Assessing the Glow of ‘Blake’ and ‘Brilliant Women’

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions, reviews by Editor on September 22, 2009

Recent pieces from CAA.reviews address exhibition publications on William Blake at the Petit Palais in Paris and bluestockings at the National Portrait Gallery in London:

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Catherine de Bourgoing, ed., William Blake: Le Génie visionnaire du romantisme anglais, exhibition catalogue (Paris: Petit Palais and Musée de la Vie Romantique, 2009), 256 pages, €39 (9782759600779)

Exhibition schedule: Petit Palais and Musée de la Vie Romantique, Paris, April 2–June 28, 2009

Meredith Davis writes that

2242-2274-largeThis overdue exhibition was expansive and thorough, if not inspirational; it was beautifully installed in the Petit Palais’s well-appointed special exhibition rooms, but the roughly thematic groupings were at times opaque or barely articulated. Arguably, Blake is as much a poet as a visual artist, and with a museum show such as this, one inevitably favors the visual dimension of his art over the literary. Typically problematic in this sense are his “Illuminated Books.” Among his most important works, these hand-printed manuscripts are miniscule in some cases; many, including his Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789–94), were certainly not meant to be presented as individual framed sheets of paper, but rather as objects to be cradled in one’s hands or lap, like a book of hours or diary. . . .

Despite such inherent difficulties, the exhibition succeeded in creating several intimate spaces and in offering a comprehensive presentation of Blake’s range. Blake’s long absence from France was remedied, and French audiences did get a broad view of Blake’s world. However, it is not certain that they came away from the exhibition with anything like a clear vision of his art (to the extent that such a thing is possible). The exhibition did not begin with an introductory wall text as one typically finds in a similar exhibition in the United States. Instead viewers were launched straight into a series of modestly scaled rooms, arranged around major works, themes, or historical benchmarks. In some ways the exhibition seemed to take a cue from Blake himself. . . .

Michael Phillips’s excellent catalogue essay, “William Blake Graveur Visionnaire,” provides some much-needed and detailed information on Blake’s printing processes. Phillips offers a lucid discussion of Blake’s technical innovations in printmaking, as well as discusses the symbolic significance the medium took on for Blake, pointing out how the artist drew parallels, for example, between the corrosive action of the acid on the plate (in etching) and a similar corrosion of the soul. The catalogue’s overall format mirrors the exhibition itself in its avoidance of linear narrative, choosing again a thematic and multi-vocal presentation of the artist. It does not provide a roadmap to the exhibition in any sense, but is a stand-alone volume with high ambitions. There are, in all, a total of thirty essays in the volume, some of them as short as five hundred words, all of them in French. While some essays are informative, others seem to end abruptly, or to focus on esoteric topics. Nonetheless, this approach clearly demonstrates the many dimensions of Blake’s work, as well as the range of current approaches to it.

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Elizabeth Eger and Lucy Pelz, Brilliant Women: 18th-Century Bluestockings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). 160 pages; 84 color illustrations; 64 b/w illustrations, cloth $50 (9780300141030)

Exhibition schedule: National Portrait Gallery, London, March 13–June 15, 2008

Wendy Wassyng Roworth writes that

9780300141030YBrilliant Women is not a catalogue; however, all the works in the exhibition are splendidly illustrated, many in high-quality color or as full-page reproductions. Portraits of the bluestockings, their associates, and followers, along with engravings, drawings, caricatures, and Wedgwood plaques provide an abundance of visual material not usually available in studies of literary figures. Intended primarily for general readers and exhibition visitors, Brilliant Women does not break major new ground but offers an excellent overview of the bluestocking phenomenon. However, the authors’ focus on visual representations of learned women in portraits, book illustrations, and other pictorial forms and their analyses of how and why bluestockings were depicted by both admirers and critics makes this study useful for scholars of eighteenth-century art, literature, and history. This consideration of visual imagery contributes to a larger understanding of the vital role women played in the eighteenth-century republic of letters through their images as well as their works in ways that textual accounts alone cannot achieve. Whether disparaged and mocked in caricature, elevated as allegorical personifications, or portrayed as graceful ladies in fashionable dress, these images call attention to the complex identities of intellectually ambitious women.

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