TATE BRITAIN 11 September 2019 – 2 February 2020
‘I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Mans. I will not reason & compare: my business is to Create.’ William Blake, Jersusalem
‘Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary’, William Blake is an artist that exemplifies creative freedom and authenticity by being unmistakably himself. In the history of art there is nobody quite like him. He’s a beacon of imagination and hope in turbulent times and a brilliant counterfoil to 21st Century branded artistic production. Best known for his poetry and still a largely unsung visual artist in the UK, this timely exhibition presents the opportunity for reappraisal of his work- and what it takes to be an artist. Political, social and spiritual shackles appear symbolically throughout Blake’s work. The artist’s great legacy is breaking them, part of his unwavering belief that; ‘Poetry fettered, fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.’If ever there was a time to be reminded of the essential value of imagination, nationally and globally, it is now.
In Blake’s time, the French revolution and the American war of Independence challenged Britain’s perceived colonial “greatness.” The Enlightenment co-existed with slavery and the beginning of mass industrialisation; aspects of cultural inheritance that arguably have never been adequately addressed as a matter of national consciousness. Despite labels of eccentricity, Blake’s work and aspirations remain potent triggers for wider discussion. A very poignant element of the exhibition is the recreation of the Broad Street space where Blake staged his disastrous 1809 solo show and the adjoining room which projects his work on a scale not realised in his lifetime. Are we any more enlightened to receive this work? is a question that hangs over the exhibition space for a new generation.
This is the largest show of Blake’s work for almost 20 years, an overwhelming experience of colour, complexity and vision, with over 300 works including watercolours, paintings and prints. Core Tate works are joined by loans from the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, the Huntington Art Collection, California, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Cincinnati Art Museum, the Library of Congress, USA and private collectors to create a stunningly rich and memorable retrospective.
I first discovered Blake in childhood and was instantly dazzled. I spent a lot of time in the library- not reading but poring over images in the art section. At the time I had no idea what Dante’s Divine Comedy was, but Blake’s ice and fire images of the Simonaic Pope and his kaleidoscopic Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John with Dante and Beatrice seared themselves into my growing consciousness. His work made me intensely curious and hungry for more. Mysterious Hecate (now known as The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy), Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils and The Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve were, and still are, explosive, highly distilled revelations. The radiant energy of Blake’s distinctive line and the stylised muscularity of his figures are pure visual poetry -human imagination unleashed. He’s ‘the eye altering alters all’ personified, still living and breathing through his art. As I walked through this show, holding the hand of my younger self, the adult was no less awestruck.
Like his frontispiece to Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion, (Plate 1 c. 1820 Relief and white-line etching with hand colouring on paper) Blake encourages us to cross a threshold, holding a lamp aloft to light the way. Looking at his work, there’s no doubt that he valued imagination above all else as the most divine human attribute. I love him and his work for communicating that truth, to be carried forward in dark times. In his Design excerpted from ‘The First Book of Urizen’ (1794 Colour relief etching predominantly in black, blue, grey and pink, with hand colouring) the human figure is cast between heaven and earth, feet in the clouds and hands braced against rock to break a collective fall. It’s a feat of mental and moral acrobatics rather than an illustration, frozen in time, primal and exalted. It’s the creation story of the human mind that feels like it’s predating God. While Blake illustrated many narratives from the Bible, John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer, his personal mythologies are among his most intriguing works. Seeing Blake’s illuminated books (bound and unbound) in this exhibition is one of its joys. Hand colouring defines every page as a precious, uniquely crafted work and an absolute labour of love- the most underestimated quality in all art making.
Love permeates Blake’s creations and it’s wonderful to see the contribution of his wife Catherine, who from 1788 was printing plates and helping to colour his illuminated books, acknowledged in the show. Ever ‘an angel’ to him, she supported and enabled his creative life. We’ll never really know the full extent of her hand in his work, but the contemporary observation that they were of ‘one soul’ can be felt in the seamless complexity of layered ink and watercolour. The epic prophecy and intimacy of Blake’s work is truly breath-taking, from the sensuous luminosity of Har and Heva Bathing, Mnetha Looking On (1785-9) from his first prophetic book, the poem Tiriel (1789), to the depth and delicacy of experimental monotypes like Pity (1795) and Newton (1795-1805). Colour and texture abound in these hybrid works, which Blake called his ‘frescos,’ initially ‘painting tacky ink on board and transferring it through pressure onto paper, enhanced with ink and watercolour.’ The highly skilled draughtsman and engraver becomes a painter, impossible to tell where one discipline stops and the other begins. As an illustrator, seeing this degree of experimentation in Blake’s work in print, tempera, watercolour and ink is exciting territory. Equally humbling are the delicate pages of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience which invite close inspection of minute detail.
Blake’s exact relief printing techniques, his sublime symbolism and intricate personal mythology remain largely unexplained. This is a show of tantalising clues to the artist’s identity and scope, with text and imagery entwined in the viewer’s imagination as the story of Blake’s life unfolds in each room. Arranged chronologically, the curation focuses on the conditions and patrons who enabled the artist to pursue his singular path. As a visual artist, he will always be a source of cryptic fascination, one who ultimately enables the imagination of the viewer. Multiply by each individual and the vision is infinite, such is his gift.
Thought to be by his own hand, Portrait of William Blake (c. 1802–3 Graphite and wash on paper), crystallises a gaze that you cannot turn away from, uncannily present and utterly absorbing from the first room to the last. In final room of the show I was confronted by an image I hadn’t encountered before, The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man (1821, Pen and ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on paper), an eternal flow of life, punctuated by the full stop of Blake’s last work The Ancient of Days (1827, Relief etching printed in yellow with pen and ink, watercolour and gold body colour on paper). The interlocking design is intensely powerful, with saturated depths of smouldering colour and a God-like hand resting on the precision of a divided compass. Originally published as the frontispiece to his 1794 work Europe a Prophecy, a circle closes in this final version, in Blake’s words; ‘I’ve done all I can- it is the best I’ve ever finished.’ We could ask no more of any artist.
In a material dominated world, Blake’s work offers pure resilience in its distilled singularity and higher purpose. He’s a Romantic artist par excellence, transforming how we see through experimentation and belief in worlds beyond reason, made real in his extraordinary art.