William Blake: hello, goodbye

“Satan Exulting over Eve” (1795), by William Blake; graphite, pen and black ink, and watercolor. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Blake was here, now he’s not

“Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 42, ‘The Tyger’” (1794), by William Blake; color-printed relief etching with watercolor. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The invisible Visionary at the Getty Center

William Blake, who died in 1827, is yet another casualty in 2020. The English printmaker, painter-illustrator, and poet-painter (who among us doesn’t know “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright…”?) was to have had the starring role in “William Blake: Visionary,” a Getty show that should have run from July to October.

However, there exists a catalogue for the suspended exhibition, which originated at the Tate Britain in London and then made the leap, with additional loaned work, to Los Angeles. Edina Adam, the Getty’s assistant curator of drawings, and Julian Brooks, the senior curator of drawings, were at the helm of the now-phantom show.

Blake is among those artists who slip through our attempts at classification or pigeonholing, sort of like the late Henry Darger. An outsider artist, in other words, although there were kindred spirits in the same orbit. Bernard Berenson, in his “Aesthetics and History,” noted that Blake, lacking the proper teachers to guide him through the achievements of the past, “ended by pouring his honey and his lava through forms moulded by Fuseli and Michelangelo together—a strange brew.”

As Adam herself writes, “Blake’s engagement with the art of the past fueled his originality. It informed the formal characteristics, iconography, and technique of his work.” She adds that, “What set Blake apart were the models he chose and the ways he encountered them.” And, “Whether through misapprehension or deliberated reinvention, he created his own version of the past, which he then used to shape his remarkable art.”

“Self-Portrait of William Blake” (1802/1804), William Blake; pencil and gray wash, white heightening. Collection of Robert N. Essick

A far-ranging imagination

Blake wasn’t a Kaspar Hauser, who one day sprang up out of nowhere. Born in 1757, he was raised in London in a Dissenter family (What’s a “Dissenter”? A Protestant who didn’t fall in line with the practices of the Anglican Church), and his early interest in art was encouraged by his parents. By the 1790s he’d become the favored reproductive engraver to Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), as well as to Thomas Stotherd (1755-1834). He also engraved etchings for other artists and for various books. Therefore, although he lived his life in relative obscurity, Blake wasn’t unknown. Adam and Brooks point out that “His art was appreciated by a small group of mostly wealthy and educated middle-class individuals… Among the most important of Blake’s patrons was the army clerk Thomas Butts.”

Butts commissioned biblical scenes from Blake, 30 of 50 surviving into the present. These works and others like them were tempera paintings and color-printed drawings that not only illustrated subjects from the Bible but drew from Milton and Shakespeare. Of course they were essentially his own spiritual visions personified, as if Darger was on one shoulder and Emanuel Swedenborg on the other. Swedenborg, who lived even earlier, 1688-1772, was something of a mystic and seer, and quite possibly clairvoyant. And a kindred spirit as well. For as Adam reminds us, throughout his life Blake was prone to visions, most famously his claim that he was often in communication with his deceased brother Robert. For example, in his biography of the artist, Peter Ackroyd writes: “Blake always claimed that the secrets of his new technique of engraving were vouchsafed to him in a vision. His dead brother Robert revealed them to him.”

This (the paranormal) has always been part of Blake’s appeal, and a competing title for the show and catalogue could just as well have been “William Blake: Mystic.” As Adam and Brooks point out, “To enter Blake’s world is to journey into a deftly crafted, frequently morphing universe, replete with rich symbols, obscure mythologies, shape-shifting theatrical characters with exaggerated and wild gestures, and a combination of reality and fantasy unusual for its time.”

“Laocoön” (image about 1815; inscription about 1826-1827), by William Blake; intaglio etching/engraving with burnishing. Collection of Robert N. Essick

Status and legacy

The art in the catalogue is presented in six sections: The Professional Printmaker, The Painter-Illustrator, The Painter-Poet, Blake’s Contemporaries, The Visionary, and The Mythmaker. The book is slight, 168 pages, with most of it devoted to full-page plates. A few of the images, at the very least, should be recognizable—“The Ancient of Days,” “The Ghost of a Flea,” and “Nebuchadnezzar,” to name a few. The same goes for various illustrations that Blake did for his own books, “Songs of Innocence and Experience” in particular.

Personally, despite decades of exposure to his work, Blake still interests me less than his contemporary Henry Fuseli, who seems almost an artistic ancestor to the filmmakers Fellini and Greenaway, and his acolyte Samuel Palmer, one of the young artists who styled themselves “the Ancients” and venerated Blake. Palmer’s full Moons are often several times actual size, and as a Romantic how can you not like that?

Contrary to what we might assume, Blake is well-represented in American collections, especially in Boston and other East Coast cities, and that’s largely because, beginning in the 1880s, his work was purchased avidly on this side of the Atlantic. In the early 20th century England tried to put a lid on it, but by then it was a case, as Matthew Hargraves notes, of “shutting the door after the horse has bolted.” Put another way, “American Bibliophiles had both the means and determination to bring Blake’s finest work to the United States in what became a golden age of Blake collecting.”

William Blake: Visionary is a good introduction to a unique figure in the history of art and it’s safe to assume that it would have been one of the more notable L.A.-area shows of the current year. In the meantime, or at least until a future propitious occasion, we have the catalogue, which lists for $35 and can be ordered from Getty Publications. For up to the moment information go to getty.edu. ER

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Written by: Bondo Wyszpolski

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