The Metropolitan’s Blake exhibition originated at the greatly enlarged Tate Gallery in London, and included over twice as many items as its American version; such a vast sampling, served up scarcely more than two decades after another comprehensive show at the Tate in 1978, reveals an inordinate British affection for Blake. He represents, if we may presume to extrapolate an English view, an innocent religiosity, both ardent and nonsensical; a triumph of eccentricity, the Englishman’s cherished privilege and informal purchase on freedom; a plea and protest on behalf of the bejeweled old England buried beneath the grime of industrialism, “the dark Satanic mills” erected on the rational, mechanical, heartless premises symbolized by Newton and Voltaire; and a thrilling voice, like that of his contemporary Robert Burns, from the lower classes, lending proof of the progressive righteousness of Britain’s curious democracy.
Blake, born in 1757, was one of five children of a London hosier; his artistic leanings were placated by apprenticing him to an engraver, and Blake for the rest of his three score and ten years was a craftsman, an engraver, redolent of acids and inks—“still poor, still Dirty,” an observer commented of the artist and his faithful wife, Catherine. Not only did he engrave his own work and that of others in the painstakingly linear, “dot-and-lozenge” intaglio style of the time, but he developed his own method of relief engraving, painting onto the copper with an impervious liquid and then subjecting the plate to a double acid bath which left his marks standing. The process involved his laboriously writing his self-published poems in minute backward lettering, and produced an integrity of text and illustration not seen since medieval manuscripts, if then. The visions and rapt enthusiasms to which he was prone at times did distract him—he wrote, “My Abstract folly hurries me often away while I am at work, carrying me over Mountains & Valleys, which are not Real, in a land of Abstraction where Spectres of the Dead wander”—but a great deal of close, intent work was nevertheless accomplished.
The scaled-down but still ample American version of William Blake is housed in the lower level of the Robert Lehman Wing, beyond the medieval hall, beneath a farewell exhibit to Balthus. It is shadowy down there, and the conscientious viewer emerges with smarting corneas. Blake’s largest surviving works are watercolors, with pen and ink, two feet wide; his booklets Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (combined in 1794) were printed from plates measuring less than three by five inches, often in a pale ochre ink. In the large room containing a spread of these rare pages the Metropolitan has thoughtfully supplied magnifying glasses. In the nineteenth century, Blake loosened up: his watercolor illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1808) have a stately, flowing, flamelike grace; the figures, mostly of Albion, in his Jerusalem (1820) possess a largeness that only with much strenuous foreshortening fits into the spaces left to them by the crowded text; his illustrations to Dante, a huge project commissioned by his last supporter, John Linnell, in 1824 and far from completed when Blake died in 1827, show a new sweep and spaciousness. Certain of them—Dante Running from the Three Beasts, The Ascent of the Mountain of Purgatory, The Lawn with the Kings and Angels—could claim to be landscapes, airily deepening the shallow space that customarily backs the weightless acrobatics of Blake’s figures.
As befits an engraver, Blake lived in his lines. Energy, energy unbound, is his gospel, and the line is its vehicle. His colors are generally tints, varying on each print pulled. In the combative, self-promoting “Descriptive Catalogue” to his ill-fated exhibition of 1809, he proclaimed his loyalty to the “hard and wirey line of rectitude.” He wrote, “The Beauty proper for sublime art is lineaments,” and proclaimed, “He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing and mortal eye can see, does not imagine at all.” He denounced “that infernal machine Chiaro Oscuro,” claimed that Rubens loaded his canvases with “hellish brownness,” and condemned the oil technique—“a fetter to genius, and a dungeon to art”—that had come to dominate painting: “Oil…deadens every colour it is mixed with, and in a little time becomes a yellow mask over all that it touches.” Instead, Blake sought, with sometimes friable and unstable results, to revive the fresco technique of muralists, using glue-based washes to imitate egg tempera on wet plaster; he never traveled to Europe and never saw at first hand the handiwork of his models Michelangelo and Raphael.
Blake’s watercolors and tinted prints come across as drawings first and representations of depth and atmosphere second. In the exceptionally fine and large-scaled illustrations to Paradise Lost, the delicate outlines limn both form and the flow of force in a floating world innocent of receding perspective. In Christ Offers to Redeem Man (see illustration on page 10), for instance, the double angels on either side of the Christ-God central configuration flow downward in robes indistinguishable from abstract ripples, and God is surreally reduced to one foot, a head purely of hair, and two massive hands that hold the supple, submissive body of Christ with the hypersensitive apprehension of a lover. In his filmy robe Christ has a shapely calf and more than a hint of buttocks; the sense of erotic currents overwhelms the theological content.
The body in Blake is coterminous with the human spirit: “The notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged.” The notion of nudity, in Blake’s time as in ours, carried with it the suggestion of a prelapsarian, uncorrupt world: when Blake and his wife were discovered sitting nude in their garden in Lambeth, he purportedly remarked, “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.” His nudes are not anatomically correct—the male genitals are fudged and the female is denied her triangle of pubic hair—but they appear naked even when clothed, with the peculiar flayed nakedness of anatomical illustrations.
Marilyn Butler points out in her catalog essay, “Blake in His Time,” that “his drawing of the body is visibly indebted throughout to eighteenth-century anatomical drawing.” During his brief period of study at the Royal Academy, he attended the classes of the anatomist William Hunter, but it is not clear when, after the Royal Academy, Blake ever looked at a nude body beyond his own and his wife’s. His nudes are foreshortened à la Michelangelo, but without convincing us, as Michelangelo does, of an internal logic of muscle and bone. Blake’s nudes, with their linear indications of vein and sinew, can be expressive, and arouse tenderness in us—consider the two pathetic figures, bowed in parallel as if being whipped, on the title page of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and the long-thighed Oothoon depicted in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), tied to her tormented rapist Bromion while her love, Theotormon, rejects her in an abject huddle of disembodied arms and legs.
His nudes strike us as above all a set of symbols, pliantly subject to abstract arrangement on the page. In the illustration to page 72 of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (circa 1795– 1797), Hope becomes a six-winged tiny angel, precisely vertical, reaching down to touch the lips of a frowning poet, whose impossibly circular knee floats toward us while his other leg resolves in a spiral of abstract form. Even more amazingly stylized is the tawny watercolor Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels (circa 1805, and shown at the Royal Academy in 1808), wherein the leaning angels with their uplifted wings, tip feathers touching, form a flamboyant triangle on the base of Christ’s supine body. Such maneuvers are more legible but not much less artificial than the neatly packed sardines of The Rout of the Rebel Angels (1808) or the rectangular configuration of the color print The House of Death (1795/circa 1805; see illustration on page 10) or the march of fists and faces across The Stygian Lake, with the Ireful Sinners Fighting, from his unengraved illustrations to Dante. As a drill sergeant for souls, Blake was Dante’s soulmate, and his seething Vision of the Last Judgment (1808) has a bubbling, plaited, turbulent incorporeality that makes it a more plausible, if less humane, vision than Michelangelo’s great wall of struggling nudes. Perhaps Blake saw angels too easily; he skywrites with bodies; they form a species of handwriting, spelling out messages to which we have lost, often, the code.
His humanitarian vision, his cry against repression, springs from the same liberal optimism and sense of infinite human possibility that allow him to manipulate and stretch the human figure, as an emblem of liquid, plastic spirit. His most memorable images depend on contortion: would Newton (1795/circa 1805) be iconic—The Economist and Rolling Stone recently made covers of it—were it not for the magnificent, compressing gesture that lets the unexpectedly curly-haired, Apollonian savant, naked as a syllogism, reach way down with his calipers and forefinger to touch a diagram at the level of his elegant feet? (Blake’s feet are invariably elegant.) Would Nebuchadnezzar (1795/circa 1805) be nearly as marvelous were the humbled king not on all fours, growing claws on his toes, veined with ribbons of transformation, and registering on his creased face the dismay of metamorphosis? Would The Ancient of Days (1824?) be less Godlike if he were not, in his reddish-brown empyrean, composed of two legs, one huge reaching arm, and white hair and beard whipped sideways by a cosmic wind? Gesture, in Blake, links the seen and the unseen; reaching and pointing recur, evangelistically.
The catalog has for its cover The Angel of the Revelation (circa 1803– 1805), who holds in one hand a tiny open book and in the other seems to be hailing or upholding the universe; Albion rose (circa 1793/circa 1796; see illustration on page 9) announces himself with outflung hands in a sunrise of triumphant expectation. Albion becomes Jerusalem; all “Human Forms” become immortal. This color-printed engraving, finished with pen and ink and watercolor, is one of the few Blakes on view that compel awareness of color; a full spectrum encircles the pink youth at the center, as he stands on rocks made unintentionally lichenous by the blotting and blurring of printing inks. Newton and Nebuchadnezzar also bear this lichenous look, composed of vibrant ochres and blue-greens, but within a cavelike darkness.
I found the exhibit itself a bit cavelike, and confusing. My notes (e.g., “I labor upwards into futurity” Swimmer) bear, I discover, little relation to the catalog, and its index offers an indifferent guide to its contents, involving many bracketed numbers in both boldface and roman type. The exhibition does not attempt a strictly chronological arrangement; perhaps none was possible. Blake’s creative output abounded in delays and abandoned projects—much of what is admired and incorporated into the history of art was intended to be engraved and placed in a book. Books, rather than paintings for sale and display, were his primary creative objective; though he looked backward to Gothic art and mythic imagery, he was thoroughly enlisted in the print revolution. The most lavish of his finished productions, Jerusalem (consisting of one hundred plates, all but a few of them illustrated, and printed in six copies, five in black ink and one in orange and hand-painted), began by stating “To the Public”:
Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear,
Within the unfathomd caverns of my Ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be.
The best-known of his books, of course, are the Songs, of innocence and of experience. It is instructive to see them in the paper, so to speak, tiny and demurely colored—pretty chapbooks meant to be slipped into jacket pockets, in the same decade when Wordsworth, in his and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), was asking “how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” Some of poems seem banal, pseudo-Christian doggerel and others are so laconically profound as to need the twentieth century to appreciate them:
Rose, thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
It would take Nietzsche and Freud to explicate those fatal maneuvers on the bed of crimson joy, and Marx to explain how—to quote Blake’s “London”—“God & his Priest & King… make up a heaven of our misery” and how “every cry of every Man” testifies to “mind-forg’d manacles.” Blake’s anti-repressive wisdom descends to us not in his long, long-lined allegorical epics but in isolated couplets—
If the sun and moon should doubt
They’d immediately go out.
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.
The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy—
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
But desire gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.
There is a smile of love,
And there is a smile of deceit,
And there is a smile of smiles
In which these two smiles meet.
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of gratified desire—
and in his marvelous one-liners: Milton “was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”; “Eternity is in love with the production of time”; “One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression”; “To generalize is to be an idiot”; “He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars”; and of Sir Joshua Reynolds, “This Man was Hired to Depress Art.”
But was Blake sane? His fiery wit, reckless as a prophet’s rage, was not for all hands to warm themselves by. Toward the end of his obscure, drudging life he began to attract attention from younger men, who recorded varying impressions of his conversation. Samuel Palmer, the painter, remembered Blake as “anything but sectarian or exclusive, finding sources of delight throughout the whole range of art; while, as a critic, he was judicious and discriminating.” Whereas Crabbe Robinson in his diary spoke of “the wild & strange strange rhapsodies uttered by this insane man of genius” and complained that “their [sic] being really no system or connection in his mind at all, his future conversation will be but varieties of wildness and incongruity.” His wife, the docile Catherine, whom he taught to read and write and make prints, famously confided to a friend, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.”
When Blake was four, he saw God put his head to the window; six or so years later, walking on Peckham Rye, he saw “a tree filled with angels” and, on another boyhood occasion, saw angels striding amid haymakers.* Crabbe Robinson in his 1825 diary recorded that Blake declared the earth is flat and “denied that the natural world is any thing. It is all nothing and Satan’s empire is the empire of nothing.” He claimed to talk to Milton, Shakespeare, and Voltaire, the last in a language that was “probably French, but to my ear it became English.” More pertinently to his visual art, he told another acolyte in his last years, “I can look at a knot in a piece of wood till I am frightened at it.” Van Gogh might have recognized the sensation.
The classic doctrine of inspiration made every artist insane, or at least out of his head, at the creative peak. Blake’s long life demonstrates plenty of coherence and concentration, as he painstakingly applied learned engraving skills and carried out a succession of extended projects. Yet his artistic achievement does seem to occupy a plane different from that of, say, Dürer or Cézanne or—another worker at grandiose and interrupted projects—Michelangelo. We understand, we feel, what they were getting at. Even Blake’s friend Henry Fuseli was fantastic in a more calculated and hence intelligible way. There is, as we tread through the dim lower galleries of the Lehman Wing, something unsteady underfoot, something slippery, which makes the exhibition hard to organize in retrospect, though certain images of uncanny vividness and unabashed loveliness continue to glow in the mind.
See G.E. Bentley Jr., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (Yale University Press, 2001).↩
See G.E. Bentley Jr., The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (Yale University Press, 2001).↩