Genius or lunatic, William Blake was clearly a troubled man. You only need to look at his collection of despairing figures, prostrate bodies and muscular beasts painted in vivid reds and mournful blues clutching mercilessly at their prey to know that this was an artist channeling his demons, trying to make sense of the visions he experienced in a tumultuous period of British history. But Blake is so much more than that; poet, printmaker and artistic visionary, Tate Britain charts the evolution of his work in their new exhibition William Blake which places his output in its proper personal, social and political context, revealing a man born into respectability struggling to find an audience for his increasingly challenging work, and only through the patronage of a few key friends is William Blake remembered at all.
Opening to coincide with The Last Night of the Proms in which the rousingly nationalistic anthem Jerusalem is annually performed using Blake’s lyrics, the exhibition is a chronological catalogue of the numerous strands of Blake’s personal and professional life, as well as the many innovative techniques and approaches he applied to his art. There is an additional sense of the man as a commercial printer and engraver simultaneously producing work in a variety of forms and styles throughout his lifetime. We saw in Tate Britain’s equally revealing van Gogh show earlier this year that artists are rarely able to focus on one avenue and must respond to commissions or undertake other forms of work to support their lifestyles. Blake was the same and, as this exhibition strongly argues, it is at this intersection of the imaginative and commercial forces that resided within Blake which caused him so much trouble.
Blake was a devoted Londoner, born in Soho and rarely moving more than a few streets in either direction apart from a few years in Sussex. He was born into a trading family who encouraged his interest in becoming an artist and supported his apprenticeship as an engraver, a pragmatic approach to fostering an outcome to his creativity that he could sell. The first suite of rooms are dedicated to Blake’s time at the Royal Academy and the classical forms he was encouraged to replicate. As Constable would find just a few years later, the emphasis was on emulating the past, seeking to mirror the anatomical perfection of renaissance artists as well as copying from sculpture in lieu of life drawing of which Blake was not a fan.
These heavily muscled sketches can be seen again and again in his later work and Blake’s eye for bulging physical form seen through the sheerest of gowns and coverings is visible well into his later, more experimental work. It was also during his Royal Academy training that Blake develop the gesticulating figures with almost unreadable expression that also feature in his more mystical pieces later in the exhibition, including the ink and watercolour figure of ‘Moses Receiving the Law’ created in the 1780s. Referencing earlier artists that Blake admired, this white and grey depiction of the 10 Commandments is striking in its simplicity, managing to simultaneously evoke a sense of peace and biblical formality as Moses’s long beard flows into his loose gown, arms uplifted to the clouds holding the reverential word of God, his face a picture of a solemnity.
Blake’s early work drew on these Old Testament stories presenting in paler form the hint of the fire and brimestone God he would later reveal in the coloured work he produced closer to the turn of the century. But seeing these early pieces side-by-side in the first section, you see the consistency with which Blake created the idea of a brutal God. ‘Job, his Wife and Friends’ from 1785 is full of fear, the bearded horrified face of Job referencing the stone gargoyles of medieval churches – an image Blake returns to again and again in his work. This early piece is filled with people hunched in pleading supplication, fear or awe of some almighty force, awaiting the terrors about to befall them. The theme recurs in Blake’s three-picture representation of the Joseph story, his brothers come to plead for food, fearfully and sorrowfully gathering at the feet of the sibling they fail to recognise.
Contrast the motif of unhappiness with the lightness of spirit revealed in one of Blake’s most famous early works depicting much-loved characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing [c.1786], which depicts the wistful happiness of a party, and with Shakespeare drawings popular at the time, it suggests Blake made some attempts to create more salable pieces. Yet it’s perhaps not all it seems, note also the decision to include four fairies in a ring, an image that links directly to Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music Of Time dated about 150 years earlier which depicts the seasons and the circularity of human life, permanently linking the fruitfulness of summer with death and decay to come – a theme that troubled Blake increasingly as his own work matured.
The second group of rooms showcases Blake’s work as an engraver from the late 1780s, considering both the skills he developed to sustain a healthy trade and his contribution to developments in the industry, not all of them entirely welcome. Even early in his career as an artist the exhibition makes clear that Blake’s attempts to subvert expectation was a source of considerable frustration, unable to meet the commercial expectations of the market or to find a general acceptance of his work. This darkening of the mood is a key theme in Blake’s development and seemingly the less his work was appreciated and recognised the further his imagination went.
Throughout his career Blake wrote and illustrated his own books but not all of these were published. Prints from these various editions are on display across the exhibition and the curators thoughtfully introduce an interesting meta-discussion about the different experience of viewing these as works of art in glass frames rather than reading them as interlinking sections of a single volume as they were originally intended to be seen. Among his most famous pieces are excerpts from Songs of Innocence and Experience, still a classroom favourite, with elaborate margin decoration that links to the religious medieval manuscripts that Blake emulates, alongside America, a Prophecy. Some of these pages are very small so expect queues as you make your way round these sections but the introduction of colour is striking and Blake uses mauve and blue to create shadow, while a brighter red suggests patches of light as the familiar figure of a man in white robes clings to the rocks, arms as ever outstretched in sacrificial repose.
You see clearly the development of Blake’s more dramatic style in the creation of these works with ‘Los and Orc’ a notable turning point in the 1790s where Blake’s mythical creations and darker visions start to invade and consume his work more completely. ‘Lucifer and the Pope in Hell’ from 1794-6 is a dastardly vision of scary gargoyles and hell’s terrifying power as a reluctant clergymen is led unwillingly to the burning pit by a scaled devil – Blake’s view of the Catholic hierarchy clearly visible! These images from the Book of Designs and the Book of Urizen are filled with terrible visions of fire, pain, decay and peopled by alarming characters whose eyes bulge with fear. It’s then only a short imaginative leap, and a brief stroll into the next room, to understand how these tortured creatures became the more elaborate depictions of devils and dragons in Blake’s extraordinary work commissioned by Thomas Butts.
The third section of the exhibition looks at the influence of patronage on Blake’s freedom to create art of extraordinary power and darkness, and while some of his pieces retain their lighter religious symbolism or evoke the simple country aesthetic of English rural life, it is works such as ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,’ ‘The Number of the Beast is 666’ and ‘Satan in his Original Glory’ which Blake was creating around the same time which provide the most fascinating insight into the conflicting division within his style and presumably his soul at this time. While ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is notably absent from the show, Blake’s disturbing depiction of the many-headed devil with star-patterned wings standing imposingly like Colossus over the oceanic gargoyles is fascinating. Likewise the ‘Number of the Beast is 666’ is an astoundingly nightmarish creation, that classical muscularity of body distorted and rippled as an imposing figure stands over another equally deformed being. Also in this room a chance to see the frightening and improbably muscled figures in Blake’s illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in ‘Route of the Rebel Angels’ are given a near human form as the upside down bodies clutch their heads in agony – it makes for a sharp contrast with the wispy simplicity of Shakespeare’s dancing fairies only a couple of rooms and 20 years before.
From here the show moves to Blake’s most famous larger prints in which he employed another new monotyping technique using ink pressing and watercolour to create the famous image of Newton bent over his mathematical workings – turned into a large-scale statue at the British Library – the exquisite purple-blue shading of the rocks echoing the prints in America, a Prophecy, while nodding to the spread of Enlightenment ideals that would soon banish creationist notions from scientific discourse. Here also is the brutal image of Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all-fours, the flesh of his thighs slowly morphing into the haunches of a beast as that familiarly bearded face that haunts so many Blake pieces stares out in desperation. ‘The House of Death‘ in the same room uses less vivid colours than these other works but shows Blake experimenting with approaches to better convey his subject matter, lines from Milton foreshadowing the painful destruction of mankind with gaunt figures printed largely in ghostly grey and white.
The exhibition concludes with a small recreation of Blake’s disastrous and poorly attended 1809 exhibition at his Soho home which plunged him into depression for many years, angered by the lack of acclaim for his work and the refusal of art’s governing bodies including the Royal Academy to exhibit his work appropriately. And through the curation of this engaging exhibition the viewer has felt the inevitability of this outcome, that the increasingly imaginative and disturbing elements of Blake’s work came to dominate his artistic expression in a world still used to the safety of Gainsborough and the compliant portrait painters Blake so detested. There is a sense as you wander through these rooms of a mind freeing itself of all restraint, and of a fantasy life, like the Red Dragon, imposing itself on Blake’s commercial output as well, leading to a final rupture that left the artist in exile for some years.
But the Tate wants to send you home with hope and the final section which contains the illustrated text of Jerusalem is about rediscovery and the late recognition Blake received thorough partnerships with younger artists discovering his work afresh – and in 1818 it should be noted after the revolutionary fervor of the continent had died down with the final defeat of Napoleon – leading to a reappraisal of the value of Blake’s work beyond the shock and fear it once induced. So genius or lunatic? Well almost certainly both, but as this comprehensive exhibition so clearly argues there was always a duality in Blake’s artistic contribution, balancing the commercial with the personal, the two constantly overlapping as he strove for recognition. Blake was perhaps not a person it would have been easy to know but he is certainly not an artist you can ignore, and while we may never fully know if the visions he claimed to see were a sign of madness, this guided tour through the brilliant recesses of his imagination with all its classical symbolism, medieval symmetry and eventual descent into hellish vistas will haunt you for the rest of the week.