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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.” 

Until 1 March. More details:

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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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.