Bourke meets Blake at Cúirt

Brian Bourke’s version of William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea.

Brian Bourke’s version of William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea.

AS THE build up to Cúirt gathers momentum, much attention has been focused on the many writers who will be reading and discussing their work but the festival also features a new exhibition from Brian Bourke, put together especially for Cúirt and running at Salthill’s Norman Villa Gallery.

Entitled Pertaining to William Blake, the exhibition attests to Bourke’s deep love of literature, especially poetry, and his long fascination with the poetic and artistic works of William Blake.

The exhibition consists of still life paintings of the life-mask of William Blake with decaying sunflowers and a series of works derived from Blake’s remarkable painting The Ghost of a Flea. The exhibition highlights Bourke’s ability to present a subject from a new perspective and shows his usual flair for line and colour. The series based on The Ghost of a Flea is of special interest for the innovation shown in the interpretation of such an iconic image.

“Cúirt is a great shop window for us so we generally plan a show specifically for the festival,” says Norman Villa’s Mark Keogh. “Naturally they were interested in having a Brian Bourke show at the festival – and he was delighted to do it as well.

“This subject is one Brian has always been interested in. He actually has a copy of Blake’s death mask so that’s where that image came from. I think he’s also very pleased with the series of monoprints he’s made based on The Ghost of a Flea.”

Blake painted The Ghost of a Flea around 1819/20 and it is one of his ‘visionary’ works. Blake had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and while he painted this apparition he claimed the spirit told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’.

In the painting, the muscular, nude, flea is using its jutting tongue to gorge on a bowl of blood. Part human, part vampire, and part reptile, the beast strides between heavy and richly patterned curtains. In his left hand he holds an acorn and in his right a thorn, both items drawn from fairy iconography. His massive neck is similar to that of a bull, and holds a disproportionally small head, marked by glaring eyes and open jaws, and a venomous slithering tongue.

Bourke presents a series of striking monoprints featuring Blake’s flea figure and with his own variations of colour and detail.

As for the decaying sunflowers which Bourke depicts in the images of Blake’s death mask, their presence derives from Blake’s short poem Ah Sunflower:

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the sun,

Seeking after that sweet golden clime

Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,

And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,

Arise from their graves and aspire;

Where my sunflower wishes to go

Pertaining to William Blake opens this Monday at 6pm. The guest speaker will be the poet, publisher, and artistic director of the Gerard Manley Hopkins International Summer School Desmond Egan. The exhibition continues daily from 12 noon to 6pm until May 12.


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