Archive for the ‘William Blake’ Tag

William Blake exhibition, Tate Britain

I did not know much about William Blake before this exhibition, still popular despite starting on 11 September, though no booking is needed now. It is walk right in. So, Blake was an illustrator/poet/artist. He innovated technique (“tacky ink applied under pressure”) and created some curious juxtapositions including the Pope and the Devil together in Hell (1794-6, right) – Blake was devout, but obviously not catholic.

His book illustrations are absolutely exquisite; for example, for the epic poem, America, A Prophecy (left). The colours are beguiling. His figures are extraordinarily classic; Greek, even. The bodies are all muscular, perfectly formed and, often, naked. Though his older figures wear beards to die for. His favourite materials seem to be watercolour and paper.

Despite earning quite a bit of money in his time for illustrations, etchings, etc. (the gallery is keen to do a currency conversion for visitors to judge for themselves), he often had to rely on patrons to get through. He found himself being commissioned to produce major sets of illustrations of key works of literature or biblical stories, that perhaps, his heart was not in. This bondage, as I sense he saw it, eventually led him to fall out with most of them doing much damage to his relative wealth and equally mental health.

Regular readers know that I am always interested in artistic ghouls, many of which are found in the German and Low Country traditions, for example, this. Blake seems to be good at ghouls as well. For example, the Beast from the Sea (1805, right). He also does a lot of ascent into Heaven or descent into Hell (A Vision of the last Judgement, 1808, left). This theme is, of course, a religious staple as well as good material for Dystopians like Bosch and Martin de Vos. Still perfect bodies though.

Some are bizarre hybrids. And small. I particularly liked images from his Small Book of Designs which includes a curious image of the bearded man with a “number of monkeys, baboons & all of that species” (1790, right). Quite what is going on, I do not know, but the natural world is clearly important to Blake. It might be that this is an acceptance of ancestry; but for a pious man well before Darwin, that seems a shade unlikely.

In contrast to most artists with exhibitions of this nature – a whole life – Blake was consistent. He strayed very little from what he did – and clearly did well. There is no “green” period or any major disruption in style. Despite his depression he never did a Goya or Bacon (or they never did a Blake, I suppose). By the end of the exhibition I was a bit weary arising from the sameness of the images and the kind of character that persists with something that, in Blake’s case, stopped selling.