With Mr Blake at the Tate

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experiences and reflections on the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, London, which opened last September and ends on 2nd February.


“a new kind of man, wholly original” 
-- from an 1863 biography, drawing on reflections of Blake’s followers

Just back from an afternoon with Blake at the Tate, I’d been processing on the train home …

Overall, it was an intense encounter: really busy for a Sunday afternoon, which results in conveyor-belt art appreciation, with shuffles and shoves to see and stand for a few moments in front of the image or text that grabs the eye; with my guerilla-style meanderings round the rooms, being led to the Blakes I know well or have wanted to meet for a while, or a colour or a line or an outstretched arm within an image calling for attention.

Here’s a tiny clip of me immediately post-show, trying to gather some thoughts:

On seeing Blake at Tate 11/1/2020 from James Murray-White.

from a Blake exhibition
‘Lucifer and the Pope in hell’ William Blake: 1794-6

Recreating a Blake exhibition

There are five rooms in all, each literally stuffed with images of all types. Which is pretty overwhelming, though quite glorious. This show focuses on smaller pieces, with the timeline in order of their production, whereas the last Blake exhibition I saw — at Petworth in Sussex — was smaller and seemed to focus on bigger and brighter images, with space around them. One of my favourites, ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) has come up from Petworth and was originally commissioned by Countess Egremont when he was down the road in Felpham. And it’s curious that the descriptor on the wall says that the subject of the painting is ‘a mystery’ whereas, post-Petworth, many of the interviewees for our Finding Blake film were keen to discuss it, dissect it and come up with multiple meanings……

‘The Sea of Time & Space’ William Blake, 1821

from a Blake exhibition

The highlight of the show was the recreation of his 1809 independent exhibition in his then house in Broad Street, Soho — with some clever lighting really bringing four of the pictures to life: ‘Satan calling up his legions’ (1795 – 1800); ‘The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ (1805 – 09); ‘The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth’ (1805); ‘The bard, from Gray’ (1809). This effect really opened up these images, naturally displayed in the regulation, lower lighting levels.

Connecting the legacy?

In the next room was a projection showing these same paintings at a grand scale, which enables that intimate engagement with pigment and brushstroke I really long for in my standing with a Blake. However, what the exhibition does really lack is any more audio-visual material; why no film? Why no ‘experts’ talking about what Blake means to them? And why no material or an entire room connecting the continuing legacy through to our age and beyond?

There is the Tate’s room upstairs, with 20th-century artists’ responses to Blake, so why couldn’t the show be configured to lead into that, at least? Something like: ‘the artist as of his time and beyond’. I like the short and succinct titles for each room: ‘Blake be an artist’, ‘Making prints, making a living’, ‘Patronage and independence’, ‘Independence and despair’, and ‘A new kind of man’. It felt like the exhibition was solely concentrating on the man: inside Blake’s mind as he worked on each commission, or responded to the voices he heard, or reflected with his brush on the swirling politics and rush into the industrial / military / capitalist system happening in the London streets around him; his deep dive into a spiritual world, with visionary realms, clear choices between ascent and descent — strong arms to pull upward, glittering spiral staircases or watery graves, Job, Joseph, a heavenly Jerusalem, inspiration from Milton … and so much more.

from a Blake exhibition
Epitome of James Hervey’s ‘Meditations among the Tombs’
William Blake: 1820-25

from a Blake exhibition

It was great to see the portrait of Blake at the start of the exhibition attributed to Catherine: this has been highlighted by the media, for the first time acknowledging her place side-by-side with him, as both his support, his muse, and oftentimes co-creating or finishing the artwork for him (certainly the etchings). Those of us who have been studying Blake a while welcome this, and hope this acknowledgement serves as a significant nudge to recognise the role of partners in artists’ lives.

I recalled the big exhibition at the Ashmolean some years ago, which really kick-started my nascent interest in Blake. That went out of its way to place him in the context in the wider world; devoting the first room to Blake as student to James Basire, and having a series of stones that Blake took rubbings from; and then the end room being a collection of Samuel Palmer’s works, showing the beautiful lineage being passed along — as well as Michael Phillip’s recreation of Blake’s printing press as well, with the man himself on hand to make replicas. So, having these three exhibitions in my mind, I thank these great repositories of art and their curators for having provided me and the public with opportunities to see great Blakes gathered together (although the Tate has been pretty difficult to engage with — ignoring emails and then being less than forthcoming about sharing material on the recent projection on St Paul’s).

So now it is incumbent upon me to go away to get editing our film and bring ‘Finding Blake’ out into the world!

I’ve not been slack. I’ve been limbering up with my software, gathering materials and footage, conversing with a master editor overseas, and reaching out in advance to plan screenings hither and thither (including an exclusive preview for all the project’s sponsors and website friends), and letting Blake and this current stage of the Anthropocene swirl within my molecules reflectively through the solstice in quiet and wilder spaces and places: walking with the fox and ascending to Jerusalem from ‘England’s Green & pleasant land’.

If you’ve been to the Tate, we’d love to hear your reflections on the Blake show. Please send us in a comment or a post. If there’s one image in particular you didn’t know before, or one you’ve been wanting to meet ‘in the flesh’, or were disappointed with, or take issue with the thrust of the show overall — do share.


Notes

Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition ends on 2nd February, You can find out more and read the exhibition guide here.

In an earlier post, The Unfolding and Unveiling, James shares some of his other encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present — including the Blake exhibition at Petworth House, Blake in Sussex, which he mentioned above.

William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 4 – Path and Goal

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal. 


Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.

It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.

Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.

Blakean encounters and wounds

In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.

There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.

To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.

Peckham Rye
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.

Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.

True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.

Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios

For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.

I’m now ready for Blake again.

Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).

It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.

On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.

I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.

Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.

Revising the manuscript Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
Revising the manuscript
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Blake: art as path and goal

It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.

However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.

There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?

He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.

Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.

We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.

All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.

The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less. 


Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com

'Ciudad doliente de Dios' cover, Adriana Díaz-Enciso
‘Ciudad doliente de Dios’ cover

Adriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

You can read her three earlier posts in this series for Finding Blake: William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas, Part 2 — London, England and Part 3 — Visionary City

William Blake and Doleful City of God: 3 – Visionary City

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her first two posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how her discovery of William Blake in a bookstore in Texas sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist. Immersing herself in his work, Adriana also embarked on her own ambitious creation: Ciudad doliente de Dios, (‘Doleful City of God’) a Blakean novel which would take inspiration from horrific events in her own country, Mexico. Recovering from ill health and grief, she turned in a new direction: London. Here, Adriana recalls her experiences of an in-between world.    


During those years in London, I got glimpses of what Blake meant to England. Back in Mexico, he was someone that writers and artists knew about — truly known by few, who admired him in isolation — but in no way a central figure. Here, I started to understand that in his native country he was central and peripheral at the same time. He seemed to be revered and forgotten, beloved and derided in equal measure, still alive and, often, still misunderstood.

On the periphery … 

I couldn’t make any sense at all of ‘Jerusalem’ being sung at the Proms patriotic orgy. I could see that, for better or worse, Blake was a national figure and I would probably never get to fully understand that Blake – just as I couldn’t expect, for instance, a foreigner in Mexico to understand what it means to have grown up alongside the figure of the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. ‘My’ Blake was then of the periphery in a different way, and though I was excluded from the national symbolism attached to him, I had the privilege of my unique approach, of being left to disentangle on my own what his art meant and how it was becoming the pillar of my novel, which had by then become the most important writing project of my life.

That’s why I didn’t approach the Blake Society for many years, and why I eschewed the heaviest scholarly works on Blake (some of which I found quite off the mark and soul-killing): I didn’t want interference in my understanding of him. I wanted to unravel Blake myself. I therefore continued inching along with my second draft. I finished it, after some years.

It was no good. I destroyed it again, and was now in sheer despair, feeling dead as a writer.

Despair, as is the case with everything in life, wouldn’t last forever. In 2008 I received a three-year writing grant from the Mexican equivalent of the Arts Council. It meant the time and peace of mind I needed for writing the novel all over again, and I leapt in. I followed the characters — Blake’s prophetic poems’ characters, in my own interpretation — in their quest for a sacred city, their wondering about humanity’s seemingly pointless suffering and the glimpses they had of such pain transfigured by a divinity that is no other than our own imagination. I followed them, seeking the meaning of beauty and compassion in the midst of manifold sorrows.

The Acteal massacre remained central to the plot. The character who in the novel mirrors Blake’s Orc embodied the struggle between the call for political action and the call of the spirit (which includes the artist’s vocation) in the face of atrocity. And several of the horrors described in the book have their source in real events which have taken place in Mexico.

… and between worlds

However, it was important to me that my ‘doleful city’ wasn’t set in any definite geographical space. The borders between the mundane and the visionary, the visible and the invisible, needed to be blurred, and the characters to keep on crossing from one into the other. They all find — and don’t — the sacred city. That city shares some lineaments with Mexico City, but also with a visionary London; a dome with a golden cross on top, which echoes St Paul’s, looms large in the characters’ visions. This city can’t be found on any map, and yet in the realm of literary truth, I do hope that its essence can be experienced now and then in Mexico City, in London, or any other city on Earth.

Doleful City of God: the visionary city Mexico City London, image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
The visionary city
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

All the characters in my novel are seeking God’s answer to their pain and the pain of others. Some quite misguidedly, I have to say. All of them are looking also for the meaning of the Cross, and whereas the liberation hinted at in that most beautiful image of Christ nailed to a tree of golden fruits in Plate 76 of Blake’s Jerusalem is revealed to some, there is also a sinister mockery of the symbol when a murdered youth is tied to a cross on top of a mountain. This is something that actually happened in Mexico and left me wondering further on the meaning of so much woe and such brutality.

Needless to say, neither I nor my characters have reached any answer, but in my novel — Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God) — the characters find something that is perhaps of more worth: an intimation that the wonder of human existence reaches beyond the opposition of contraries through lucid vision and compassion, and that there is no real barrier between the visible and the invisible, matter and spirit.

While I was writing the novel, I sometimes went to Bunhill Fields. I liked sitting in that most gentle space by the fig tree and the old stone which tells us that Blake’s remains and those of his wife Catherine Sophia lie ‘nearby’. In those quiet moments, I pondered on what I was writing, sometimes asking whatever remained of Blake — wherever it is that we go after death (if we go anywhere) — to point me in the right direction… or, only half-jokingly, to forgive me if I got it all utterly wrong. 


Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com.

Cover Ciudad doliente de Dios, crop, Adriana Díaz-EncisoAdriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. You can catch up with her first two posts about the writing of the book, William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas and Part 2 — London, England.

In her final post in this series, Adriana becomes immersed in the work of the Blake Society and her Doleful City of God finally arrives in the world. And Adriana discusses the meaning of Blake’s art for her in today’s world.