The visit to the Tate (Tate Britain, as I must learn to call it) was rather odd, in a number of respects. They are currently running an exhibition entitled "Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination" and have organised a programme of events around it: talks, writing workshops, puppet workshops for the under fives, the obligatory session for school students linking the exhibition to modern Goth culture and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Saturday afternoon's session was " Alan Moore on Gothic Nightmares", billed as:
Legendary graphic novelist Alan Moore leads a tour focusing on visionary heroism, ungovernable forces and superheroes.This sounded good: Alan Moore has something interesting to say on most topics, Blake and Fuseli are fascinating but often baffling, a guided introduction to the exhibition would combine the two admirably. The event was free, but only to those who had bought tickets for that particular time-slot at the exhibition, so the numbers should be manageable...
I don't know how many people could have been accommodated on a promenade performance of that kind, but it would have been only a fraction of the number present. In fact, the audience was too large even for a static talk: we were ushered into the exhibition, then through into its second room, where Alan Moore was already invisible behind a crowd of people, some of them standing on the cushioned bench seats. While he spoke, people drifted through the gallery. Some of them were no doubt, like me, there to hear Moore, but making the best of their inability to see him; others were wearing the headphones of the gallery's audio guide. I ran into Paul Gravett, who commented that the Tate appeared not to have realised the size of Moore's following: but even if their original plan had assumed that this would be a marginal event with few takers, they had sold enough tickets early enough (the event had been declared sold out some weeks beforehand) to modify their plans.
The disembodied voice of Alan Moore began by claiming to have no idea why he had been asked to speak, or what the gallery expected him to talk about; I thought this was a little disingenuous. He had had plenty to say about William Blake five years ago, when the Tate's Blake exhibition had ended with a an event at which he performed the piece recorded as Angel Passage. Or he could have had a look around that section of the present exhibition clearly labelled "Superheroes", to see if the paintings of gloriously muscled nudes in contorted attitudes suggested any line of thought...
If I sound a little grouchy, bear in mind that I always find the specific more interesting than the general, always prefer the concrete to the abstract. I would much rather have heard Moore on what is interesting about this picture, here, than hear again, in these less than ideal conditions, his theories of "idea space" about which, as Google will demonstrate, he has discoursed at length in the past.
So what I retain most clearly from the whole talk is his response to the suggestion that Blake could be compared to a modern comics artist. Despite some superficial similarities (Blake's illuminated editions of his own work and that of others combine text and images, much of his writing is richly imaginative) Blake was a visionary, working alone, and not a participant in some commercial process*. However, he said, if there was one person in comics who did have something in common with William Blake, it was Jack Kirby. This made sense to me in visual terms, but Moore had something else in mind: they both created their own mythology, and they both had problems with naming. Kirby, looking for a name for the adversary, the expression of the darker aspects of human nature, called him Darkseid; Blake named his representation of love and the passions Luvah.
After the talk, despite the suggestion that we had "brought the Gallery to a standstill" there was time for questions. These were almost totally inaudible. I had feared the embarrassment of a sequence of questions about the V for Vendetta film, but we were spared that; the only reference to it was Moore's own, very general, remark about films which were crassly commercial commercial and artistically void (I paraphrase, but that was the drift). Instead, questioners appeared to be interested in idea space to the point, almost, of seeking religious guidance - did we really end with the question "What happens when we die?" Tell me I'm misremembering that.
Afterwards, helenraven and I went round the exhibition itself, and I can only repeat my initial position: fascinating but often baffling. When the moments of comparative sanity and conventional art in an exhibition are provided by the works of William Blake, you are in deep waters. I liked, for example, Fuseli's Mad Kate, balanced on her rock in that extraordinary bonnet, maintaining her pose with her pointing fingers just so, despite the wind and rain. The labels were little help, often slightly snide in tone. Although the general information boards suggested that the exhibition would demonstrate how Fuseli's gothicism shaped the later taste for supernatural horror, the provision of political cartoons (by people like Gilray) in which his compositions were recreated with politicians and royalty did not really make this point.
On the other hand, Blake's The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan is a joy and a delight.
*Was he really as negative about comics as a medium as this sounds? It didn't strike me at the time, but when I pull together all the fragments I can remember, that's how it comes out.