On William Blake

“Are thou a worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a worm? I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lilly’s leaf; ah weep not, little voice, thou canst not speak, but thou canst weep.”

William Blake, Songs of Innocence, 1789

William Blake: ‘Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing’, graphite and watercolour on paper, 1786

Today I went to visit the new show of the work of fantastic London lunatic William Blake, at Tate Britain. Briefly, some moans about Tate shows, that probably can’t be helped:

  • Firstly, always so many people! People ruin everything! Having to share intimate exhibition spaces with such crowds is so tedious; completely ruined Olafur Eliasson’s show last week for me, turning the works into a funfair of selfie-backgrounds.
  • Secondly, Blake’s work is so cramped and dense anyway, could have been more spaced out, more room to breathe, small paper pieces mainly wall-based were especially challenged by large visitor numbers.
  • Thirdly, Tate has an annoying habit, like with the Van Gogh and Britain show earlier this year, of putting a big name and then lots of filler with the work of other people that no one really cares about. I struggle to care about miniatures of one of Blake’s patrons; I came to a William Blake show because I want to look at William Blake works.
  • Fourthly, I question how much ‘audience engagement’ is enough and how much is too much and actually starts to overshadow the actual work in the show.

Anyway, my thoughts on Blake are as follows:

Failure and frustration formed a large part of the context of Blake’s oeuvre. The wall-text and captions of the exhibition were full of stories of friendships ending, businesses failing, patrons losing faith, publishers betraying him. Blake wasn’t a commercial artist, though the nature of being an artist in the 18th century (even more so than these days) was that of a freelancer, a constant hustler for work. As a delightfully unhinged evangelical purist with his own brand of art and philosophy, Blake was constantly struggling in order to survive and continue making the work he wanted to make, always juggling his pet projects with commissions and more commercially viable side-ventures.

His attempts to support himself and his wife ended up with Blake becoming a self-publisher, which I thought was fascinating. Blake was very much of the DIY philosophy: he had a trade in engraving which led him into publishing and then he started to print his own artist books, as we would call them now. His idea was to spread his messages far and wide, for his images and words to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible (which is why, for his Songs of Innocence and Of Experience publication of 1789, he chose the simple format of moral verse for children). Unfortunately he was too pioneering for his own good; creating his own mode of relief etching to fully illustrate his dramatic scenes, his books became so complicated and costly to print that very limited numbers were sold during his lifetime, and became expensive collectors’ items.

William Blake: ‘America, A Prophecy’, illustrated book, 1793

Blake was searching for a vessel for his art that could be accessible for the public, could accommodate techniques that were creative enough to cope with his imagination, could show image and narrative on equal platforms – which naturally led him to the book form. His dedication to fully realising his visions, and his commitment to what he saw as his duty as an artist to spread solace and wisdom to the people, led to his creating new platforms for himself and combining entrepreneurship, artistic excellence and mass production in a fascinating formula. As I’m quite interested in self-publishing and working on collaborative publication projects at the moment, I loved the beauty and ferocity of Blake’s solutions to his practical problems, his example of the journey between imagination, creation and dissemination.

As Blake’s work is most commonly associated with books, it struck me how interdependent his pictures are with a narrative structure. Whether he is working with his own stories or illustrating those of others such as Shakespeare or Milton, there is always a complex underlying structure. I find this especially exciting when there is no obvious narrative; you can tell by looking at the composition that something dramatic and convoluted is happening, but the details are lost. It’s this relationship to narrative, the art being controlled by or completely surpassing the story’s structure, that I really enjoy; I love the over-the-top mystical unreadibility of Blake’s language of symbols that can’t be contained by a book or explained by a simple story.

This visual madness of symbolism is partially explained by Blake’s reputation as an eccentric, a madman, a genius, as variously described by his contemporaries. As a person he was fervent and aggressive in upholding values of freedom and justice, regularly intervening on behalf of abused women, children or animals in London streets; he worked with many authors of radical politics and espoused those same views (abolition of slavery, votes for women, some sexual freedoms). There was a warmth and humour to his intense nature, but his eccentricity cannot be denied: he saw visions, such as the archangel Raphael visiting his studio, and it is only because of the extreme undecipherable oddness of his works that he wasn’t in legal trouble for his controversial views.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a man of such extreme idiosyncrasy could not be contained by a single institution such as a church or political party; and this inability to fit inside any accepted thinking (no rules strict enough for him) extends to Blake’s opinions on art, which were so black and white that only his own work seemed to live up to it. Art was for the moral education of the people, for passing on the lessons of the Bible, an artwork must have exceptional skill, drama, rigorous technique; its moral rigour to be equalled with its technical virtuosity. Medieval and Renaissance art was pure, uncorrupted, with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci as examples of perfection; intricate drawing was the ultimate artistic achievement. Blake applied his religious fervour to his artistic practice, creating a strict dogma that he spent his life aspiring to achieve. The purity of drawing was like a path to redemption.

I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

William Blake, Jerusalem, 1827

Magic is ever-present. Recurring images of drowning, burning, chains, seas and fires and voids, represent trials to be surmounted, chains to be broken, redemption, transcendence from heaven to hell. There is a warmth, empathy, tensions between strength and weakness in the acceptance of the hardships of struggle for purity and freedom. These images have literal association with anti-slavery campaigns, women’s suffrage movements, political rights that interested Blake, but I think the fundamental struggle that constantly crops up in his work comes from a personal frustration with the chaos of the real world, and his constant struggle with himself to better humanity, create purity and moral balance in society through his visions.

Blake’s choice of ‘illuminated books’ to best show his artwork is a medieval reference that he pairs with innovative new technology that he invented himself, and the processes of which remain mysterious. This juxtaposition of new, pioneering technology for ancient references shows both Blake’s depth of conviction that he uses such an established, traditional, religious format, and his restless dissatisfaction with traditional medias, structures, artistic conventions. He was looking for a framework for his philosophy that was serious and complex enough to demand respect in the viewer but also had possibilities of liberation, change, and renewal.

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