William Blakes’s iconic monotype print of Isaac Newton is one of the works selected by Marianne Faithfull for the DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience, exhibition being shown at Tate Liverpool until 2 September.
I really like this work – the composition, the draughtsmanship and the use of colour. At first glance Newton appears as a heroic figure – like a Greek God. He is sitting on a rock, apparently under the sea, concentrating intently on his work, leaning over a scroll, using a set of compasses, producing geometric drawings. But he is ignoring his surroundings, turning his back upon the beauty of the natural world.
According to the Tate’s website:
Blake …….. was critical of reductive scientific thought. In this picture, the straight lines and sharp angles of Newton’s profile suggest that he cannot see beyond the rules of his compass. Behind him, the colourful, textured rock may be seen to represent the creative world, to which he is blind.
For Blake, Newton personified a materialist world view where everything can be investigated, measured and categorised in opposition to his own belief in the importance of imagination, emotion, and mysticism.
I could describe myself as a “scientist” (although I always think that sounds pretentious), but although I don’t subscribe to his belief in mysticism I have some sympathy with Blake’s view. I think that many people who work in pure or applied science do tend to concentrate on their data without putting it into a broader context. But science can’t be divorced from society. It isn’t “neutral”. It’s expensive and requires funding. And governments, private enterprise and other organisations will only provide money and employ people if it’s in their interests to do so. Too often people conducting scientific research and development don’t think about the consequences of their work or question the motivation of the organisations providing the funding.
Blake’s picture remains popular today but I think that many people don’t appreciate the point that he was trying to make. They only see the heroic figure and miss the message. It is perhaps ironic then, that a statue by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi based on Blake’s image stands proudly outside the British Library in Kings Cross London.
According to this source,
“Paolozzi was inspired by the union between two British geniuses, both representing nature, poetry, art, and architecture.”
I wonder whether the average passer by appreciates that?