A visit to Brett Whiteley’s studio

Alchemy 

noun

  • the medieval forerunner of chemistry, concerned with the transmutation of matter, in particular with attempts to convert base metals into gold or find a universal elixir.
  • a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination.

 

The class travelled this week to the Surry Hills art studio of Brett Whitely, to explore his painting, Alchemy.

 

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The artwork, completed between 1972 and 1973 is composed of many different elements on 18 wood panels. The painting can be read from left or right or visa versa.  While discussing the work, by reading it from right to left, I found the `story’ can be seen as a `birth to death’ visualisation.

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Beginning with sexual landscapes and mindscapes, the painting then travels through a scenery of birds’ nests, glass eyes, shell pieces, plugs, quotes and references to the works of William Blake, Patrick White and others, and a real human brain before finally coming to an end with a white exploding sun, set against gold backdrop.  This panel was recycled from a portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima that Whiteley had started but never completed.

Afterwards, we were allowed to wander around the studio where Whiteley lived during the last few years of his life.  Upstairs were unfinished paintings, art supplies, his collections of books, and a wall covered with graffiti, quotes and images. The living area had mementos such as photographs and postcards, furniture, sketchbooks and his CD vinyl collection.   I love exploring the music collection of friends and family and happily went through Whiteley’s. I was pleased to discover an album by Patti Smith, connecting Whiteley even further to our William Blake exploration.  I was not surprised to find a number of copies of Dire Strait’s live album Alchemy that features the painting on its sleeve.

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One of my favourite parts of our Literature visits to Art Galleries is the dialogue it opens among the students.  We all offer different interpretations of what the artist is trying to convey.  What I find is that the artist doesn’t always provide the answer to our questions.  Instead, the question is turned back to us and asks us what we see.  We experience the work and figure out what it means to us.

Painting is an argument between what it looks like and what it means.
–  Brett Whiteley

 

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Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
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He sits down with holy fears

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While analysing two of Blake’s some of the poems from The Songs of Innocence and Experience, I was particularly drawn to the first line in the third stanza of The Human Abstract;

 He sits down with holy fears

Who is He? In an earlier version, Blake apparently had called the poem A Human Image, which shows that it was planned as a contrast to The Divine Image. Blake decided to change the title to express the true nature of the human portrayed in the poem.

Then Cruelty knits a snare, 
and spreads his baits with care

Blake uses personification to great effect in this piece. Cruelty is a person as are Humility, Mercy and Mystery.  Perhaps ‘He’ and ‘Cruelty’ is the same person and Blake is presenting Cruelty as an aspect of human nature.  I’m going out on a limb and guess that Blake believes the only reason people attempt to show mercy and humility is that they possess `holy fears’; If we do not act with kindness and goodwill, we face going to Hell.  However, Blake also believes without this fear, Cruelty would win and take over the world.  Humans need this fear to keep us on the path of honour and good deeds.

 

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The Human Image from The Notebook of William Blake, British Library, London.

 

Rintrah ‘s Lament

This week we began to examine William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and we uncovered the many ways that Blake has  influenced the `Age of Aquarius’ in the second half of the Twentieth Century.  The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a series of texts expressing Blake’s own deeply personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs. During our tutorial we looked the poem The Argument which offered up many personal and varied interpretations.

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After giving the poem a lot of thought,  I began to see Rintrah (Blake’s alter ego?) as a character of disillusionment, foreshadowing what the world may become in the future. Blake emulates Biblical prophecies in this poem in order to comment on the progression of humanity and where we are headed.

Once meek and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Blake wants to encourage a change in thinking. He believes concepts such as Good and Evil, Body and Soul, Energy and Reason and Heaven and Hell are not opposites, fighting each other. As an alternative, Blake is suggesting that these opposites need each other and that they are mutually dependent. If Rintrah’s roar is a warning of things to come, Blake would like to see these things become a marriage of counterparts: even that of Heaven and Hell.

Marvel comics have a character named Rintrah who is an Apprentice Magician and stands over 8 feet tall.

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Ginsberg’s ‘AHA!’ Moment.

In 1948, when he was in his early twenties, Allen Ginsberg, one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation, experienced a spiritual awakening. He was in his Harlem apartment, reading William Blake’s poem Ah! Sun-flower, when he heard what he thought was the voice of God.  Days later, Ginsberg re-interpreted the voice as that of Blake himself. Ginsberg said he wasn’t stoned when he was reading Blake but was instead having some…’alone time’. The sensation he felt lasted several days. Ginsberg believed that he had observed the interconnections of the universe.  When he looked out window at the bright blue sky, he came to see that when the sky had been created, it was the sky itself that did the creating. He now saw the world through new eyes.  Ginsberg writes,

“But the spirit of the universe was what I was born to realise […] my body suddenly felt light, and a sense of cosmic consciousness, vibrations, understanding, awe, and wonder and surprise. And it was a sudden awakening into a totally deeper universe than I’d been existing in”.

Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle proposes that when reading, if you come across a passage that makes you have a powerful reaction, what you are feeling is your own spiritual power, that is to say who you are in your essence – “Only spirit can recognise spirit”.  Ginsberg had a resonation with something that was buried deep down inside of him that Blake’s words triggered. This is Ginsberg’s `AHA!’ moment.  Ginsberg’s consciousness recognised the consciousness of Blake’s message in his poem Ah! Sun-flower. 

 

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IN 1970, Ginsberg released an album of  Blake’s poetry set to music named Songs of Innocence and Experience after the book of illustrated collection of poems by Blake.

 

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Blake, an English Romantic and Ginsberg, a gay poet from New Jersey, both motivate the reader to think and feel more deeply in a way that goes beyond the words on a page.

How much is that `Book of Mormon’ in the window?

“The narrative of the American musical critiques the very capitalism that it relies on to make a profit to survive. Therefore, this is a hypocritical industry that smugly challenges the power that comes with success, while enjoying the financial rewards and fame associated with Broadway”. Discuss this statement in view of one of the musicals studied in this course.

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When the Sydney season of The Book of Mormon’ went on sale back in September 2017, the show set a record for the highest grossing on-sale of any musical theatre production in Sydney’s history. By the end of the first day of ‘The Book of Mormon’ had sold more than 45,000 tickets with a value of over $5,000,000 (source: my housemate who works for Ticketmaster!).  The week we saw the Broadway production, it had grossed over $1.2 million dollars and played at 101.3% capacity!  Not bad for a show that’s been running for almost 7 years.

The lead character Elder Price (!) dreams of going to Orlando, the home of Disney. The theatrical division of Disney has two of the biggest hits on Broadway- `The Lion King’ (hilariously lampooned in BOM) and `Aladdin’.  The audience laughs at the show and at the characters beliefs while clutching onto their`Book of Mormon’ drink cups that they bought from the bar.  You can also buy the `Fuck Frogs’ as told by Elder Cunningham in the foyer as you exit the theatre.  Merchandise for all major musicals is produced such t-shirts and caps as are books, cast recordings and so on. Most musicals cost between $10 million to $16 million to produce and according to the Broadway League, only one in five Broadway shows breaks even. Those that do take an average of two years to show a profit. Twenty-five years ago, it took an average of six months for a hit show to recoup its cost. So while the industry may be hypocritical when it comes to capitalism, it can’t afford to.

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Later as I left the theatre, I walked past the Starbucks at the end of the street and had a little giggle to myself and started to hum `Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’.  I wonder if the people inside clutching their soy almond lattes know, according to the show, they are going to hell.  Do they even care? Probably not.

I just want to say that I love this show. At its core, it really is a big, old-fashioned musical, one with the same basic structure that served Rodgers and Hammerstein so well!  As The Washington Post’s Peter Marks said in his review: “Don’t believe what they say. Money can buy happiness. It’s yours for the price of a ticket to The Book of Mormon.”

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What’s that I smell in the air? The American Dream!

Definition: the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.

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In both, the film and the musical version of A Bronx Tale’, the character of Lorenzo teach the audience the right way to achieve the American Dream- by working hard and working honestly.  Lorenzo leads a modest and humble life as opposed to Sonny, the gangster.  When Sonny offers to give $150 a week paycheck, Lorenzo turns him down. He is a workingman, proud that he supports his family by driving a bus. He doesn’t like the Mafia and doesn’t want the money. The bus is a symbol of moral and legal correctness. Lorenzo tries to instil a sense of responsibility in his son- that he is in control of his choices and behaviour. Lorenzo tells his son C: “You want to see a real hero? Look at a guy who gets up in the morning and goes off to work and supports his family”.  But Sonny gives good advice too. One of the things he tells C is that you cannot live your life on the basis of what other people think you should do. At the end of the play though, Lorenzo is alive and Sonny is not. C sees that his father should have been his role model all along and through Sonny’s death, C sees how far off the track he has strayed.  In comparison, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s `Death of a Salesman’ show the pursuit of the American dream, material success and freedom by working hard can be your ultimate downfall. Throughout the play, Loman wants evidence of his worth and success, which distracts him from recognising what’s important in his life, especially the love of his family members. Loman believes that his self-worth is measured by material success. Keeping up with the Jones’! By measuring his self-worth to the achievement of the American Dream, Loman sees his professional failure as a personal failure. This is his ultimate downfall.

 

 

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58 West 120th Street, Harlem

As I walk through the cold towards the subway on this Sunday,  wrapped up in my heavy coat and woollen scarf, I am filled with apprehension. I am on my way to Harlem to attend a contemporary African American church service at the First Corinthian Baptist Church.  In my naivety, I envision a Harlem of the 1970s- one of urban decay.  As a bunch of white folks, will we be welcome? Are we a moving target for harassment?   As we all settle into the hot, stifled carriages of the subway, I grow more nervous.  I undo my coat to stop from sweating.  When we reach our stop and walk up the stairs to 116th Street, we are greeted by the sun’s warmth.  It is as if God is saying ‘You are welcome here in Harlem. Come.’  I relax immediately and take in the beauty of my surroundings. As we make our way to the Church, we are greeted by the ushers, big friendly smiles on their faces, as if we full-time members of the congregation.

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First Corinthian Baptist Church

As we take our seats, I am reminded of the Revivalist service that Maya Angelou recalls in her book ‘I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings’.  Filled with wonder, I take in the scenery and sit in the dress circle, eager for the ‘show’ to begin.  I am not disappointed.  A service full of encouragement, celebration and tools to live your best life possible.  The key message I took away was- be free. The only person watching you is God.

After the service, we are taken on a street tour covering the locations of the authors we have studied for this trip.  Cedric and Marissa were our guides, who shared their wisdom, knowledge and their passion for literature as we walked the sun-kissed streets.

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While we walked along West 120th Street, Cedric suddenly stopped and stood on the steps of number 58.  This, he proudly announced, was the New York residence of the great Maya Angelou.  He then gave us a wonderful reading of her poem ‘Still I Rise’.

 

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Like the poem itself, Cedric delivered a performance that varied from playful and defiant, comical and angry, self-assured and bitter. And like Maya herself, the last lines: `I rise I rise. I rise’, were triumphant.  I think we were all taken by surprise of Cedric’s execution of the poem and we all burst into applause at the end.

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Cedric and Merissa then chatted about the connection between Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Maya started writing her autobiography simply because Baldwin dared her too!  I found this great video of Maya and James together.

Harlem is the birthplace of so much poetry and music and beauty, but in the eyes of many who have never set foot there, myself included, it has long been a swamp of pain and suffering.  During the tour, we heard about how much Harlem has changed over the last 50 years. What was once a home for people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity, now due to the gentrification of the neighbourhood, Harlem is being remade and transformed for wealthy white people.  Is this the end of Black Harlem? Walking around, I could still feel her soul. She still has her heartbeat.  As we walk, we see someone preaching in the middle of the street. A man is working out at the traffic lights. Boys in their bikes ride past shouting `Welcome to Harlem!’.

 

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`Girls with Barbies, East Harlem’ (1970) by Camilo Jose Vergara