Tag Archive: Sir Joshua Reynolds


by Bradley Dexter Christian

The graffiti alluding to artistic expression in biblical passages can be described as an aesthetic challenge to authentical representation of Blake’s views, particularly when affronted by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ virtue ethics.

Graffiti itself is an art under fire, living on the fringes of mass appeal and commercial replicability.  “A mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great; can never raise and enlarge the conceptions or warm the heart of the spectator,” (Reynolds 41). Juvenile youth impacting rates of recidivism are presented this very challenge of overcoming the mimetic circumstances of participating in gang culture and street violence. Reynolds’ idealistic language in Discourses III indicates the performative ‘spectator’ and places her in the coliseum of ‘great’ artistic represent. Blake responds to such institutionalized facets of moral life. Given the background of Royal Society in the eighteenth century, Reynolds’ intention is to reaffirm dignity in the arts while aligning political themes of dominance in the historical Napoleonic wars, “The principle now laid down, that the perfection of this art does not consist in mere imitation, is far from being new or singular,” (Reynolds 42). Blake replaces Reynolds’ valuations with a responsive, monastic knowledge in imitation of the plight of the Israelites for developing a theological response in “The Lacoon.”

“Experience is all in all; but it is not every one who profits by experience; and most people err […] from not knowing what object to pursue. This great ideal perfection and beauty are not to be sought in the heavens but upon earth,” (Reynolds 44). Blake reconsiders Reynolds’ absolutism of experience as philosophical sleight.

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“As none by travelling over known lands can find out the unknown, So

from already acquired knowledge Man could not acquire more. Therefore an universal Poetic Genius already exists.” -Blake

Blake’s perspective on Genius and of art seems to be a very natural one -one that does not require higher forms of schooling.  Perhaps is own personal experience in having a acquired a natural craft for art, as well as having been sent to a local art school has a lot to do with his perspective.  I believe that his upbringing with parents whom supported Blake’s endeavors with a humble hand, also had much to do with Blake’s modest ways.  His thoughts, noted in the passage above, are that no individual need to seek much more than what is already innately within them to be considered a genius.  Conversely, Reynolds speaks of different levels of artistic steps one must take to attain a true genius eye: “I recommend the diligent study of the works of our great predecessors: but I at the same time endeavored to guard them against an implicit submission to the authority of any one master however excellent.”  While, Reynolds does want art students to be careful of over-studying the predecessors, his point still remains that they must go through a rite of passage, so to speak, in order to reach true genius.

In Blake’s encryption, “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” is reminiscent of his perspective on what it means to be a true artist, a genius.  In other words,  Egypt, assuming it was a beautifully constructed land, was ironically constructed by the hands of slaves, the Israelites.  Henceforth, they were the artists, and Blake uses that deplorable historical experience to point out that while the construction was a beautiful sight, it was done so through imitation -imitation, being what the slaves were forced to come up with by means of their aggressor.  This encryption does two things: it goes against Reynold’s Utopian perception of the genius, and it brings up a political and religious injustice. I feel as though he is also exposing the hypocrisy in that of art.  When a piece of art gets in the hands of the elite, they consume it and greed begins to take over.  The art becomes something it was not intended to be in the first place.

-Maricela Martinez (Marcy)

Sir Joshua Reynolds argues in Discourse III, “could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would be no longer taste and genius” (44). Which is to say that there is an unnatural, innate power of “taste” and “genius” that cannot be taught–or shouldn’t. That seems to debunk the whole idea of mentor and mentee relationships, or quite simply the basic premise which education stands on: teaching.

William Blake, however, has a similar thought on higher, outward thinking, but instead of stating that it cannot be learned, he argues that we all have the possibility to perceive more than we already know. In his poem There Is No Natural Religion, Blake writes “man’s perceptions are not bounded by organ of perceptions; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.” Which includes those students that Reynolds would consider not genius.

In relation to the scripture found on the image, “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation,” Blake would argue that art is both a natural phenomenon as it is a practiced, sculpted one.

–Daniel Lizaola Lopez

“I will free from your oppression and will rescue you from your slavery in Egypt” Exodus 6:6

William Blake’s analogy relies on the biblical context that Israel was delivered to freedom from the oppressive enslaving grip of Egypt. The second half of the encryption in Blake’s “The Lagoon” compares then art being delivered from something similar: “is art deliverd from Nature and Imitation”. Putting into context that the Israelites were rejecting Egypt and escaping it, then the second part of the expression implies that Blake rejects the notion of art being confined solely to nature and verisimilitude features that only seek to imitate the real world instead of morphing it into something else.

In a way, art that relies solely on these two features is what Egypt was to the Israelites: a slavery of mind, soul, and body. Reynold’s expresses “the mechanic and ornamental arts must sacrifice to fashion, she must be entirely excluded from the Art of Painting; the painter must never mistake this capricious changeling for the genuine offspring of nature; he must disregard all local and temporary ornaments, and look only on those general habits which are every where and always the same” (48). Reynold’s statement that an artist must accept only the actual truth that never changes is Alexandrian and similar to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas which advises poets to rise to “transcendental truths, which will always be the same” (as stated in the footnote). Therefore, Blake’s attitude towards Sir Joshua Reynold’s definition of artistic genius are completely dismissive, and the complete opposite. He even goes as far as saying that Reynold’s and artists like him are “hired by Satan” (463) to destroy art. Perhaps his passion is so emboldened in this topic because of Blake’s deep understanding that his art was not viewed as “real art”, but merely as “craftsmanship”. Blake even expressed that greats like Michelangelo and Rafael knew the Venetian and that they acknowledged that following the rules would lead to the destruction of art itself.

William Blake expresses eloquently through the engraving his sentiments: The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination

-Beyanira Bautista

Defining the Poetic Genius

In Blake’s “The Lacoon,” the graffiti artist scrawls on the lower left margin of the image, “Israel deliverd from Egypt is Art deliverd from Nature & Imitation” (352). What does this cryptic analogy imply about Blake’s attitude toward art’s political and religious dimension, especially in the context of his scornful reaction to Sir Joshua Reynold’s definition of artistic genius?

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Laocoon_blake

I’ve included below an interesting film clip on William and Catherine Blake’s life from the BBC documentary “Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:

Blake’s inscription, “Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature & Imitation,” is just one of many nonsensical phrases scrawled onto “The Laocoon.” When examined in the context of Reynolds’ Discourse of Art, it becomes clear that Blake is using “The Laocoon” to satirize Reynolds. In Discourse of Art, Reynolds claims “a mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” a sentiment clearly reflected in Blake’s graffiti upon “The Laocoon” (Reynolds, 41). This graffiti is accompanied by phrases such as “A Poet a Painter a Musician an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian” (Blake, 352). Since this statement cannot be considered true, it is safe to assume that none of the statements scribbled on “The Laocoon” should be taken seriously, once again hinting at a satirical message. Blake’s metaphorical comparison of art to religion hints that he is condemning more than just Reynolds’ message about art and artists, however. He is also hinting at art’s relationship to religion. In his reaction to Discourses on Art, Blake writes, “the Enquirey in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius? But whether is he Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass: & obedient to Noblemens Opinions in Art & Science” (463). From this statement, we can conclude that Blake believes that the link between religion/politics and art is not a natural one, but a forced one. His comparison of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to art’s deliverance from nature and imitation makes sense—he is mocking Reynolds, but on a deeper level, he is mocking artists who are “obedient to Noblemens Opinions,” whether that is in regards to art, politics, or religion.

Blake takes great offense from Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, as both men have radically different theories on art, however, some of their arguments, with their contradictions, overlap. Because Blake was not truly trained as a painter, but rather an engraver, he was never considered a fellow of the Royal Academy and thusly faced a bias from intellectual society towards his engravings. As Reynolds argues that the “Ideal Beauty” that artists portray is learned from experience–Blake, being an outsider of the Royal Academy asserts that “Reynolds Thinks that Man Learns all that he Knows I say on the Contrary That Man Brings All that he has or Can have Into the World with him.”

Blake’s Philosophy of Art emphasizes a certain–dare I say, mechanical–precision. He centers his ideal on the fact that “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Reynolds would argue that this method of creating art is the work of a “mechanik…[a] capricious changeling.” In essence, he is right regarding the mechanical part–however Blake does not paint with “Minute Neatness” to merely imitate, but to capture the image of the sublime. He goes to great depths to render his work as a product of vision: “Determinate & Perfect”–a snapshot of the artistic imagination. He demonstrates the “mechanical dexterity” of the artist that Reynolds praises of the “the Young Painter.”

So then it becomes a question of authority–Reynolds sees Blake as a mechanistic copier, deceiver while Blake looks at Reynolds with contempt as a man of contradiction–one who writes “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles articulately where he means to Betray.” So who is right? Well, both of them, kind of: Blake sums it up nicely by stating that “Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye–Such the Object.” It is actually an answer of perception: what does the artist see? That is what the artist portrays, as according to Blake “All Forms are Perfect in the Poets Mind.”

Reynolds vs Blake

After reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art, I felt as though he contradicted himself.  At the beginning of Discourse III, he states that a “mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great,” and argues for the captivation of the imagination, through one overarching mode of painting.  He believes that one can achieve “Ideal Beauty” if he studies the ancient masters long enough.  The ancient Greeks and Romans, (as evidenced by the Belvedere Torso, one of the few unearthed statues in Rome around the time of Pope Julius II, or the beginning of the 16th century), ascribe to imitate nature down to the last muscle.

Sir Reynolds cannot say that “Ideal Beauty” can be learned, while also claiming that “Nature herself is not to be too closely copied.”  If we take a look at some of his own Portrait Paintings, it is clear that he had no qualms against copying nature, and personally I don’t see any elements that speak to the imagination.

In fact, his paintings are all very realistic, so I was cheering along when Blake calls Reynolds’ Discourses to the Royal Academy the “Simulations of the Hypocrite who Smiles particularly where he means to Betray,” full of “Self-Contradiction and Knavery.”  (463-464).

Where Blake differs from Reynolds is his belief that man is already born with “Ideal Beauty;” that genius is innate, and not acquired.  Blake’s main argument is that you cannot learn to be a genius, or as he puts it, “by Thieving from Others become a Michelangelo.”  (464).

Blake admires Michelangelo, for his clear delineation of figures, the musculature built up so as to be almost three-dimensional.  However, how can he argue that Reynolds is a hypocrite and copies directly from nature when he himself copies Michelangelo? Granted, the medium used is different, but the precise definition of Newton’s body seems to mimic the ideal male form Michelangelo was obsessed with, perfected in Adam in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

Let’s compare.

From Jonathan Roberts’ William Blake’s Poetry, Chapter 4, he notes that Blake prefers “sharp definition and edges,” and that the “Venetian and Flemish practice is broken lines, broken masses, and broken colors” (81).  With regard to this statement I think that Blake’s mode of thinking that the “best” form of art (that which constitutes figures that are heavily outlined), is a little narrow minded.  However, in the search for form, he also searches for truth–the figures cannot escape the lines, they embody their form.  The actual process of engraving creates rigid lines, and Blake made sure to color inside those lines.  Blake’s Philosophy of Art is not to become the next Michelangelo.  Despite his emulation of the Renaissance artist’s style, he speaks of innate genius that manifests itself independent of anything seen in the visible world, therefore striving to become William Blake, the artist, attempting to visibly manifest his poetic genius through his engravings.