Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Blakespotting: Private Eye

The Private Eye letters pages regularly include “Lookalikes” where sometimes surprising visual resemblances are brought to our attention. The issue of 4-17 October 2019 features, on pages 21-22, no fewer than three Lookalikes and a Moggalike (Jacob Rees-Mogg appropriately paired with a relaxing kangaroo).

Here’s page 22 (click to enlarge)

And a detail comparing David Cameron (our second worse prime minister ever—forget Lord North—Boris Johnson wins that particular contest) with Blake’s image of Capaneus the Blasphemer in Dante’s Inferno, Canto XIV, 46-72. (Not Canopus, as per Private Eye.)

And here’s Blake’s full image currently on exhibition at Tate Britain

“Capaneus the Blasphemer”, pen and ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out (374 x 527 mm)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (Felton Bequest, 1920)

The scene takes place in the third ring of the seventh circle of Hell, where those who have done violence against God, nature or art are punished. Flames rise throughout the design, particularly around the reclining figure of Capaneus. Dante and Virgil stand at the left border of the design; Dante in red, Virgil in blue.

Dante's portrayal of Capaneus is based on the Thebaid (Thēbaïs), a late Roman Latin epic by Publius Papinius Statius (AD c.45—c.96). The poem deals with the Theban cycle and treats the assault of the seven champions of Argos against the city of Thebes. The theme was earlier dramatized by Aeschylus (c.525/524—c.456/455 BC) as Seven against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας).

A huge and powerful warrior-king who arrogantly defies his highest god, Capaneus is the archetypal blasphemer. It is striking that Dante selects a figure from pagan mythology to represent one of the few specifically religious sins punished in Hell. Dante describes him as proud and disdainful, apparently unaffected by the flames.

I well remember the impact of the great Blake exhibition at Tate in 1978, curated by Martin Butlin, which showed Blake as an “Old Master” and emphasised his work as a visual artist. It was followed by a splendid permanent Blake display, also arranged by Butlin, which was then destroyed on the orders of Nick Serota who thought it made Blake too much of a cult. (Were the special display cases with concave non-reflective glass just thrown away?) Subsequent Blake shows at Tate in 2000-01, in Paris in 2009, and at the Ashmolean Museum in 2014-15, have had different curatorial emphases on Blake as printmaker and poet.

With over 300 works on display, the new Tate exhibition (11 September 2019—2 February 2020) is the largest showing of Blake’s work for almost 20 years. It aims to rediscover him as "a visual artist for the 21st century". Particularly noteworthy is a splendid selection from the Dante illustrations. I know it’s such clichéd suggestion, but here I think we find him developing a late style with a new freedom in his handling of watercolour.

After a Brussels press conference (6 February 2019) in which he again made clear the withdrawal agreement was not up for renegotiation but that—as a gesture of goodwill—he was willing to entertain sensible alternative suggestions from the UK government, Donald Tusk, the EU council’s president, concluded with a simple thought. “I’ve been wondering,” he mused, “what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.” Name your circle of Hell for Johnson, Gove, May, the rest of the spivs and shysters, and Cameron, originator of the whole Brexit dégringolade.

J.I.M. Stewart, Oxford professor who wrote crime fiction as Michael Innes, was a corking snob—to that of his native Edinburgh Morningside he added a distinctively Oxford snobbery. (With our older universities, I make a clear distinction between Oxford snobbery and Cambridge arrogance. I may return to this theme in a later post.) I have long been puzzled by a passage in A Private View, one of the Michael Innes novels
Before the map was a long table with a battery of telephones. Now on one and now on another of these a red light glowed. Three constables were receiving and jotting down messages. Receiving these at a desk was a young man with a public-school face …
What on earth is a “public-school face”? Then I saw photographs of David Cameron. So that’s what he meant! From the Bullingdon Club to the seventh circle of Hell is no great distance at all.

William Blake, always relevant, on Brexit

                      The Harlots cry from Street to Street
                      Shall weave Old Englands winding Sheet
                      The Winners Shout the Losers Curse
                      Dance before dead Englands Hearse
                      Every Night & every Morn
                      Some to Misery are Born
                      Every Morn and every Night
                      Some are Born to sweet delight
                      Some are Born to sweet delight
                      Some are Born to Endless Night
                      We are led to Believe a Lie 

Sources and further reading

William Blake.—The complete poetry and prose; edited by David V. Erdman; with a new foreword and commentary by Harold Bloom.—Newly rev. ed.—Berkeley CA; London: University of California Press 2008.
My thanks to the pseudonymous tweep, “OperaCreep”, for reminding me of Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”.

Martin Butlin.—The paintings and drawings of William Blake.—2 vols.—New Haven CT; London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 1981.—#812.27.

John Crace.—“Donald Tusk's special place in hell looks like where we are right now.”—The Guardian (Wednesday, 6 February 2019).

Michael Innes.—A private view.—London: Gollancz 1952. Also published under the title: One-man show.—New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952.

Martin Myrone & Amy Concannon.—William Blake; with an afterword by Alan Moore.—London: Tate, 2019.

Private Eye, No 1506 (4 October—17 Oct. 2019).

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