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Divine machinations: William Blake, Apprentice and Master

William Blake’s “infernal method” is revealed in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Blake's Head of a Damned Soul. Picture: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

William Blake: Apprentice and Master
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Walk by the memorial to William Blake in Bunhill Fields in London almost any day of the year, and you will find offerings placed before it, underneath the fig tree that overhangs the spot: usually there is a jar with flowers and almost always there are coppers set along the curve of the stone. These quotidian oblations are testimony to the peculiar power of the visionary artist.

“If Italy is enriched and made great by Raphael, if Michael Angelo is its supreme glory, if Art is the glory of a Nation, if Genius and Inspiration are the great Origin and Bond of Society, the distinction my Works have obtained from those who best understand such things, calls for my Exhibition as the greatest of Duties to my Country,” he wrote in 1809, in advance of the only exhibition of his works during his lifetime. On a broadside produced to advertise his “paintings in fresco”, as he called them (his method was actually closer to tempera painting; he “tempered” his pigments with a binding agent), Blake set out a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Fit audience find, tho’ few”. He knew his worth; he knew, too, that others might not.

Bunhill (“bone hill”) Fields was the Dissenters’ burial ground; much less easily discovered there is any marker for Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert, who died in 1787 at the age of 24. It was Robert’s spirit that revealed to the artist, in a dream, “the mode of accomplishing the publication of his illustrated songs, without their being subject to the expense of letter-press”, as one of the earliest accounts of Blake’s life had it. As the guest curator Michael Phillips explains in his fine catalogue, Blake’s innovation in engraving “turned the conventional practice on its head”, so that instead of covering the plate’s surface with a ground and scratching the design into it, he treated the copper plate like a sheet of paper, using varnish like ink and writing his text directly on to the polished surface of the plate: the “infernal method”, as he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s technique was revolutionary; just how revelatory it was is demonstrated in the Ashmolean’s “William Blake: Apprentice and Master”, a concise and beautiful show that highlights his extraordinary technical skill.

The Ashmolean is on a roll when it comes to taking topics that might seem overexposed and considering them anew: the just-ended “Discovering Tutankhamun” cast fresh light on the pharaoh’s oft-told tale by highlighting Howard Carter’s remarkable drawings from the tomb’s excavation. And although it is true that the last big Blake show was nearly 15 years ago at the Tate, his work is reproduced so frequently that it’s easy to think there is no more to say or see.

The show is broken up into three sections, covering his childhood and apprenticeship, when he was engaged to James Basire, a London engraver, and sent out to study the city’s Gothic churches; his innovations in colour printing techniques in the last part of the 18th century; and finally his later career and that of the Ancients, as they called themselves: the young artists who became his disciples – Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert. It would be perfectly possible to look at everything the museum has on offer in an hour, if one were so inclined; and yet the show would reward a great many repeat visits.

Reproduction diminishes Blake and contains him. But viewed “live”, the relief and white-line etching of The Approach of Doom (c.1788), created in answer to a work of Robert’s, are viscerally free, vividly present; it is astonishing to think it was made well over two centuries ago. How was it made? A re-creation of Blake’s Lambeth studio in the centre gallery gives the viewer a good idea. Although the site of the studio – No 13 Hercules Buildings, on Hercules Road, SE1 – was razed in 1918, recently discovered plans show the house’s dimensions, and Phillips (a skilled printmaker who has re-created Blake’s illuminated books) gives insight, in this simple room with its wooden press, into Blake’s daily environment.

It is striking to see three images of The House of Death/The Lazar House (c.1795) set side by side; never before have they been displayed together this way, and each is so very different. Paler colours or greener tones alter the whole feel of the scene; Blake finished each colour-printed monotype with chalk, watercolour, Indian ink – whatever suited his needs. His artistic adventurousness can also be seen in the work of those who came after him. George Richmond’s The Creation of Light (1826) is thoroughly Blakean in its vision, in the musculature of the soaring figure at its centre; but the gold and silver that accentuate the tempera seem to anticipate the dazzling work of Gustav Klimt.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Blake’s imagination was not bounded by time; in his Lambeth garden with his wife, Catherine, he was at one with all the world for ever. “In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inventor,” Samuel Palmer wrote of him; “one of the few in any age . . . He was energy itself . . . To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter . . . Those may laugh at this who never knew such an one as Blake; but of him it is the simple truth.” 

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Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis