Method and madness BY Cindy Polemis
e that has never travelled in his thoughts and mind to heaven is no artist.” William Blake did not indulge in sketching tours and sojourns at aristocrats’ country piles. The artist had more adventurous journeys in mind: mysterious, enigmatic, terrifying visions, which apparently came to him at night from the age of eight—the product, it is thought, of his eidetic (photographic) memory. Their son’s transports must have been alarming for his parents, but they had the good sense to finance his artistic ambitions by supporting his studies at the Royal Academy. Its founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was the man Blake accused of never travelling “in his thoughts and mind to heaven”, and whom he later described as “hired to repress art”. Unsurprisingly, the art establishment viewed Blake as, at best eccentric, or at worst a madman, and largely disregarded his talents.
His was the art of poetical alchemy and extraordinary hallucinogenic visions. It could only ever have been misunderstood and continues to befuddle, dazzle and divide. My views were coloured by the ubiquitous poster reproductions of bearded longhaired prophets with six-packs, bluetacked onto college bedroom walls. There is something a little, dare I say, trippy about Blake, and Tate Britain’s latest show reveals an artist who fearlessly eschewed convention in favour of a seemingly boundless capacity to invent.
The most comprehensive exploration of the artist for a generation includes more than 340 works: paintings, drawings and prints, and illuminated books, as well as contributions from his contemporaries. In an unfashionable yet welcome chronological layout, the curators trace the life of Blake the poet, the painter, the engraver, and the Londoner, born in 1757, the son of a Soho hosier, who died 70 years later in squalid cramped rooms off the Strand.
His was truly revolutionary art, working against the backdrop of the social and political convulsions of the American and French Revolutions and the European wars which followed. In his particular and eccentric way, he projected the hopes and fears of his age.
Forget those posters. Throughout the exhibition one is reminded that most of his works are palm-sized. A magnifying glass helps grasp the fury, zeal and terror that fill his vibrant illuminated manuscripts. The intimacy draws us into Blake’s world; his other-worldly figures begin to make sense in our world and its division, hypocrisy, faithlessness and faithfulness. Blake plumbs our depths, the worst and the best.
The exhibition brings together the highlights of Tate’s collection with many of his most famous pieces from other British collections along with some rarely seen international loans. It also provides a fascinating new focus on the significant role played by his wife Catherine in printing his designs, colouring his prints, looking after the household and finances and, according to one friend, singing “sweetly” to him.
The highlight, halfway through the exhibition, is a room showing his enigmatic cycle of 12 so-called “Large Colour Prints”, including Newton and Nebuchadnezzar, commissioned by Thomas Butts, a civil servant whose main job was to e