Thursday, May 04, 2006

Tyger tyger burning bright...

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Like pretty much all of his poems from the time of the French Revolution, William Blake's 'Tyger' is about, well, revolution.

Whether he'd ever admit to it or not, Blake was a reformist deep down, rather than a revolutionary. Human progress was, for him, all about people coming up with different ideas, and sorting out a path through them together: clods of soil sorting things out with pebbles, that kind of thing. 'Without contraries, there is no progression'.

His tyger, the twin-brother of the revolutionary spirit that swept through every corner of Europe during the 1790s, is a different beast entirely. Rather than being a dualistic force (clod and soil; innocence and experience; black and white), Blake's Tyger is unreadable, preternaturally symmetrical. It is, perhaps, an unnatural, devilish creation forged in the furnaces of hell. Alternatively it is a divine creation, akin to a fearsome angel, the loyal servant of a vengeful, angry, and jealous God. Blake doesn't know, can't see, can't tell, and that he finds rather worrying.

The spirit of the French Revolution was awesome, a law unto itself, a strict ultiamtuum with no room for negotiation or compromise. By the nineteenth century, it was also apparent that it could never quite deliver what it promised. Rather than lighting the way to a truly egalitarian paradise, the revolution revealed, in the misery and bloodshed it caused, the darker side of humanity. For all its strength and bravado, the revolution was never in control of itself. Behind its brave face of intimidating, single-minded resolve lay a sinking feeling that, actually, it didn't have a clue what was going on...

A hundred years later, Henri Rousseau would refigure Blake's almost mythological tyger in his painting, 'Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)' (1891). The title, with its 'tropical' setting and its vernacular 'surprised!', gives us a clue as to what he's up to: he wants to show what mythological tygers, revolutions, are really like, in their natural habitat, beneath the propaganda or political spin. And, what he finds, is that even the bravest-looking creature cowers like a terrified kitten.

This week, Fran wanted to complicate this centuries-old dialogue still further in her self-portrait, 'Kitten, kitten burning bright' (2006). Here, in this exciting new work, Fran explores the possibility that, actually. kittens have the capacity to - and, indeed often look - defiantly unterrified. Oh, she can, by the way, behead worms faster than a guillotine can behead aristocrats.


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