Newtonian Ruin

Daily Draw March 6th, 2012

Today I am using a postcard that a friend sent me from the Tate Gallery in London.

Newton
by William Blake
1795/c.1805
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper
46 x 60 cm

This is one of my favourite Blake paintings. I was looking this up in the book Fearful Symmetry by Northrop Frye, and I had forgotten that Blake also used Isaac Newton as one of the heads of Cerberus. For me Newton is part good and part bad. Blake never saw him as this grey, he was the black of ruin and evil and false doctrine. Blake considered the Newtonian universe “the rock rolled against the tomb of divine humanity.”

Still, there is something rather attractive about a mathematical approach. Blake considered it the ruin of art too, and in that he might be right.

Kenneth Clark in his book The Romantic Rebellion, says Blake was quite disturbed when the French Revolution deteriorated into The Terror. I can well believe that the dreadful politics and murder of the day might have affected how he saw measurement and the reason of Man. Apparently Blake was also horrified by the atrocities of the slave trade and the tortures slaves endured. In Blake’s world, Newton was a chain of the mind like the fetters of slaves.

When Clark relates Blake’s ideas about Newton, he refers to the “evil power of the measuring mind,” and the pose that Newton takes in the print according to Clark is from Michelangelo’s Abias, in a lunette of the Sistine Chapel. Abias was an ancestor of Jesus, so it’s tempting to see the bastardization of the original by using it as a reference for evil old Newton.

There is a statue in the courtyard of the British Library based on this painting by Blake, and created in bronze by Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, dated 1995, although I think he did the sculpting and casting in the late eighties. I love the mechanical hinges on the body; Newton is yet again reduced to the tyranny of measurement, instead of the glory of divine flesh.

What I love about Blake’s print is the rock in the background made up of many colours, with incredible texture. It’s like Newton is turning his back on the eons of rock that surround him, the variety of creation, and reducing his experience to a tiny bit of cream parchment, narrowing things down. I also find the musculature of his body a bit like the armour of an armadillo. Created from rock, matter evolves into an animal, and then into Armour Man, that narrower of all things, focusing on the minutiae of his limiting mind.

Some say Newton expanded our experience, but not according to Blake. It’s always interesting to see the other side.

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