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Exhibition Review - William Blake at Tate Britain

By Marie Louise Edwards

     
  “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s  
  I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”
 
  William Blake  

The visceral, embodied, engaging and inviting nature of Blake’s imagery pulls our gaze into a state of wonder at his life experience. In contrast, the Tate Britain exhibition of his work involved long queues of seemingly ‘entitled’ (and, given the cost, ‘privileged’) viewers resulting in a stagnant, austere and even repressive atmosphere. I found myself despairing at how something so authentic and soul-igniting could draw in, as far as I could see, an audience of predominantly system-serving, well-dressed, navel-gazing intellectuals…

Did you notice how, in my criticism of the pomposity, the perceived vitriol and the aloofness of others, I so blatantly display my own? Interesting isn’t it! Could it be that I, too, considered that I understood Blake’s work more deeply and with less affectation than those around me? Did everyone at the exhibition feel that way? Perhaps many of our souls were genuinely touched by his relentless, expressive endeavours.

Blake had a deep relationship with both the seen and unseen worlds. He was described by many as an eccentric, a radical or even ‘mad’. Others saw him as a genius who was able to express potently his inner vision through words and pictures. To me, Blake’s vital works illuminate the depths of the nature of our reality, enabling us to realise the blossoming of soul and spirit within. I feared that the exhibition was, at best, a tokenistic nod to another way of being that was not genuinely valued and that his contributions were still perceived as a commodity, imaginary or an ‘ideal’. On the flip side perhaps, visitors are simply met with the medicine that is needed. If Blake’s message and life journey does not captivate the conscious mind, it may send untold messages to the unconscious which can generate a way out of the malaise of human subjugation. Even those who are apparently ‘successful’ in our current culture are still internally poor if they have not been able to actualise the fullness of their own unique creativity.

In our market-driven world no-one is truly ‘seen’, we are all frequently attempting to demonstrate, to outwardly tender, our worth in some way. Blake, in his time, was able to recognise that the Art World had been hijacked. As the exhibition curators, (possibly ironically), stated:

“The conflict between such aims and the realities of an increasingly tough, cynical and market-driven art world would be a shaping force in Blake’s creative life.” (Excerpt from Tate Britain guide, 2019)

As the Industrial Revolution, with its ‘dark satanic mills’, was robbing humanity of many facets of its sovereignty and creative expression, thrusting more of the population into deeper levels of poverty, Blake wrote:

“And all the arts of life they chang’d into the arts of death in Albion.”

And yet, despite the challenges of his time, he retained his ability to share his visions. Within the accompanying information detailed in the Tate Britain guide, it was explained how a young Blake had been influenced by the work of a few notable artists of that period, including James Barry and Henry Fuseli. Blake resonated with their desire to make great works that captured the drama and brutality of the era, whilst at the same time expressing a moral and political commentary. Yet Blake surpassed this commitment, highlighting such issues by sharing his deep faith in the spiritual journey of humanity.

A career on the outskirts of society was to be his trajectory, at times interacting with the mainstream. As he grew older, a selection of younger artists supported and celebrated his works viewing him as a beacon for “creative integrity and spiritual authenticity”. This challenge remains a reality for the radical, often ‘unknown’ and marginalised artists of our times who have, as best as they can, refused to solicit their talents for material gain and recognition. Integrity and self-expression are indeed too precious to be costed.

One of my favourites on display was his later, seminal, piece, "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion". This epic tale depicts the salvation of humanity through what could be seen as an integration of polarities, an eventual emergence from the moral dramas of our times. The cultural fixation on wars between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are rendered obsolete as Universal Humanity awakens to forgiveness. We recognise that we all have had a part to play in this game of separation, a humbling but liberating notion. It feels good to believe that we are right, that only we hold the truth, that we might be ‘better than’ or more enlightened than others. But despite these wild fantasies, that is all that they are. We all make mistakes, we all do beneficial things. We are just wonderfully ‘human’.

So, what relevance does William Blake and his contributions have with regards to permaculture and the North of England? From his high vantage point over "Jerusalem", Blake was able to see the scope and range of human experience. His vision was not limited, his observation was penetrating and, heroically, he held the space for ideas that embrace the wholeness of Nature.

In his famous lyric, Jerusalem (which is the preface to his work on Milton):

     
  “And did the countenance divine  
  Shine forth upon our clouded hills?  
  And was Jerusalem builded here  
  Among these dark satanic mills?”  
   

Blake suggests that Jerusalem may have been ‘builded here’ among the "dark satanic" mills. I invite us to take this supposition literally, especially as we are dealing with both the rational and the divine unknowable. The definition of Jerusalem can be interpreted as “the city of peace”, “the foundation of peace” or “rein of peace”. For peace to be possible we must recognise that the ‘war’ is won within; that as we heal ourselves, we heal the world. However, we also need to repair the damage that has been wrought upon our planet in our blindness, taking responsibility for the impact that humanity has had.

Abarim publications, who review the Hebrew meaning of words, suggest that “Jerusalem was to be the radiating heart of a world of completion and wholeness.” A peaceful world would be a harmonious world and I know of no better teacher than Nature herself. So, as permaculture designers and artists both, there are great works of creativity for us to engage with. As Blake once foretold:

     
  “All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient druid rocky shores.”
 
   

Let us move towards experiencing times of peace, prosperity and permaculture in living systems that have not been imposed upon us by any other man.

Marie and the mills

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