Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Romantics at Tate Britain

Part Two - Inward Vision

William Blake - A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet

Romanticism favoured the individual artist, attributing to them the power to see the world in a fresh and entirely unique fashion, to perceive the elemental nature which lay underneath surface appearances. They conveyed such insights in their own particular manner, which owed little or nothing to prevailing academic tastes and standards. The expression of subjective vision, rather than the mastery of an accepted style, was at the heart of Romanticism in the visual arts. The artist was now deemed to possess a special nature which set them apart from the common horde. Whether this was innate, cultivated or stoked aflame through artificial stimuli (opium being the chosen key to fevered dreams favoured by Coleridge and Thomas de Quincy), it left the mind open to dimensions beyond those readily perceptible to the senses. The imagination was all-important. Coleridge held it to be ‘the living power and prime Agent of all human Perception…A repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’.

The Romantics sought inspiration in nature, particularly in its wilder and more overwhelming forms (as mentioned in part one). This was partly an attempt to distance themselves from the ordered boundaries of civilisation, centred on the built-up surrounds of towns and cities. The love of the sublime landscape, the embrace of its dangerous allure, with its potential for engulfing those who gaze upon it, represented the Romantic imagination pushing at the limits of the outer world, pressing against the boundaries of physical being. In confronting the immensity of the sublime, the mountains, abysses and teeming waterfalls, the Romantic sought to see beyond, to catch a glimpse of the infinite. The solitude found in such settings, be they the Alps or the Lake District, also induced a contemplative state of mind which directed the imaginative gaze inward, down towards the depths of what would come to be known as the subconscious. Unpredictable, chaotic nature was a reflection of the irrational self. Alone in the wild places of the world, the Romantics saw themselves as part of the environment in which they stood. The inner landscape of the human mind contained immensities as sublime and mysterious as those which surrounded them. The philosophers and artists of The Enlightenment, the age of reason, believed that human nature could be understood through rational study (and, incidentally, could be moulded and directed as a result). The poet Alexander Pope provided a summary epigraph for the rationalist outlook with the line, from his ‘An Essay on Man’, stating that ‘The proper study of Mankind is Man’ (although the poem goes on to point out the meagre extent of true scientific knowledge). For the Romantics, reason was not the natural human state. They welcomed the ‘Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d’, to which Pope referred, even if it did occasionally create the conditions for a descent into madness. The mind, for them, was a realm of unfathomable mystery rather a seat of reason, an undiscovered country which they set out to explore.

William Blake - The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams
William Blake provided an unlikely figurehead for those who looked to chart the inner worlds of the Romantic imagination. If the artist was seen as possessing a special vision inherent in his or her nature, rather than being a conduit for divine inspiration, then he provided a rather contradictory example. He did believe himself to be receptive to direct inspiration from the spiritual emanations of inhuman beings. Reality as perceived by the senses was a material diminution of a higher and more unified level of creation from which these emanations descended, allowing him a glimpse into immaterial dimensions. Such visitations are acknowledged in several works displayed in the exhibition. The Man Who Taught Blake Painting In His Dreams portrays a man with a noble and benevolent face which seemingly divides into chitinous cranial plates. He looks rather like an uncharacteristically cheerful Klingon. The Inspiration of the Poet shows an open-ended room contained, like a huge hearthplace, at very rear end of a much larger and completely featureless room. Within this recessed sub-room, the poet sits writing at his desk, a single lamp providing a globe of illumination above his head. A white-robed figure stands at his side, pointing to his book as if dictating, or guiding his pen. The tiny room within a larger room can easily be seen as representing the deeper level of the mind to which Blake and the Romantics sought ingress. The Bard is a more specifically British expression of the spirit of inspiration. The poet of ancient days rests in the forest, the light of creative vision showering down upon him from the radiant figures, who hover above, illuminating the dark oak branches.

Blake may have believed that he received his inspiration from external sources, but they could also be regarded as reflecting inner states, externalised projections of the divided aspects of the soul, or psyche. He developed a personal mythological system of great complexity over the course of his lifetime, which centred on the divided state of man and creation, its fall from an original state of unity. The origins of this Gnostic worldview are drawn in The Book of Urizen, pages of which feature prominently here. Remarkably, these were discovered in the 1970s by someone who had bought an old railway timetable, and discovered eight Blake prints inserted between the pages, having perhaps been used as bookmarks for particularly interesting branch lines. As with all versions of Blake’s illuminated books, they are unique, each engraving having been hand-coloured. The illuminated books were completely integrated works of art, words and pictures intertwining and combining on the page to give a visionary cosmogony detail and concrete form. These particular pages also have Blake’s own titles for the pictures added as handwritten sub-headings in their lower margins. Urizen is his version of the Old Testament God, an aged, white-bearded figure who, tired of life, imposes the limitations of order, division and law upon the world. Within the divine unity of the universe, he fashions his own tomb of imprisoning matter. His fiery, creative aspect is sheared off and becomes the figure of Los, the embodiment of Energy and imagination. Urizen is left with the cold comfort of naked Reason, a detached rationalism with which he measures and bounds his new sub-creation.

William Blake - The Book of Urizen. Everything is an attempt to be Human
Plate 6 is subtitled ‘I sought pleasure and found a prison’, and depicts the moment of this first painful division. Los screams with round mouthed and eyed horror, clutching himself as if seeking comfort, or trying to cover the raw nakedness of his newborn self-awareness. He is surrounded by flames, matching his hair, which rise into the words of the poem. ‘Los wept howling round the dark Demon/And cursing his lot for in anguish/Urizen was rent from his side’. Plate 10 is subtitled ‘Everything is an attempt to be human’. A half-formed skeletal figure looks to the sky in anguish as it endures the pain of coming into being. A pair of manacles await at its bony feet, ready to tether it to the earth. These are the ‘mind-forged manacles’ familiar from Blake’s well-known poem The Tyger. This skeleton is the framework for the physical self into which Urizen is painfully condensing himself. Los lies dislocated to his side, a mirror-figure, sundered and frozen in shock. Los is the creative side of the spirit, the imagination abstracted, his emblem a hammer, tool of both artist and artisan. He appears here like a statue sculpted with the distorted features of horror and despair. It’s easy to see the influence of the gothic carvings and tomb effigies which Blake had sketched in Westminster Abbey in his youth. The tendrils of vines curl up amongst the lines of the poem, as if bearing words as fruit. They describe the growth of the body and the awakening of the senses in terms of landscape. ‘From the caverns of his jointed spine/Down sunk with fright a red/Round globe hot burning deep/Deep down into the Abyss’.

The Book of Urizen - The floods overwhelmed me
Plate 11 is subtitled ‘the floods overwhelmed me’. The picture stands alone on the page, with no accompanying verse. Urizen hangs in the void, suspended in emptiness as if he is floating in the middle of an ocean, with no sight of land on the horizon. His beard splays out around him, and his arms are spread out wide in passive surrender. He is like Christ or Odin, hung between heaven and earth (which has yet to be created). His eyes, nose and mouth, the new sensory organs which have just formed, are dead, blank holes. Blake describes him as being ‘In ghostly torment sick,/Hanging upon the wind,/Two nostrils bent down to the deep’. Plate 15 is again a picture with no accompanying words. It is subtitled ‘Vegetating in Fibres of Blood’. This is a remarkable vision of this new subcreation, which Urizen and, inadvertently, Los are forging, as an inseperable part of the human body. Los’ feelings of pity for Urizen cause further corporeal division and the distillation of a system of planetary bodies. The raw fibres of emotion pour off his back and join with the tumbling streams of his hair, hanging downward and covering the head which he holds despairingly between his hands. Los’ body, like that of Urizen, is depicted in terms of the Romantic landscape; inner and outer topography conjoined. ‘Life in cataracts poured down his cliffs/The void shrunk lymph into Nerves/Wandring wide on the bosom of night/And left a round globe of blood/Trembling upon the void’. A bloody planet ‘conglobes’ from the deliquescing matter of Los’ body; it could be a depiction of the early, roiling, red-hot days of the earth’s formation as the solar system was being drawn together. It’s an amazing blend of science fiction and mythology, reminding me of the way in which Roger Zelazny blended genre material with tales from the Hindu scriptures in his 1967 novel Lord of Light. Blake describes how ‘The globe of lifeblood trembled/Branching out into roots:/Fibrous, writhing upon the winds:/Fibres of blood, milk and tears’. This planetary body becomes the first female form, known as Enitharmon.

Plate 17 is subtitled ‘In the female death became new life’. The first woman is formed from the matter of Los’ pity, the new planetary body given human form. The verses on this plate are in the bottom half with stalks and vines rising to flower into the figures of Los and Enitharmon. There is a division between the coppery fire (a reflection, perhaps, of the copper plates in which the outlines of these images were etched) from which Enitharmon rises and the darkness in which Los curls in exhaustion and womb-like retreat. Los comforts Enitharmon, refusing to abandon her having brought her into existence. Blake describes how ‘Los saw the Female and pitied./He embraced her, she wept she refused/In perverse and cruel delight/She fled from his arms, yet he followd’. Further division ensues as they give birth to a child which will become Orc, the spirit of human energy, rebellion and revolution in Blake’s mythological scheme. The flames from which Enitharmon is retreating are from the forge of creation. They anticipate ‘the birth of the Human shadow’. It is not a joyful birth, however, as the downturned cast of her mouth and anguished eyes make plain.

Blake’s singular example of the unification of word, artisanal technique and visionary image was essentially inimitable, and his works were little understood or appreciated in his lifetime. His insistence on the validity of his own imaginative worlds in the face of indifference or derision made him a huge influence on ensuing Romantic artists, even if he was at odds with the Romantic temperament himself. His self-created mythology was an act of world-building which finds a place in the long and continuing tradition of the fantastic in the arts. It was out of kilter with the rationalist philosophy of the age, against which Blake’s work was partly a reaction. Perhaps it means more in the modern age, in which the idea of the fantastic is once more an accepted aspect of art and literature, and for which it offers a countervailing worldview to the all-pervasive culture of materialism.

Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom
Blake’s contemporary, friend and sometime collaborator Henry Fuseli made a far greater impact in his time, achieving considerable recognition and critical approval. He explored the creative possibilities of nightmares, mining deeply into his morbid imagination. Something of his self-image can be seen in his Self-Portrait As A Faun. Leering with a sensuous, full-lipped mouth, it is a self-conscious depiction of an inner self which revelled in its own licentiousness, uninhibited by any sense of conventional moral limitations. It’s an image, and implied philosophy, which anticipates the spirit of Surrealism. Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, from 1781, has become a defining and much imitated image of the terrors of dark dreams, and the murky layers of the subconscious from which they emerge. The painting on display her, Titania and Bottom, depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was a favourite with the Romantics. The central figures, including Bottom with his transfigured donkey’s head, are surrounded by the deep darkness of the forest at night, from which a proliferating horde of grotesque creatures emerge. Fuseli lets his imagination fly in creating demonic transformations of the human form, hybrids spliced together in the laboratory of the mind. His night creatures are genuinely menacing, hoodlum homunculi with wicked grins, intent on malicious mayhem. One sullen old miniaturised fellow is kept on a leash, as if he is too frightful to be let loose even amongst this mob. Or perhaps he is an ageing changeling, grown wizened and stunted from his time in fairyland, and kept now as a grudgeful and spite-filled pet. Across the central hallway of the Tate, in the Art and the Sublime display (which has now ended, I belatedly note) which acts as an adjunct to this exhibition, can be found Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, from 1812. This shows the scene in which Macbeth emerges from the murder of King Duncan, and is met by Lady Macbeth. The blood on the daggers and on his clothes provides the only primary colour in the picture. Macbeth and his Lady are depicted as pallid ghosts, outlined in spectral white against the darkness, doomed forever to re-enact their bloody acts.

Richard Dadd - A Bacchanalian Scene
The opening of inner worlds has its inherent dangers. Journey too far and too thoroughly inward and pre-existent fractures can be widened, precipitating mental dissolution. Richard Dadd stands as an exemplar of such a fate, succumbing to a psychotic breakdown which resulted in the murder of his father and his spending the rest of his life in the asylum at Bedlam, and later Broadmoor. Angela Carter’s radio play Come Unto These Yellow Sands mixes a mock-critical assessment of his life and paintings with a biographical depiction of the way in which the worlds of the imagination can overwhelm the artist who leaves him or herself open to their influence. Dadd’s most famous picture, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which he painted over many years in Bedlam (finally finishing it in 1864), is included here, alongside his Bacchanalian Scene from 1862. The latter is like a close-up of some of the spectators of the Fairy Feller’s incipient blow. Curving and spiralling twists of grass in the foreground give an idea of the miniaturised scale, a jungle in the greensward. The figures sipping from the bacchanalian cup and peering sideways out at us have strangely compressed features, with almond, slightly oriental eyes. Perhaps these reflected some of the people he had come across his travels in the Near and Middle East, during which he had begun to lose his mind. The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke is packed with similarly compressed figures, all gathered amongst the grasses, lichens and daisies. The more closely you look, the more creatures emerge, all either engaged in their own activities or watching to see the Fairy Feller wield his axe. In the upper left hand corner, a daddy long-legs blows a long, spindly trumpet, a fanfare for the blow which will split the carefully placed sweet chestnut in two. The compression of Dadd’s fairy creatures suggest a delicate airiness which feels the weight of gravity pressing heavily down upon them, as well as the pressure of the artist’s over-fertile imagination on his own head.

Dadd’s paintings tend to be very compact in size, whilst at the same time containing a wealth of painstaking detail. This is at the opposite end to the grand scale of the Romantic sublime, which revels in great and overwhelming scale, the subject matter sometimes extending to he size of the painting itself. This can be immediately seen as you enter the gallery in which the Art and the Sublime exhibition is hung, and your eye is immediately drawn to the huge canvases of James Wards’ Gordale Scar and John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings. These depictions of outer and inner worlds exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both contain immensities, stretching the limits of human perception by staring at the great and the small and seeking to break through to what lies beyond. Looking hard enough in both directions, outward and inward, it becomes evident that both are contained one within the other, as John Crowley suggests in his modern novel of fairy worlds intersecting with the real, Little Big; A self-reflecting recession of images caught between two mirrors.

Samuel Palmer - Evening
Another painter who tended to work on a very small scale was Samuel Palmer. He was greatly influenced by William Blake, whom he knew towards the end of his life. Palmer created a dream of an Arcadian Albion, a rural paradise which he drew from his imaginative recasting of the Darenth Valley around Shoreham, in Kent. This is an area I know well, having been frequently driven there as a child. It’s within easy reach of the South London suburbs, and like much of the ‘garden’ of Kent, is now enmeshed in a gridwork of busy transport links rushing towards the capital. Thankfully, a proposed motorway development which would have plunged through the heart of the valley was fought off, but the insect hum of traffic along its alternate ridgeway route is now a permanent background drone, along with the regular dervish whoosh of passing Eurostar trains. Palmer’s landscapes are often bathed in the glow of a burnished autumnal light, or illuminated by a full and round waxing moon. They are usually set during harvest time. Having said which, the painting displayed here, A Dream In the Apennines (1864), is on a relatively large scale, and is taken from his travels on the continent. It does have a similarly calm, bucolic air, however. Palmer didn’t seek the grandiose spectacle of the sublime when he went abroad. The figures here are perfectly at home in this landscape. Rome is a distant dream on the plain down below, a series of shadows beneath the pastel colours of the sunset sky. Grapes and goats replace wheat and sheep, but otherwise the atmosphere is much the same as it is in the Shoreham pictures. The mezzotint Evening, from 1834, is more typical, with its depiction of a shepherd dozing beside his obedient flock, recumbent beneath a sickle moon.

Palmer created a reverie of a golden age which never really existed outside of his imagination. A drowsy and dreamlike countryside expunged of poverty and starvation, mud and rain, and the back-breaking round of hard labour. His Shoreham was a pocket paradise, akin to what John Clute, in the Encylopedia of Fantasy, calls a polder. This is a word which derives from Dutch and indicates a low lying area of land reclaimed from surrounding water and maintained against further encroachment with ditches and dykes. Clute adopts it to describe those enchanted valleys or villages which are protected from the corrosive effects of the world which surrounds them. His definition, in terms of fantastic art and literature, describes ‘an active microcosm, armed against the potential wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. Samuel Palmer turned Shoreham into a polder of the mind, which he elucidated in his paintings, and into which he attempted to escape, a disappearing act which became increasingly difficult at the Victorian age built up a head of steam. The autumnal atmosphere and preference for late afternoon or sunset hues which colour his vision of an earthly paradise suggests that Palmer conceded his dream world was not eternal, and would soon pass.

I have drawn comparison elsewhere between Palmer’s paintings and the similarly contained and deliberately artificial stage-set world of the film A Company of Wolves, which was scripted by Angela Carter from her original recasting of the matter of fairy tales. Its forest setting is created from the imagination of an adolescent girl, and is another dreamworld which seems fragile and subject to disintegration upon waking. The film is an indication of how Palmer’s vision of an English paradise has proven intoxicating enough to endure, however. It proved to be a major influence on the Neo-romantics, the artists who emerged between the wars in the twentieth century, and revived the traditions of Romanticism in a new form. Their debt to Palmer is most explicitly acknowledged here in Graham Sutherland’s Cray Fields, which is a pastiche of the style of his engravings. The sun shines with a brilliant radiance through a copse of hop poles which stands on the edge of a wheat field, in which two men are working, bent under heavy loads. A star hangs above, visible even in daylight, keeping watch over this blessed landscape. Sutherland’s landscapes would become much more violent and less cultivated over time. He, like the other Neo-romantics, incorporated elements of modernism, recasting the Romantic vision in a twentieth century context. Figures were depicted in more geometrical forms, landscapes moved more towards a semi-abstraction, and the whole was subjected to Cubist fracture and the suggestive juxtaposition of unrelated objects favoured by the Surrealists.

Graham Sutherland - Entrance to a Lane
Sutherland’s Green Tree Form:Interior of Woods is a gnarled head of twisted protuberances, covered in lichenous green and set on a long grey tubular body. It could be a grotesque, barnacle encrusted creature of the deeps. His Entrance to a Lane is an abstracted landscape whose elements are jumbled up, and whose horizontal plane seems to be curling back up and over towards the viewer like a crashing wave. The grey of the road, with its white line, is like a tongue leading towards the maw of the thicketed wood. There seems to be a disembodied bicycle wheel beside the road, just in front of this portal, but of the cyclist, there is no sign. Welsh Landscape with Roads is a similarly unforgiving depiction of an elemental and indifferent nature, with a distended, blood-red sun hanging on the horizon like an unfriendly UFO. A figure is running down the mustard yellow road, arms thrown up in apparent fear. There are what seem to be the shapes of corn ricks, upon which the red sun casts its baleful light, in one circular field, although they could equally be the preparations for some ritual, the enactment of which the figure is attempting to flee. The ominous, ritualistic feel of the landscape is completed by the jagged sheep’s skull which lies in the bottom left corner. It looks like it could be a remnant of some far off Mesozoic age, whose atmosphere this land still exudes. The Black Landscape is again inspired by the Welsh landscape. A tarry and black mountain, redolent of the coal which lies beneath it, looms under a pink sky (lit by a pink moon?) In the foreground, fractured (possibly mined) gray fields of slate reflect the sky. A fistful of hardy plants are outlined on the horizon of the hill to the left. The mountain reaches a sharply clawed hand towards them. The whole landscape looks like a beast on the verge of rising with a devouring hunger.

Paul Nash - Pillar and Moon
Paul Nash (who I wrote about a while back) is represented by several paintings here. Totes Meer is one of his well-known pictures from the Second World War, and indicates his affinity with Surrealism. A dead sea of airplane wreckage sluggishly washes up on a sandy shore, piling up into a jagged tideline. It’s a bleak, wintry scene, lit by a cold moon. You can almost hear the grind and rasp of rusting metal, the harsh wartime replacement for the soothing rhythms of waves breaking and receding. The Flight of the Magnolia, from 1944, is another Surrealist work, in which the white petals of the blossom float hugely in the sky, the floral equivalent of one of Magritte’s apples or boulders. It harks back to Constable’s cloud studies or Turner’s hazy blurring of built-up horizon and sky. The flower merges with or emerges from the clouds, which themselves are scarcely distinguishable from the ocean waves. It seems almost to be crushing the distended, egg-like shape of the moon, which appears like a petal which has been torn off. The blossom also resembles the unfolding petals of a parachute. It is an emblem of life during wartime, a transient and fleeting thing which feels all the more precious as a result. The flower of the imagination is given free, if temporary, flight. Pillar and Moon is more typical of Nash’s evocation of the spirit of place of the English landscape, and of his imbuing of it with a deeply personal solar and lunar symbolism. Here, the stone globe atop the pillar is linked by the elevated runway of the treeline to the rocky sphere of the moon, a branch line to the heavens. The row of trees recedes in diminishing perspective before curving to the right, dividing sky from earth. The trees cast moonshadows which spread out to connect with the grey stone wall, the pillar itself standing like a geometrical treeshadow. There is a sense of yearning conveyed by the picture, a gulf which will never be bridged. The pillar becomes almost like one of Caspar David Friedrich’s figures, gazing out to sea. The pillar and trees also stand in for the megaliths of Avebury and the twin hills of the Wittenham Clumps which were the signature features of Nash’s most powerful landscape paintings, but which are absent from this exhibition.

John Piper - Seaton Delaval
John Piper’s Seaton Delaval, from 1941, is a picture of a ruined castle in Northumberland designed by John Vanbrugh in the 18th century. Piper was commissioned to draw numerous pieces of England’s architectural heritage during the war, to create a record in the event of their destruction. Seaton Delaval had already been destroyed by fire in 1822, and its state served as a premonition of the fate which might befall other grand country seats. The bland façade of the building looks like a theatrical flat propped up against a painted backdrop. It is boldly outlined, and smudged with the colours of firelit nightime. The pink, red and orange over the door look like they have been blended from carefully aimed theatrical spotlights. Perhaps they are cast by the flames of a November bonfire, or by the conflagration of a bombing raid. The idea of the Romantic ruin is now the prospect of the war damaged rubble after an air raid.

Keith Vaughan - Cain and Abel
Two other Neo-Romantic artists featured here focus on the human form rather than the landscape. Michael Ayrton tackles the Biblical subject of The Temptation of St Anthony, which had stirred the imaginations of Matthias Grunewald in the 16th century, and Max Ernst in the twentieth to lurid heights of delirious grotesquerie. Ayrton’s tableau is considerably more restrained, and a lot less explicit in its violence. St Anthony is still twisted in agonised contortions, but there is a sense that his pain is located more in his head than in any mortifications meted out on his flesh. His tormentors are more recognisably human than the sharp fanged and clawed devils who attack Grunewald and Ernst’s St Anthony. The man and woman who stand on either side of him are in starkly contrasting states of health, he bony and emaciated, she plumply voluptuous. A figure in the foreground, his cranium distended into a bulbous balloon, seems to have snatched the cruciform staff from the saint’s hands, and is kneeling in mock supplication. These are the demons of Anthony’s mind. Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, from 1946, depicts the brothers as stark, granitic figures, like sculptural forms. Cain cradles Abel in his arms, the jawbone with which he has killed him still clutched in his right hand. It is an archetypally powerful image. They are isolated against a featureless volcanic landscape, which resembles the location used by Pasolini in the primal episodes featuring speechless cannibal bandits in Pigsty (Porcile). The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey also comes to mind. Or they could be characters in a Samuel Beckett play, marooned in the externalised desert of their inner landscape. For a painting created just after the end of the war, it has an obvious resonance with the age.

A contemporary reflection on the legacy of Romanticism is found in a collection of modern photography gathered under the title British Landscape: Photography After the Picturesque. I have to say, in all honesty, that the purpose of these pictures completely passed me by, and I was in all likelihood suffering from gallery fatigue by this time anyway. Who know, to the receptive viewer they might prove revelatory. The exhibition as a whole brings together a disparate selection of the Tate’s collection, and makes it clear what a sustained influence the idea of Romanticism has had on the artistic imagination (and on the general notion of what an artist is). It’s an idea which has become so all-pervasive that it no longer really needs a label. Maybe Chatterton didn’t die in vain after all.

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