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Lucy Færy

The Ghost of a Flea

 
 
2017.11.13

The Ghost of a Flea:

William Blake and the Visions of the Unimaginable

(Translated from Italian)

INTRODUCTION

The vast and articulated body of work of the London artist William Blake (1575 - 1828) astonishes for its uniqueness within the British pre-romantic scenario. The progressive message it contains was scarcely comprehended by the public in the course his lifetime; it was only after the interest by the leading exponents of the English Symbolist movement that the poems, paintings and engravings by Blake had been valued, and from then on they never cease to be the subjects of analysis by Art critics and historians. The inspirations behind themes and subjects in the Blakian art derives mostly from the artist's prophetic visions, which incorporated the influence of contemporary times, metaphorically  expressing political and social events of the epoch.

The piece considered in this study, The Ghost of a Flea (1819) is the portrait of a demonic figure who appeared to Blake during one of his mystical visions. The painting had been executed at the request of his friend and fellow painter John Varley, particularly intrigued by Blake's imaginative faculty. Varley narrates the description of the encounter between the artist and the entity in one of his writings, revealing also the reason behind the curious title: the spirit portrayed by Blake is, in fact, the personification of the flea, an animal that, according to his words, bares in itself the cruel essence of humankind. Since its realization, the painting has been always considered one of Blake's most peculiar ones, thanks to its story and to the absence of direct references to the artist's literary production, whilst recurrent in his other figurative works. This last aspect amplifies the possibility of interpretations, and the enigmatic component on The Ghost of a Flea keeps fascinating contemporaries: the American writer and psychologist Julian Jaynes introduces the artwork in his controversial study The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1981), employing it to expose his theory about the evolution of the intellect, as evidence of Blake's superior psychic abilities1; the writer Alan Moore, at the dawn of the 90s, includes the Blakian ghost in the gloomy Victorian atmospheres of his From Hell (1991), a noir graphic novel inspired by Jack the Ripper's London crimes, where the disturbing figure of the painting is related to the fin de siècle most feared murderer.

 

 

The British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, captured by the mysterious nature of the painting2, have taken from it the inspiration for his Demon with Bow, a bronze fifty-nine feet high colossus displayed in his latest exhibition hosted in Venice, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017).

Hirst's gallery work, built upon the concept of “suspension of disbelief”, seems to be particularly appropriate for hosting a direct reference to the Blakian creature, which, if today became a source of inspiration for artists and the manifestation of the mind of a genius for scholars, in the nineteenth century the painting has been intended as a clear demonstration of the artist's madness. Realized in a time of transition between the climax of the Enlightenment spirit and that of the Romantic movement, just one year after Mary Shelley gave life to Frankenstein(1818), the fantastic nature and Gothic features of The Ghost of a Flea acquire significance when analyzed under the light of its time's cultural milieu. The elements which Blake had chosen to include in the painting incorporates an intense symbology: the aspect of the subject, its setting and the celestial elements painted on the background are all references to to certain cultural manifestations of the epoch that were united by the shared interest for supernatural phenomena and their interaction with new scientific and technical discoveries.

This study's aim is neither to resolve an iconographic analysis of the artwork discussed, nor to formulate any theory around the truthness of Blake's visions: it will instead attempt to situate The Ghost of a Flea into the cultural ferment which was animating the London of his time, in order to shed more light upon the inspirations Blake looked at for the realization of his painting. This will be made possible through the analysis of the cultural climate that the counter- enlightenment spirit generated and spread among Europe at the end of the Nineteenth century.

In the first section, the essay will consider two instances of popular spectacle based on the use of optical devices: the phantasmagoria and the solar microscope shows. By the means of illusionistic reproduction of fantastic images, the two performances were intended to marvel the spectator, destabilizing its perception of reality. The phantasmagoria, thanks to the technical reproduction of images related to the paranormal, contributed to the secularization of the concept of “ghost” and “spirit”: its demons and phantoms that inhabited the magic lantern(or fantascope), once projected on a stage became the leading actors of a horror theater play which never failed to impress the public for its naturalistic effect. The Solar Microscope was able to reveal shapes and textures that were unknown to the the public, due to the impossibility of seeing them with naked eyes. The viewers were then confronted with suggestive figures projected in huge scales, raising thereby the debate around the potential of nature that was normally veiled to human's ordinary perceptions.

 

 

The second part of this thesis is dedicated to other two cultural phenomena of a much more older interested, but which, within the rationalistic spirit that was raging in the age of Blake, were suffering of a notable declining in popularity: the practice of Astrology and the study of ancient mystical traditions. The old custom of reading the celestial movement was still carried on by the members of small literate circles, but condamned by the official institutions, that referred to is as an illogical activity, based solely upon superstitions stemmed from men's ignorance. One of the key elements represented in The Ghost of a Flea is a flaming comet crossing the sky in the background; symbol par excellence of imminent changes, it's a recurrent topic both in the History of Art and between the two collaborators of Blake who most intensely participated to the context in which the painting was realized: the already mentioned John Varley and the painter John Linnell. Lastly, this essay will investigate on other kinds of knowledge discussed amongst the Blakian circles: the hermetical and kabbalistic traditions, visually translated and adapted by Blake in a great number of his works, present also into the dense allegorical system of The Ghost of a Flea.

The epoch's zeitgeist have therefore been captured by Blake's imaginative intuition and evoked in his most curious pictorial work, where the “flea” could represent its own enlarged version through the solar microscope, the stage-like setting could be associate with the phantasmagoria's scenographies, and the comet could have been the one which crossed the sky in 1811, observed by Blake and his circle. Maybe, the comet passage is to be intended as the annunciation of the “New Era” aspired by Blake, an era in which the seemingly inexplicabile phenomena could be manifested free from the limited dicothomic conception that divides reality from imagination, imposed by the reason. An utopian Era faithful to the Blakian philosophy, exposed in his renowned collection Proverbs of Hell in few but profound words: “Every thing possible to be believed is an image of truth”4.

 

The author and Hirst's demon mocking each other - Palazzo Grassi, Venice

 

NOTES:

1 - JULIAN JAYNES, MARCEL KUIJSTEN (edited by), Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, Julian Jaynes Society, Henderson 2013, p. 71.

2 - MICHAEL BRACEWELL, Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, in “Tate Etc.”, n. 25, summer 2012, Grant, London

3- SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, Biographia literaria, cap XIV, 1817.

4- WILLIAM BLAKE, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, DAVID V. ERDMAN (edited by), Doubleday, London, 1988, p. 37.

 

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