake, through an accidental discovery at a scrap yard…


Proverbs of Hell: a French connection 

It’s not so easy to find or write something new about William Blake. Hopefully, this might just be an exception. A few weeks ago I made a visit to a scrap metal yard in Sarlat, France, looking for material for my printmaking. Boy did I get lucky! I bought some copper plate destined for the furnace and it turns out I’d bought 27 etched copper plates by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux, based on some of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from 1790.

“Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”. Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

The plate above, and my print from it, is labelled “Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”, which in Blake’s original is: 

Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth

All the plates are in a surrealist style and from my initial research seemed to have been destined for a book. I can’t be certain at this stage but I believe they were made in the seventies. Looking at the plates, I think only around a dozen of them were actually ever printed.

La sexaphysique du texte

Arnoux often collaborated with other artists, including French poet and composer Leo Ferre and American poet M.S. Merwin, making illustrations in a similar surreal vein. He also made and published books under his own name.

‘La sexaphysique du texte’

The images above are from one of his own books, La sexaphysique du texte. Interesting title! The booklet was printed in large folio format, 23 double pages with typography and layout in the manner of the surrealists.

From plates to an exhibition

For me as a printmaker, to find etched plates by another printmaker, the late Serge Arnoux, and discover that they were based on work by poet, writer and of course printmaker William Blake seems like fate. It can only be an interesting journey of discovery! 

I am going to print all the plates, with full accreditation to the artist. I am writing a blog about the project and the ultimate goal is an exhibition of the work — hopefully in the UK, but certainly France. 

Here are a few more of the prints from my initial proofing exercise, as a taster for what is to come. The original titles in French, and what I believe to be the corresponding line from the Proverbs of Hell in English, read from left to right. Of course, I assume being from the Blakean world you already figured that out.

 

“La prudence est une vieille fille riche et laide que l’incapacité courtise.” Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.

“Des pierres de la Loi on a fait des prisons des briques de la Religion on a fait des Bordels” Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.

“Femme nue, chef d’oeuvre de Dieu” The nakedness of woman is the work of God. 


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

Robert wants to share his experience of researching, printing and hopefully exhibiting these plates over the coming months. You can read Robert’s blog at his site (which also includes more on Serge Arnoux) and we will be sharing more of his accounts of this intriguing French connection here at Finding Blake.

As the Wikipedia entry on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell notes, “In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought.”

Several of his proverbs have become famous:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

And another  

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

has given the title to a recent translation of Olga Tocarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, which the Guardian’s review describes as not just a murder mystery but “also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.” Another reminder — as with the plates of Serge Arnoux — that Blake’s importance and influence travel beyond the borders of his own place and times.