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The Margins of William Blake

When Swedenborgianism entered England, it found a comforting shelter within the family headed by one James Blake, a rather less than conventional shopkeeper. Imagine that, in 1757, the year Swedenborg badly declared that the old world had ended and the new begun, the infant William Blake was chosen to become the sole communicator of the new prophecy. For the rest of his life as an artist Blake was to have numerous direct, personal dialogues with great (and often dead) men of all ages and countries.

It is not difficult to locate Blake within the era of triumph of science. Although we think of the 18th Century as infinitely rational, represented by the scientific philosophy of Isaac Newton’s Principia and also of the British empiricist philosophers, there was a concurrent interest in the irrational impulses and what, in the 20th Century, would come to be known as the “unconscious.” Johann Georg Hamann (1730 – 1788), the German critic and philosopher who fiercely opposed exclusive trust in the logic of the Enlightenment, stated that, “Poetry is the mother-tongue of the human race.” Not all that different from Hamann, the young William Blake held a similar view. For Blake, Locke and Newton were unimaginative killers of the human spirit.

Children of the future age,
Reading the indignant page,
Know that in the formal time,
Love, sweet love, was thought a crime.

Love, for Blake, is identical to art. God is not a geometrist, not a mathematician—he is a poet, an artist. Art is the tree of life, and science is the tree of death.

The magnitude of Blake’s intense protest against the popularity of science was so great and uncompromising, it made him an unpopular artist. As a result, one would assume Blake was a difficult, recalcitrant person, and according to his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, and more recently, Peter Ackroyd, Blake was more than capable of holding grudges against those whom he thought had deceived him.

He detested conventional values and he especially hated artists who treated art like a science. Blake’s famous commentary on the frontispiece and title page of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s book is characteristic and amusing: “This man was hired to depress art.” Excessively sensitive, Blake also had an extravagant self-confidence, which, like many visionaries of his kind (such as Vincent van Gogh, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Forrest Bess), compelled him to pursue his own unique vision, in spite of his lack of worldly recognition.

Artists are, fundamentally, introverts. While they desire to win honor, fame and love, they are also persecuted by powerful and unsatisfiable instinctual needs. I refuse to categorize artists as being like other unsatisfied beings, since, when they fail to achieve their goals, they turn from reality and transfer their interests—or, to speak in Freudian terms, their “libido”—to sinful fantasies, which often express themselves inn the form of neuroses. Well, this kind of neurosis sometimes becomes a reality, too. I feel slightly defensive because lately, many hideous remarks have been made about artists such as Blake being oddballs or marginally strange. Let me remind you that Diderot was one of the first thinkers to believe that there are two types of men. The first is an artificial man who conforms to the given practices of society, a sort of small, normal figure who seeks to please the existing establishment. Within this man, however, is imprisoned a second, dark, violent, criminal man who wishes to break out; and this is a man who, if properly controlled, may become responsible for magnificent works of art.

Was Blake insane? This question almost inevitably arises when analyzing his work. Wouldn’t it be even more difficult to diagnose Blake if he has undergone psychiatric treatment, since there are as many varieties of insanity as there are of flowers or herbs? (Rilke, in refusing to see Freud, said, “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”) All of this will help to understand Blake’s intense attraction to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Blake identified not just with the majestic portrayal of the fallen Satan and the sublime narrative that leads up to the temptation of Eve by Satan and, consequently, the fall of man, but also with Milton’s Latinized diction and syntax, and with his spacious resonance and deliberate remoteness from everyday life. Again, would one think of van Gogh as insane if one had read his letters? Remember our beloved Vincent’s keen observations of Dr. Paul Gachet, who was as discouraged about his job as a doctor as van Gogh was about his painting. Van Gogh even told Dr. Gachet that he would swap jobs with him. The mere fact that the artists had direct and unedited access to their true feelings should make them saner than most. In the case of William Blake, his imagination was so tremendous that he indubitably saw things where normal men could not. Come to think of it, which other artist, in the whole history of European painting, would be inspired to paint “The Ghost of a Flea”?

Even though the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the only one-third of what it was at the Tate Gallery in London, it is still a rare occasion to see so many Blakes in one place. The last big exhibit of his work was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I believe, in 1939. To painters and poets alike, this is the kind of event one would call Paradise Gained. As I was walking through the Robert Lehman Wing, it occurred to me that I was glad to have come to see Blake’s work for a second time. It would have been too overwhelming for just one visit. One of Blake’s first important commissions was to illustrate Dr. Edward Young’s book of poetry, Night Thoughts, in which his treatment of form and line in the figure is meekly lyrical and a sort of symbolic imagery is subjected to an abstract arrangement accommodating the off-center space of the text. In the illustration, Blake depicts Hope as a small angel with six wings in complete vertical descension toward the sullen poet, whose legs and knees—along with his scroll—become architectural ornaments.

During the prolific years between 1793 and 1795, Blake produced a staggering six illuminated books, which comprised a full poetic inquiry into the origins of man and religion, as well as the development of a complete political, sexual, and social system. The first three books present a mythical history based upon a “Continental” theme: America, Europe, and the Story of Los, which Blake later subdivided into sections entitled “Africa” and “Asia.” The first Book of Urizen, the Book of Los, and the Book of Ahania all depict myths of creation which describe in detail the characters of the autocratic Urizen and the rebellious Los of the Continental books. The later three books of Urizen were made at the same time Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason was outlawed, 1794, and not unlike Paine, Blake undermined Biblical authority by questioning the status of divine revelation derived from the writings of the Mosaic period. These unusual illuminated books engaged not only the highly politicized debate about the role of religion in society, but they were also executed with original and untraditional techniques. The process involved interchanging 8 – 26 color-printed, relief-etched plates. God knows how many times the plates were acid-bathed, but conceivably they were first printed in grey-black ink, then simultaneously touched up with ink and water color. As one would expect, the result is a complete Blakean invention. 

Since the exhibit was not organized in a chronological order, I suggest making several visits in order to appreciate Blake’s unique graphic vision as well as the uncanny modernity of his plastic sensibility. I personally like the pencil drawings and some of the preliminary sketches for color prints. Blake’s imagery came directly from the source of power of his imagination, rather than from life. A magnificent example of this is “Pity.” In three pencil studies, one witnesses how Blake alters the vertical format to a horizontal composition by lowering the upper half of the configuration, moving the leaping horse to the right and the figure holding the newborn infant in the opposite direction.  As a whole, the monumental design and pictorial flatness of “Pity” reminds me of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Race Track,” also known as “Death on a Pale Horse,” or any of his moonlight marine paintings. In both Blake and Ryder, a haunting quality of fleetingness is conveyed through large, silhouette-like forms, usually constructed frontally and close to the picture plane. Similarly conceived, and with the same motif, are “Elohim Creating Adam” and “Satan Exulting Over Eve.”
One of the great highlights in the exhibit is to see examples of Blake’s paintings. Blake was not a painter in the conventional sense, since he never really mastered the technique of oil painting. However, why should we expect Blake to have followed the conventional procedures of oil painting? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that he used strange techniques for a reason? After all, Ryder mixed candle grease and animal fat into his oil paint! Blake used carpenter’s glue as a glazing agent because, as Gilchrist informs us, Joseph, the sacred carpenter, appeared to Blake in a dream and revealed his secret to him. Needless to say, when one looks at either Blake’s or Ryder’s surfaces, one is astonished by the unorthodox radiance of their imagery. I believe it was achieved by a deliberate and conscious act. In “The Angel Appearing to Zacharias,” in spite of the unfortunate oxidation of the surface, which has darkened the color, one is delighted by the delicate and jewel-like orchestration of the light falling on the two standing figures and the objects that surround them. The light source is not naturalistic, but is rather, as Blake would prefer, “the light of the mind.” It is also noteworthy to observe that, in his highly delineated shapes, the whole configuration in “The Angel” is constructed on the same plane, thus increasing its frontality against the flat background. This is a visual language that is also utilized in Romanesque frescoes.

During the last years of his life, from 1821 – 1827, Blake and his wife, Catherine, lived in poverty and obscurity. They rented a small two-room apartment from her brother-in-law. As later reported by a frequent visitor, “He always painted, drew, engraved and studied in the same room where they grilled, boiled, stewed and slept.” One would expect that kind of living situation would have been barely adequate for the corporeal Blake, but the real Blake lived elsewhere. It was during this time that Blake undertook what even he recognized as the synthesis of his broader spiritual vision: the illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is moving to think that Blake’s interpretation of Dante’s epic vision of Heaven and Hell was conceived under those unfitting circumstances.

Having received a commission from his friend and fellow artist, John Linnell, Blake began reading the Divine Comedy with great anticipation. It is said that he set out to learn Italian, and within a few weeks was able to read Dante in the original. Although Blake did not live to complete the entire series, the examples from pencil sketches, watercolors, and engravings demonstrate a sense of urgency in which the form and line become singularly bold and exhibit a looseness that is both lyrical and expressive. Never before had Blake’s work been so submissive to his imaginative process. In a preliminary pencil drawing, the imagery only emerges after the outlines are traced with pen and ink, and broad washes of color are applied in layers to create a beautiful and bizarre luminosity. Moreover, the figures of these late works appear to have masks but no weight, and they assemble into a unique linear rhythm. In “Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car,” the scene takes place in the earthly Paradise where Beatrice reprimanded Dante for his doubting and apprehensiveness during his journey. For Dante, the gryphon symbolized both Christ and Beatrice, the three maidens are Hope, Faith, and Charity, and the four heads of the Evangelists are floating amongst the winds to either side of Beatrice. It is Blake’s great predicament that, apart from admiring Dante as a great artist, he had grave theological reservations about the poet’s vision. However much Blake found in Dante’s vision that was compliant with the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no doubt Blake’s previous contemplation of the origins of political and religious systems, which is clearly illustrated in the Book of Urizen, brought him to a critical rethinking of the nature of creation itself. At any rate, the whole Blakean tradition is shown to be critical of Dante’s text. Again, in the same painting, for Beatrice, instead of a laurel wreath, Blake chose a golden crown. Even more interestingly, he turned the wheel of the car into a swirling vortex because, in Milton, it represented the passageway between the material world and eternity. Why, then, did Blake bring Milton into his illustration of Dante? Perhaps it had to do with Blake’s disapproval of Dante’s preoccupation with judgment and vengeance, or his endorsement of the doctrine of sin and punishment. How about Michelangelo, whom Blake regarded as “the 'supreme glory' of Italian art,” and from whom he borrowed a great deal, mostly through engravings, since he had never been to Italy or seen Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” One really wonders what Blake would have felt about the content of the fresco and “the Dante of art” himself.

Other than his work, one could say that Blake had no life at all. He was most industrious: he rose early, worked until exhausted, and then read. His devoted wife, Catherine, whom he taught to make and color prints, told one young friend: “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company. He is always in Paradise.” Their 45-year marriage was a central aspect of Blake’s life. There is nothing tragic about William Blake, however. There have been and always will be great artists whose vision will dictate the outcome of their lives. Perhaps their lack of tangible sensuality and familiar landmarks has made Blake’s work less accessible to a general audience. His paintings are a true visual rendering of the imagination. W. B. Yeats eloquently described Blake as “a too literal realist of the imagination as others are of nature.” It is certainly true in the case of a few other visionaries, like Albert Pinkham Ryder or Forrest Bess. Please don’t call them oddballs or marginally strange.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail


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