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William Blake

Jacob's Ladder, c.1799–1806, Pen and grey ink and watercolour on paper, 398 x 306 mm, The British Museum, London, 1949,1112.2, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Anna Freeman Bentley

Descent, 2011, Oil on 8 panels supported by scaffolding, 1100 x 182 cm (base) tapering to 91.5cm (top), Collection of the artist, Photo credit: Rowan Durrant

Augustus Lunn

Jacob's Dream, 1944, Egg tempera on gesso panel, 124.5 x 78.7 cm, Private Collection, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson

Spiralling under Control

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

A standard staircase can symbolize a journey (as Jacob is journeying in Genesis 28, fleeing his father’s house) but the image of a spiral staircase evokes different ideas, with aspects of mystery and disorientation. All three artists here (myself included) have imagined Jacob’s ladder as a spiral.

William Blake’s painting presents a wafty dreamlike vision, Augustus Lunn’s interpretation a surrealist hyperreality, and my painting an interior architectural materiality that is much less like a dream. Despite these differences, each of the artworks employs mirroring devices emphasizing the hallucinatory, bewildering nature of the vision so as to confound the viewer.

Blake is arguably the first artist to have chosen a spiral staircase to visualize Genesis 28 (starting a visual tradition of artistic responses). His painting flows weightlessly and the figures on the stairway are rendered in ever-diminishing detail as they ascend. His stairway leads into the heart of the sun itself, filling the image with light. Like a lighthouse (a building often housing a spiral staircase; Cook 1914: 308), this image acts as a beacon of God’s promises and a sign of the safety offered to Jacob and his descendants. A sense of harmony is evoked as people embrace on the stairs; the vision is inviting.

In Lunn’s interpretation we are offered a quieter and more composed view. Nonetheless, on closer inspection, it is not straightforward: its disconnected, collaged parts fit together according to some internal, unknown logic. Jacob sleeps in his own capsule, the angels descend in bubble-like groups and Heaven is presented to us in geometric shapes with layered depth that evokes another dimension. The image communicates a simultaneous jarring and enticing connection to infinity.

Looking at the circular stairway in Descent we see repeated paintings all the way up the walls. Might they perhaps represent the angels ascending and descending? The dark-pink wall behind is inconsistently lit, with some areas partly illuminated while others sit in shadow, suggesting multiple light sources that lead our eyes up and around the painting. Reaching the top, we see a small glimpse of an upper room. The stairs’ many curls seem real and unreal all at once. Jacob and the angels are not painted but their presence is felt.

Blake is the only artist of the three who clearly depicts the stone on which Jacob rests his head, which later becomes the cornerstone of Jacob’s response, marking the sacred significance of ‘this place’ (Genesis 28:17). Yet these paintings can invite a comparison between the artists’ varied responses to the text and Jacob’s reaction to his dream: an instinct to create something in return,

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. (Genesis 28:18)

Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) uses the concept of the fold to describe something of the tension between inside and outside, surface and depth, or maybe even dream and reality. For Deleuze, these dichotomies fold in and out on themselves. These three paintings are each structured around folds and curls. Fabric folds around and beneath Blake’s Jacob and swirls around his angels just as the stairs themselves seem to swirl in a mighty breeze. Lunn’s Jacob is engulfed in tight folds and deliberate creases of material, and the sky itself curves into the lightness of a sheet of paper. Descent presents a staircase that swirls as one long Rapunzel-like curl of hair with rich reds and deep ochre colours evoking the drama of a baroque interior. These twists are like Deleuze’s ‘folds’, making surfaces expressive of depths and (conversely) dreams expressive of reality.

In both Lunn’s and Blake’s paintings, heaven is painted with reduced tonality in faded pastel colours, as if reminding the viewer that this realm is still far off and we are, as yet, unable fully to visualize its reality. In Descent, the ‘upper room’ is not revealed at all; we only see a way to access it. Our attention is thrown back to the staircase itself, with its twists and turns, leaving us wondering, what is this thing that connects humans on earth to heaven above? Or perhaps even, in the light of John 1, who is it?

These three very different renderings of spiral staircases present the vision of Jacob’s dream as a reminder that whilst Jacob’s life appears to be spiralling to the point of chaos, God offers a profounder vision to show Jacob and those who read Genesis 28 thereafter that in truth these consequences are all under his control.

 

References

Cook, Theodore Andrea. 1914. The Curves of Life (London: Constable and Company)

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. by Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Lipton, Diana. 1999. Revisions of the Night (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)

Oakley, Howard. ‘Tyger’s Eye: The Paintings of William Blake, 9—Jacob’s Ladder and the Stairway to Heaven’, The Eclectic Light Company, available at https://eclecticlight.co/2016/12/05/tygers-eye-the-paintings-of-william-blake-9-jacobs-ladder-and-the-stairway-to-heaven/ [accessed 31 October 2018]