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Cloud & Vision: Any figure challenging the society around them will always be inspirational


Feature: James Haddrell

FROM 1790-1800, the printmaker, painter, poet and philosopher William Blake spent the most productive decade of his life living at 13, Hercules Buildings in Lambeth.

For the fifth in their series of summer exhibitions at the Museum Of Garden History, the Lambeth based commissioning group, Parabola, has brought together eight contemporary artists and four writers to explore the extraordinary work produced in this ten year period by one of this country’s most unique artists.

The Museum of Garden History is located in the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth, turning the historic place of worship into a celebration of that oh-so-English past-time, gardening.

This might seem an unlikely place for eight modern artists to come together and exhibit their work - side by side and jostling for space with a collection of artefacts from horticultural history - but as Parabola curator, Danielle Arnaud explains, for an exhibition inspired by Blake there really could not be a better place.

"For Parabola the context of the art we commission, the place where it will be seen and the historical relevance of the work are all very important.

"In this case, William Blake lived 200 yards away from the church, and could see it from his window. Whilst he was certainly not a traditionally religious man in eighteenth century terms, he would likely have walked into the church at some point."

Borough-based artist Andy Harper, one of the eight artists involved in the show, adds: "Blake had a very personal relationship with this church, and it wasn’t a positive one. He was a very spiritual man, but this church charged a fee to sit in a pew which excluded a lot of people.

"Now that the church has been taken over by this slightly eccentric museum, and the entry fee is entirely voluntary, it feels like the right time to bring Blake inside."

The eight artists and four writers involved in the exhibition all came to the project with different levels of knowledge about Blake.

"I did not simply choose artists who were already interested in Blake," explains Arnaud. "I was interested in their ability to work around a theme, and in their different artistic methods.

"We wanted to explore different approaches to Blake, so we have some painting, some embroidery, some text, some new media – and, of course, we have Polly Gould’s live demonstration of how a printing press actually worked in Blake’s time."

The exhibition is relatively small – by the time you have walked through the two sets of double doors to enter the museum you have already walked past four of the ten exhibits - and several of the pieces are very small themselves, but many of the artists have considered the peculiarities of the space in their work.

Manuela Ribadneira has grown a giant ‘&’ out of the grass in the churchyard, sitting half seen among the gravestones. So often used by Blake to unite opposite ideas – as in this exhibition’s title, Cloud & Vision, taken from a poem about the French revolution - the typographical symbol here seems to grow out of the graveyard, embodying that idea of opposition, somehow laid to rest among the dead but still alive.

David Burrows’ sculptural answer to Blake’s poem, Sick Rose, seems to break through the very foundation of the church, with brightly coloured flowers growing from a mass of glittering black dirt, their sickness spewing violently from each flower and mingling with strangely placed, half-buried items – a vest, a child’s shoe – glimpsed beneath the ground.

Andy Harper’s show-stopping An Orrery for Other Worlds is a giant globe suspended above the site of the original font, reclaiming the now vacant circular space. The near black globe is covered with white painted foliage, and slowly rotates, reminding us of the scientific interest in the planets that was raging in the eighteenth century.

"As much as he might have wanted to, Blake could not avoid the scientific revolution going on around him," explains Harper. "It wasn’t that he thought the scientific discoveries of people like Newton were wrong. He just rejected the totality of that scientific approach, he wanted to challenge the way that science was seen to have the answer to everything, he wanted to turn the natural order upside down.

"When I was asked to take part in this exhibition, I had just come back from South Africa, so I had just crossed the equator, and I was thinking about how random it is that we have these ideas of up and down, or north and south, with up always more important.

"I wanted to have the globe hanging, and turning, with an equator, but with no obvious difference between the two halves. I wanted to question what we all think of as the natural order, in the same way that Blake did."

Annie Whiles has also focused on Blake’s battle with science, recalling his earliest original design - an etching called Glad Day.

Blake’s illustration features a glorified male figure derived from the Vitruvian man - the naked man surrounded by a square and a circle used most famously by Leonardo da Vinci to signify the perfection of the human form.

However, Blake’s figure has broken free of the geometric prison, and where the previous versions of the figure emphasised man’s place at the centre of the scientific, geometric world, Blake’s figure is a celebration of man’s emotional and spiritual self, free of the scientific boundaries of the world, the light exploding from him to illuminate, not rationalise, the world.

Whiles’ Rain On The Parade (pictured) sees Blake’s figure transposed to the modern day, walking down a catwalk with the same golden light surrounding him. However, all around the edges of the scene, the traditional English rain is falling, pooling at the man’s feet, and to one side of the catwalk four contemporary figures stand, wrapped up tightly in anoraks, the epitomy of bored onlookers.

Can a modern day viewer, Whiles seems to ask, still engage with the dramatic spirituality of Blake?

Blake claimed to have seen his first angel when he was ten-years-old, and to see visions for the rest of his life, but belief in both God and ghosts is fading fast in the modern world.

Science continues to move on, but the life-changing discoveries about our place in the universe and the nature of humanity that surrounded Blake have been replaced by developments in computer technology, far beyond the understanding of most people.

In this world, where the idealised human form is on display on every bill board and bus shelter in every street, can Blake’s vibrant spirituality, his determination to loosen the grip of science, and his love of humanity still offer us anything?

As an artist, Blake has certainly brought a change to Andy Harper’s work.

"I didn’t know much about Blake before getting involved in this project," he says, "but now he has made a real difference to my work.

"A lot of my previous work has dealt with images of real vegetation, but this is new ground for me. There is a poem by Blake that is accompanied by a picture of a plant, and no-one has ever been able to identify that plant, Blake just made it up.

"With that in mind, I made every plant on my sphere imaginary, just built up from painted brush strokes. You could say that this encounter with Blake has changed the way I approach my work – I’m not scared of words like ‘imaginary’ or ‘in the spirit of’ anymore. It’s made me feel free to bring more fantasy, or more of a sinister quality, to my work."

Curator Danielle Arnaud goes further. For her, it is not only artists who can be inspired by Blake.

"Blake has always been relevant," comments Arnaud decisively. "He represents a single figure trying to find his place in society.

"The great thing about Blake is that whoever you speak to, whether they work in the arts or not, they have a vague sense of who William Blake was – they’ve sung Jerusalem in church and heard that he wrote the lyrics, or they’ve heard the story about him and his wife dressed as Adam and Eve, reading Paradise Lost naked in their garden in Lambeth, or more often than not they’ve seen one of his etchings.

"Blake was an outsider in his own time, but that has a timeless quality. People will always look to that kind of role model - any figure challenging the society around them will always be inspirational…"

Cloud & Vision
Until September 4, 2005
Museum Of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, London. SE1
020 7401 8865; www.museumgardenhistory.org
Open 10.30-5.00, Monday-Sunday
Voluntary admission charge: £3 (concessions: £2.50).

Our picture shows Annie Whiles, Rain on the Parade, 2005

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