Sunday, July 13, 2008

Blake the Artist

William Blake the poet is very well known, but how about Blake the artist? I knew Blake's art long before I knew his poetry, but I think that says more about me than about Blake. I always think of England as a land of the word rather than the image. It's best accomplishments are literary (you should hear how the French envy the English in this regard; they would happily trade Moliere and Racine for Shakespeare and Milton). In general, the English speaking world privileges the word over the image as a bearer of meaning, a legacy of the Reformation. Usually I consider most English art after the Reformation to be earnest and provincial imitations of French, Flemmish, and Italian art. All the pedantry that the English brought to art (especially to Classical art) concealed their profound discomfort with it. The Italians and the French drink in a whole language of form with their mother's milk. They feel at home and conversant with imagery in a way that the post-Reformation English don't (curiously this was never a problem for the Calvinist Dutch who had the largest single art market in 17th century Europe and cranked out legions of their own artists; among them, Rembrandt).
Most of the best English artists before the 20th century are all outsiders; artists beyond the pale of convention and respectability in one way or another. And no one was more beyond the pale than Blake. His work is like absolutely nothing else produced in England at the time. It is hard to believe that Blake's art comes from the same country whose respectable conventional art was dominated by Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West (an American).
I've loved his art since I was a boy, but it does have the obsessive quality of an isolated imagination. It is highly mannered and stylized with a resort to pattern sometimes betraying more of an uncertain drawing hand than a real command of form.
What impresses me most about Blake's art these days is its grandeur. Looking at the 2 examples above, it is hard to remember that most of Blake's art is very small in size. He made his living as an engraver, and most of his work is book-size. Most of it was made to be held in our hands. Despite that small size, they have a true grandeur of form and conception that might as well be a hundred feet high. These are majestic images, both from toward the end of Blake's life and from 2 of his finest projects; engraved illustrations to the Book of Job, and a series of watercolors illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy. I cannot imagine 2 more unsympathetic works for Blake to illustrate: God telling Job, "If you don't understand Me, then it's too damn bad!"; or Dante's rationalizing hierarchical heaven and hell. Yet Blake makes both of them his own.
The watercolor at top shows an episode from the Inferno where Dante and Virgil encounter the doomed young lovers Paolo and Francesca in the whirlwind of the lustful. Blake imagines the whirlwind as a huge abstract spiral throwing the lovers out of the picture to the left.
The image on the bottom is one of the engravings from his illustrations to Job. It shows Job praying on behalf of his friends, the triangular sacrificial flame of his altar penetrating to the top of the illustration and into the center of God imagined as a huge sun that spreads beyond the frame into the decorative margins.
Works like these meant a lot to the teenaged budding artist me. My attempts to share Blake's art with friends, family, and even teachers in dear old Texas of that time were met with incomprehension and occasional ridicule. I can only imagine what late 18th and early 19th century London must have been like for Blake.
Blake claimed to be a visionary, that he could see angels and spirits. He even drew spirits "from life" for visitors, anticipating the antics of early 19th century Spiritualism. But these were only theatrics.
Blake wanted to make a timeless art that was about the spiritual reality that he believed lay beneath the surface of perceived reality. In that ambition, he anticipates a lot of later art. His art is less seances and trances, and more a very original creation out of a very personal and romanticized conception of Medieval Art, out of Asian art (he was one of the first artists to use non-Western art for inspiration), and Italian Mannerist art from the 16th century. His art was not about transcendental escape, but about somehow reimagining the history he witnessed in terms of timeless mythological form (Goya is doing something similar at the same time, but in secret).


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thank you for illuminating more about Blake's art.

Anonymous said...

Turner also seems sui generis.

I hadn't thought about it, but you are right - there really wasn't much of interest in British art for several centuries, with the exception of two or three eccentrics who refused the portraits-n-historicals path to financial independence.