Tracey Emin and William Blake in focus. Tate Liverpool. 10-03-17.

My Bed, Tracey Emin 1998, and Nebuchadnezzer, William Blake 1795-c1805

Tracey Emin and William Blake are an interesting pairing for an exhibition. Their work shares a keen sense of draughtmanship and the use of a strong dramatic line- Tracey Emin can draw quite beautifully, something which people who have not seen much of her work don’t always realise, and for Blake his ability as a draughtsman was at the core of his skill as a master printmaker. More than anything though it is the deeply personal, dramatic nature of their work that links them for me. Everything that Emin makes or draws is searingly honest and direct, straight from the heart, and when you look at Blake’s work you can see his demons being exorcised and driven straight onto the page. Blake had little recognition in his own lifetime, he was often thought of as mad, thanks to his headstong temperament and unconventional behaviour. He was a true visionary who went his own way and produced work that proved to be both ground breaking and influential. A true original. Tracey Emin has done the same in her career to date, attracting a lot of praise along with some criticism, particularly for work like My Bed, which she made in 1998.

Nebuchadnezzer, who lived from c.605-c.562 was the second king of the Babylonian empire, a powerful, warlike all conquering figure who enlarged the empire which he inherited from his father and embarked on great civic projects, temples, processional roads and bridges. Blake has chosen to show him in not in his pomp but in his later years, when he became a vulnerable elderly man, irrational and suspicious of even his family. This led to the break down of his empire in the years after his death. It is a powerful image in which we can still see the power and dignity of a once great ruler, reduced to an almost animal like state as he crawls along the ground, naked and unkempt. His hair is long and wild, dragging along the wet ground and his nails are uncut, making his hands and feet look like great clawed paws. We can still see the strength of his muscles and the bulging blood vessels but this strength is now achieving nothing. He stares out, wide eyed, unsure of where he is or what he is doing. It is an image of desperation, a cry for help.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is also a cry for help from the year 1998, almost twenty years ago now. It records the moment when she looked at the wreckage of her bed, in effect the wreckage of her life, and realised I can make Art out of this. I can survive. I can grow. It records a turning point in her life. We are so used to seeing this work now that the bravery and originality of removing the object wholesale and placing it in a gallery, exactly as it was, as a record of the squalor and pain of that moment, is hard to appreciate. It is an object so powerful that even people who have little interest in Art will often have something to say about it. There are strong opinions and controversy, perhaps because there is no visible skill on show. “We could all do that”. Well perhaps we could……….. but we didn’t, did we? The power of that moment when Tracey Emin DID do that still resonates. Unless we are very lucky we have all had those desperate moments when life reached a turning point for us and this bed represents those moments. It was rock bottom for Emin. The only way was up. Her creativity would save her- just as it did William Blake. So long as they could continue to produce Art they could both survive.

Innocence and Experience. Tate Liverpool. Curated by Marianne Faithfull.

Marianne Faithfull has curated a small two room exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Innocence and Experience, and it is an absolute delight. It is full of things which are both interesting or beautiful in their own right and which also shed light on her life and times, in particular the 1960’s when she was right at the heart of the celebrity and music culture of the time, young, free and beautiful. Her own personality becomes clear by stealth as you walk around what she has chosen and find works which are often unsettling and thoughtful as well as lovely to look at. She is there in the exhibition herself, via the famous 1976 portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe, but there is no sense of an over inflated ego here, the choices have been far too honestly and precisely made.

I have picked out a few of the pieces which moved and interested me most. Please click on the link in each title if you would like to see the image from the Tate collection.

Greer and Robert on the bed. Nan Goldin. 1982.

Nan Goldin is a wonderful photographer with a compassionate and truthful eye. This is a very painterly image which has an unearthly almost pre-raphaelite beauty while remaining gritty and rooted in urban New York. The light is soft and forgiving and the composition very telling of the relationship which is being recorded.

 Francis Bacon. Study for Portrait II (after the life mask of William Blake). 1955.

This is the first Francis Bacon that I have seen that I think I might actually be able to live with. It has a resigned, restful quality with the eyes closed and downcast. You watch and wait for them to open and they never will. It is a study in stasis, calm and emotionless, just a few pale colours on a black background. When people talk about resting in peace this is what they mean.

William Blake. Pity. C1795.

A beautiful nightmarish image of a rider and two ghostly horses moving forward at speed, charged with energy. A tiny figure, perhaps a child whose mother is the dead body lying at the bottom of the painting, pleading for them to stop and pay attention to the tragedy. The rider’s face looks down without emotion, seeing without feeling. It is not clear whether the child is being caught up in the arms of the rider and rescued or begging for help in vain. The breakneck speed of the horses makes me fear the worst. There is a wonderful contrast between the movement and energy of the horses and the still centre of the image where pity is being shown. It captures the fleeting, chance nature of pity. We pity those who we do not know well, those whose plight comes to our attention by chance, not those we know well and are in a position to help. Then pity becomes compassion, a more stable and sustaining emotion.

Richard Dadd. The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. 1855-1864.

A small, obsessively worked and intricate image. The master stroke referred to in the title is the creation of Queen Mabs chariot by the chopping in two of a chestnut shell. We are shown the instant in which this happens in front of an audience of fairy folk. It is a fine piece of storytelling which you need to really get up close to before you see the unsettling beauty of it. Dadd was a troubled man who probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent many years in Bethlem hospital where he was allowed to paint. You can feel the tension of a disturbed mind in this highly charged image but also enjoy the beauty which he was still able to create.

Pietro Manzoni. Artist’s Breath. 1960.

When I blow up a balloon, I am breathing my soul into an object which becomes eternal.”

Manzoni was one of the pioneers of conceptual art. The withered scrap of perished red balloon which still remains stuck to the plinth was once new and full of his breath. That scrap of rubber is a poignant reminder of mortality, especially as he died at the early age of 30 three years after making it. He and his breath are now gone, yet in a way he is still there in what is left of his gesture as the work has been transformed into something new by time. He is still able to make us think and wonder.

Two Plants. Lucian Freud. 1977-1980.

This is a large virtuoso piece of painting making two plants which are nothing special, in fact they are very ordinary, into something to marvel at by recording their subtle shades of green, depth and texture to perfection. It is about seeing beauty in the ordinary everyday life around us, noticing the small things and celebrating them.

Richard Long. England 1968.

A simple cross in a grassy field full of daisies has been made by Long himself, walking backwards and forwards over the grass, and then photographed. It is a wonderful image of fragility and impermanence. Nothing is for ever. The world is vulnerable and we should tread lightly on it, remembering to be humble as vulnerable beings ourselves. A principle of hippy culture which needs to be remembered more than ever today.

The works chosen by Marianne Faithfull explore ideas of unsettling beauty, fragility and impermanence, and they are given a soundtrack by David Tremlett’s The Spring Recordings from 1972, long lost birdsong and memories of a spring which was taped back then and now exists only as a poignant memory. It is an exhibition about living on the edge and in the moment, realising that everything in life is just for now, and questioning what you see around you. I loved it very much.

In Lambeth. Love and Madness theatre company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 11-03-10

It is 1789, the evening before the storming of the Bastille, and at the start of In Lambeth Catherine and William Blake are stark naked up a tree, enjoying the evening air, while the visionary poet points out the angels that he can see to his beautiful, down to earth and tolerant wife. This is a rather a lovely way to start and also a nice theatrical shorthand which tells us everything we need to know about this loving and unconventional couple within a short space of time. They even come down from their tree still naked to greet their notorious visitor, the “bogey man” revolutionary Tom Paine, who is a wanted man with too many enemies. He is suitably shocked by their flaunting of convention, but during the course of the play it proves to be Tom who has the more radical and socially challenging ideas. As they argue, fuelled by Catherine Blake’s good food and common sense, the two thinkers come to a kind of understanding which illustrates Blake’s idea that “opposition is true friendship”. While Blake has an astonishing creative imagination, able to visualise and speak with angels and take on the most radical visionary ideas, allowing them to flower in his poetry, he is unable to accept Paine’s argument that radical social change is needed for the flawed and very real society around him, whatever the cost. Blake understands that society is unjust and wants to see change, of course, but he needs to be sure of his motives for wanting to change society and be sure that there is no self interest or hidden personal reason behind them before he acts on them. He needs to understand all the possible outcomes of social change and think them through while Paine is a man of action, wanting to take his chances with the present moment and make decisions one step at a time. It is a fascinating duel of words as the two men challenge and provoke each other. Initially their common desire for change in an unjust society hides the fact that they are poles apart, but this is an unavoidable conclusion which they both finally have to accept.

This kind of play is difficult to write and it takes a brave man to try. Putting famous names from the past up there on stage and inventing dialogue for them is fraught with danger. Jack Shepherd’s play, first seen in 1989 avoids all the pitfalls very nicely and proves itself to have stood the test of time. The dialogue is clever and believable, laced through with ideas and quotes from two great men without ever managing to make you feel that you are being given a history lesson. The acting matches the text, it is fast and naturalistic with a lot of force, never overplayed. Jack Shepherd plays Tom Paine with enormous conviction. He doesn’t need to shout his way around the stage for us to believe that he is a man driven by his passion for social justice and dangerous to his enemies. Lisa Bielby is charming as Blake’s wife. She is clearly the anchor whose steadfast practical and emotional support allows her husband to dream his visions, paint and draw, and write his verse. Luke Shaw, as Blake, has just the right light behind his eyes to make you believe in his genius and see the toll it takes on him. He makes the angels and ghosts that he sees live for the audience and we feel his vulnerability and essential goodness. Neil Sheppeck’s direction was invisible, which is always a good thing, and allowed us to focus on the central argument of the play.

A thought provoking and lively piece of theatre, full of ideas and conviction.