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Arthur in Avalon and Radical Slogans

April 23rd, 2008

Stephanie and I visited Tate Britain on the bank of the Thames on Monday. They have three exhibitions at the moment that all have England as part of their theme.

Upstairs they have on loan from Puerto Rico ‘The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’ by Edward Burne-Jones, who worked on this painting for 18 years before he died. It is absolutely vast and immensely evocative. Above the figure of Arthur is a golden canopy with 12 scenes of the search for the grail.

All the figures around him are women. To the right there is a mysterious figure, evocative of Merlin but who may well be meant as a woman since all the others are, apart from Arthur. The figure has their back to us, and gazes into a hand-held mirror, as if scrying the future, or as if gazing at the figure of Arthur in reflection. This reminds me of a Jain practice in which devotees gaze upon the sacred image of the Tirthankara (Enlightened One) not directly but through a hand held mirror.

In another room there is a special exhibition on William Blake’s work, which reminded me of how important Albion, the Druids and Stonehenge was to his vision. And in the basement there was a film of Derek Jarman’s, with music by Benjamin Britten and Genesis P.Orridge.

At the height of the Thatcher era and before the arrival of Glasnost Jarman had filmed in secret in Moscow. Interposed between grainy shots of the city filmed at dawn with a hand-held camera and slowed down to a hypnotic pace was a re-enactment of artists painting men in communist ‘heroic’ poses. And at a certain moment the screen was simply filled with statements about the way Britain had become a country ruled by bankers and advertising men.

It was powerful stuff. And reminded anyone watching of how little has really changed. We came out wanting to make grainy hand-held films in the street interspersed with radical slogans. We probably should have bought some spray cans and done a ‘Bansky’ or two…