This post was first published on the University of Manchester Art History blog. We are very grateful to student Stefania Olafsdottir for attending the second day of the pilot meeting on 9 February 2018 and writing this report.
I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike.
– William Blake to the Reverend Dr J Trusler, 23 August 1799
Dr Naomi Billingsley from the John Rylands Research Institute (University of Manchester) and Dr Lieke Wijnia from the Centre for Religion and Heritage at the University of Groningen have been co-operating across countries to initiate an international research network aimed at exploring visionary arts and artists. On February 8-9th the inaugural meeting of the network was held in Manchester, an event that hopes to become the first of a series concerning the visionary artist within the visual arts. The two day event included a visit to the Whitworth Gallery for an engagement with some of Manchester’s own visionary artworks, such as William Blake’s print The Ancient of Days, and a workshop at the John Rylands Library where members of the research network shared their own academic findings in the field.
Scholars gathered in Manchester, not only from across the UK, but from mainland Europe, and from across numerous disciplines including art history, curation, cultural history and even PhD students, brought together by the mystery of the visionary artist. The workshop focused on art from 1800 to the present and was comprised of ten presentations of academic papers by its multidisciplinary members addressing artists such as William Blake, Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky, Charmion von Wiegand and Ludwig Meidner.
The University of Manchester’s Dr Charlie F. B. Miller opened the morning’s discussion with his paper on visionary perception through the writings of Walter Benjamin. Immediately, in grappling with Benjamin’s own definition of the visionary as profane illumination Miller addressed some fundamental ambiguities regarding the concept of the ‘vision’. For instance, is the visionary artist actively perceiving and interpreting or passively mediating? As the day progressed visionary art was addressed and perceived through various lenses, including social activism by Colin Trodd, feminism by Jadranka Ryle, spiritualism by Michelle Foot, and many more. As a result, the focal point of the papers oscillated between an interest in how the visionary arts can be interpreted and applied to the concrete cultural, social and political realms of their time and on the other hand, a more transcendent model of visionary perception into the otherworldly. It became increasingly clear that defining what constitutes a visionary artist is a challenge in itself. The tension remains between whether the visionary artist is indeed a passive instrument of a higher force or an active agent not only in dialogue with it, but an extension and human manifestation inseparable from of this transcendent force.
In the concluding discussion following an intellectually stimulating day of proposals about the purpose and nature of these visionary artists, it was suggested that the visionary can only be deemed so once their visions have stood the test of time. For the concept of the visionary arguably requires a certain transcendence even defiance of time and culture that will continue to be relevant throughout the centuries passed and those to come because they address forces beyond those constraints. An issue more relevant perhaps to the practise of academically engaging with these works was addressed by Michelle Foot (University of Edinburgh) when she questioned the role of the objective historian when this engagement insists that one adopt the position of the sceptic or spiritualist. However, we may question whether there is indeed such a thing as the ‘objective’ historian. In all of our efforts to interpret and analyse art and its history it seems that all we can do is propose a particular perspective and offer the reader our own subjective lens through which they can experience this art.
In attempting to comprehend and articulate what seems to be the inexplicable world of visions one must also accept the futility and fallibility of such a practice, yet it is exactly this incomprehensibility which paradoxically fuels continued enchantment with the visionary art of visionary artists.
After a successful first meeting the network hopes to continue their engagement with the visionary arts in the future and a second pilot meeting is being planned for 2019 in Groningen.
For further information on the event the full program is available here.
(Photographs provided courtesy of Lieke Wijnia.)
Many thanks to Colin Trodd and Naomi Billingsley for inviting me to attend and participate in this educational and thought-provoking event.
Stefania Olafsdottir (February 2018)