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Reviews

Christopher Heppner, Reading Blake's Designs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 [1995]. ISBN: 0521473810 (hb 1995) 0521555620 (pb 1998). Price: £45/$74.95 (hb) £15/$24.95 (pb).

  • Brian Edgar

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  • Brian Edgar
    University of Exeter

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This is a lucid and intelligent book. It is full of thoughtful readings of Blake's designs, and Christopher Heppner has a number of interesting propositions to make about interpretative principles—ones which he is not afraid to make clearly and to defend with spirit. I wish, though, he had chosen a different title. At one level, Reading Blake's Designs balances cleverly between 'engaging in the process of' and 'successfully undertaking' exegesis, but, given the state of art criticism (and the same is true for studies of Blake's poetry and a fortiori for all investigations into 'Blake's composite art', no one is currently in a position to do more than offer a prolegomena to reading Blake, notes towards the satisfactory hermeneutics which may perhaps one day emerge.

The book has two major themes. In the early sections, Heppner argues that to Blake the body is the unit of meaning in history painting, and he pursues an investigation of 'Blake's quest for an expanded and more powerful vocabulary of expressive bodies'.  [1] He suggests that Blake moved (although not in a simple chronological progression) from a stereotyped mode of conveying emotion physically, one strongly influenced by the codification of gestural representation created by Le Brun, to a way of expressing emotion that involved the whole body, one which, although strongly influenced by 'schema' learnt from Michelangelo, left him enough room to develop 'his own style of expression' (54). Heppner convincingly analyses the early Robinson Crusoe Discovers the Footprint in the Sand as a figure drawn in close conformity to Le Brun's formula for 'admiration' (11), and he gives careful attention to the questions around the nature of Blake's knowledge of Michelangelo's work.

The book moves on to develop a thesis that will be more controversial: we must, Heppner argues, 'learn how to reconstruct the texts and names that underlie Blake's designs, and to understand better the ways in which he incorporated his meanings within them' (99). Heppner is well aware that what he calls the 'intellectual' aspect of Blake's art has to coexist with the artist's sense of 'visual balance' (xvl), but he is confident in his belief that Blake typically bases his work on texts, and the 'reader' can only proceed successfully if they find the right one. The title of the book takes on an added significance in what some will feel is a theory that places unwarranted emphasis on language and meaning at the expense of visual qualities, that promotes art's legibility rather than its resistance to hermeneutics, and Heppner's concessions are unlikely to mollify them. This is a huge debate, but the least I would claim for Heppner's position is that it makes for lively and illuminating commentaries.

In the course of developing his two main arguments, Heppner attacks a number of existing ideas about Blake's visual work, for example, that he is usually illustrating his own myth even when ostensibly dealing with unconnected subjects, that he typically subverts the meanings of the texts he illustrates and that it is possible to usefully label most of Blake's characters good or bad (82; 152; 175). Any reader will find some of these propositions more convincing than others, but Heppner always makes cases that need to be taken seriously. I cannot help feeling, though, that he underestimates what a problem it would have been for Blake to stick as closely as he suggests to the meaning of a Christian poet like Young! But then few critics have had a problem calling Blake himself a Christian, even though by the early 1790s he had rejected every important Christian doctrine and adopted a set of militantly anti-religious beliefs, so we are unlikely to be able to see works like the Night Thoughts illustrations properly until the whole culture of Blake studies has changed. The book ends with a set-piece reading, a long discussion of The Sea of Time and Space that unfortunately does not bear the weight implied by its length and concluding position. Heppner certainly shows the value of his hypotheses when they are applied to some of the details of the painting, but he has given us no more than another possible way of reading this complex work, and the dogmatism he sometimes falls into in this section is a sign of a certain unease.  [2] But even if it cannot quite fulfil its structural role, this account is certainly not a failure, and many of its particular suggestions are strongly and convincingly presented.

Heppner, then, has interesting ideas to develop and plenty of good things to say about specific works. But the principles embodied in these many-sided and flexible readings do not add up to an adequate programme for interpreting Blake's designs. I shall try to illustrate the strengths and limitations of his methods by an account of his dealings with Joseph's Brethren Bowing Before Him, one of three designs showing scenes from the story of Joseph that Blake exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785.

The painting shows Joseph's brothers, standing massed to the viewer's left, bowing in varying degrees of humility, to the seated Joseph. In between, masking one of the brothers, we see the back and the left side of the face of a servant woman carrying a long container, which is balanced on her head, but also supported by her raised arms. These arms are dynamic and free, and, although they are geometrical in arrangement, they are so in a way that suggests energy and life, not mechanical conformity. There exists a preliminary sketch, and Heppner points to the changes made in the final version, showing how Blake has reduced some of the power of Joseph and the servant girl and, as part of the same process of redistributing the impact of the various elements of the design, increased the characterisation of the brothers (20). He demonstrates, in other words, the usefulness, of the approach based on analysis of Blake's handling of expressive bodies that he is advocating in this section of the book.

But there is a mystery that Heppner hints at but does not set out to explore: why is the servant girl there at all, let alone there in such a powerful position? Heppner explains why she is made less prominent in the final version: 'The free strength of the servant girl had no obvious relationship to the drama governing the design, though it attracted an undue amount of the viewer's attention and interest' (20). He traces the representation of this servant to a figure in Ghirlandajo's Birth of St. John the Baptist, by way of an attendant in Poussin's Triumph of Flora, but he never takes up the challenge of his own admission that she's unnecessary to the narrative - and, we might add, not there in the Biblical source.

Even in the completed version she remains a strong presence, claiming much of the viewer's 'attention and interest'. Why has Blake chosen to include a servant at all, let alone such a strikingly drawn and centrally placed one? The representation of servants in eighteenth century art reflected their role in a society that expected them to keep silent and wait to be told what to do. When they do appear in paintings, 'often they seem to be present as mere accessories of the household alongside its delicate porcelain and silver dishes'.  [3] So, in a general sense, it is not surprising that the young Blake, already radicalised by the American War, should be portraying a member of such a humble and unvalued social group, and portraying her as striking for the grace and freedom of her body use, the dignity and power of her uprightness. Yet the design as a whole does not on the face of it challenge Reynolds's classicising and idealising preferences—it is set, of course, in a distant historical period, so Blake does not have to mount a direct challenge to conventions in the representation of the contemporary servant. The kind of process of borrowing that Heppner describes has helped Blake express his own vision in a form that could still hang in the Royal Academy, the reality of the affirmation of the eighteenth century servant hidden behind the contrapossto, the historical distancing and the idealisation.

But I would guess that one of the reasons that Heppner discusses this picture in the context of 'expressive bodies' rather than 'illustrations of a text' is that it does not seem like there is much to say about its relationship to a very obvious source:

26 And when Joseph came home, they brought him the present which was in their hand into the house, and bowed themselves to him to the earth.

Genesis 43

Joseph's brothers have come asking favours and they have already been imprisoned for three days, so they are not taking any risks—they want their humility unambiguously visible, so in verse 28, they are at it again: 'they bowed down their heads, and made obeisance'. But if the narrative motivation for this is fear and supplication, the episode has a clear moral meaning too: they are being punished by this humiliation for their earlier evil conduct in trying to destroy Joseph. Their humiliation is a punishment for their moral turpitude, and the title of the painting emphasises this postural representation of an ethical process. The three brothers at the front (and the one partially hidden by the servant) register this humiliation in their bodies by bowing deeply, two of the others incline their heads and four others look away. In contrast to these signs of humility, the straight back and erect head of the servant girl, motivated in terms of the picture by her work, indicate moral uprightness and the energy that goes with it. It is evil that degrades not social status, say the postures.

Blake was to go on to make far more radical social statements than that, but to see this picture hanging in the Royal Academy must have given him more than ordinary pleasure. But for Blake to be exhibiting there at all was an act that implied a 'position taking', an attempt to locate himself in a particular part of what Pierre Bourdieu has called 'the field of cultural production'. Blake's activities as a young artist seeking to win recognition for a kind of aesthetic production related to but differentiated from the work of those who occupied the positions richest in cultural and financial capital needs to be taken into account in a commentary on any work of this 'career-building' time in his life. For all the merits of Heppner's approaches, then, we find that even combined they do no more than enable us to begin to read even such a relatively minor design. The length of an analysis adequate to The Sea of Time and Space can be imagined!

The foregoing discussion is not meant to be a coded message to the effect that Heppner depoliticises Blake. His section on the political implications of Blake's handling of perspective is one of the most interesting in the book,  [4] and his accurate sense of Blake's position on more immediate matters is shown by the discussion of the 1793 engraving Our End is Come. It is a pity he does not obey Frederick Jameson's injunction, 'Always historicize!' Heppner tells us, for example, that Blake's most powerful figures express extreme feeling, in which the whole body is involved, and in which the limits of the Le Brun kind of coding are overcome without such coding being entirely left behind (54). He treats this as a case of an artist gradually learning to represent feeling in more satisfactory ways, but does not tackle the question of why a radical painter and engraver in the 1790s should be so concerned to express extreme states of emotion. This is hardly Heppner's fault, as, in spite of some recent work on later developments in Sensibility, there are no nearly adequate accounts in print of the complex intersection of histories that produced attitudes to feeling in the revolutionary decade, that turned some of the contributions to 'the Burke debate' into as much an argument about the style and content of emotion as about more obviously political issues. But even questions that cannot yet be properly answered need to be raised. In this context a slippage in the early pages takes on added significance: Heppner moves from regarding the 'expressive body' as one of the centres of history painting 'as Blake understood it' (xiv) to the claim that 'the basic unit of meaning in history painting is the human body', a proposition that seems to offer itself as a transhistorical truth, although it obviously depends on a historically produced version of 'history' that emerges from, amongst other things, Blake's conditions of labour, his class location and the relations with other social groups that this involved. It is to such matters that we must turn if we are to move towards more complete readings.

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