Friday, March 6, 2015
"Los and Orc" by William Blake / Comment by T.J. Clark
Let us agree to call Los the figure of imaginative and political energy in human history as Blake conceived it, and Orc that same energy taking revolutionary form, often with blood on its hands. It is not clear what Blake thought about the blood at precisely the time he painted the watercolour, probably in the early 1790s, and even less clear what Los (here or in general) thinks. If the French Revolution was in question – and how could it not be? – then the year or month the painting was done would make a difference. Orc in the picture is manacled, somewhat weakly, four times to the earth (perhaps one of the manacles is hammered into a boulder). Orc may in Blake’s view be essentially Los’s doing, Los’s emanation, but Los may also in some sense – literal or mental – have forged the manacles. The bloody form of revolution may be a product of the imprisonment. The marvellous attentiveness and horror of Los’s body – it puts most other ‘neoclassical’ dumb shows utterly to shame, I think – tells the story. The yellow of the earth is Los’s openness and electricity, the black smudge on the hillside their repression. The yellow in particular – and its second appearance as a ghost on the hilltop next to the oily sea – is a stroke of genius. Los’s hands are a similar triumph. The way they catch the light and shade, and the way they touch the top edge of the paper, further electrifying the pictorial field – these reach back to Marcantonio’s engravings after Raphael and outdo them.
It is not clear in the watercolour whether Los is recoiling guiltily from Orc’s agony or is afraid the manacles will tear from their sockets.
[But] The image is great not by reason of what it may mean but by reason of its distinctness, its emptiness, the ferocious boundedness of its imagining of a (non-)meeting of bodies.
The right edge of Los’s body has many possible positions in space: ‘movements’ overtake it. Orc’s torsion and compression come out of – are an expression of – the darkness pressing down on him. The darkness is as ‘indeterminate’ as watercolour can be.