Today’s curators are fond of assembling shows that go beyond plain reconsideration of centuries-old works—they aim to present the historical art as relevant to current times. Better still is when the artists of yore share the concerns of today’s artists, or at least carry some of the attitudes and personality traits to which contemporary artists aspire. Consider, for example, Tate Britain’s 2005 exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds, which featured the President of the Royal Academy as a creator and chronicler of celebrity, “a skilled networker, a master of spin,” and “a driving force in the creation of cult of celebrity which is so familiar today.” And now, Reynolds’ compatriot and nemesis William Blake is recontextualized in “William Blake: Visionary” at the Getty not only as a nonconformist and a transgressor of genre boundaries, but also as a disruptor to be remembered for his “critique of colonialism, slavery, and sexual repression.” Though the particulars sometimes warrant skepticism, “Visionary” succeeds in expanding the familiar description of Blake as a mystic and an anti-rationalist constrained by the neoclassical art establishment, to that of an unrelenting radical in both aesthetics and politics.
Resistance was in William Blake’s blood. Born in London in 1757, he was raised in a Dissenter family receptive to esoteric religious ideas and wary of authority. Nevertheless, according to the curators of the exhibition, Edina Adam and Julian Brooks, his 1779 enrollment into the Royal Academy, and his subsequent submissions of watercolors on historical topics to annual exhibitions, suggest that Blake at least attempted the trodden path of making narrative works that would bestow moral lessons on the public. His later recollections show how unequivocally bitter Blake was about his early years within the academic system: “Having spent the Vigour of my Youth and Genius under the Oppression of Sir Joshua and his Gang of Cunning Hired Knaves Without Employment and as much as could possibly be Without Bread, The Reader must Expect to Read in all my Remarks on these Books Nothing but Indignation and Resentment.” To be fair, Blake did not correctly follow the traditional academic route of his conventionally successful peers—he did not spend time in Italy and he never even traveled to the Continent. As a result, Blake’s knowledge of Renaissance painting and sculpture was mediated through prints, and much was lost in that translation.
But as the Getty exhibition confirms, it would be absurd to lament Blake’s failure to become a rank-and-file neoclassicist. His talents manifested in a maverick blend that defines a true Romantic artist: instead of being an interpreter of Hellenistic forms, Blake became a mythmaker who disseminated his original, often uncanny ideas through art. More notably, the artform he adapted was a hybrid of drawing and poetry presented via the medium of relief etching. This novel medium, much like the content of his work, was also of his own invention. Blake’s protean creations were the opposite of academic art based on a predetermined subject matter, predetermined colors, and predetermined composition with a predetermined outcome intended to elevate public morals through heroic narratives based in antiquity. Blake replaced this rote approach with his bespoke interpretation of classical forms infused with spirituality and rendered in sinuous gothic lines.
One example of this in the Getty show is Blake’s recurring Orc character, a figure represented by a muscular young man. Orc is a personage of Blake’s invention, from the 1793 America a Prophecy, who stands for defiance and revolution. He is the foil of Urizen—a symbol of tyranny and oppression manifest as an old, bearded man. In Blake’s cosmology, these characters tell the story of the rebellion against British rule. Orc’s fiery energy overtakes the old order of Urizen. The American Revolution was one of three bloody confrontations that were the background for Blake’s life. The armed conflicts of the times, including the Seven Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars, contributed to the sense of historic upheaval, justifying the high drama of Blake’s visionary mythology. The exhibition compiles some fine examples of his illustrated books, such as the aforementioned America a Prophecy, ten plates from a hand-colored copy of Jerusalem (1804–20), and “The Ancient Days” from Europe a Prophecy (1793–95) (all lent by the Yale Center for the British Art). Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and its counterpoint, Songs of Experience (1794), feature his inventive approach to textual illustration, where the text—in reverse—and the images are rendered on the same copper plate, culminating in a gestalt artwork that resists perceptual separation. Combining images and text came with a bonus: the text was not subjected to the normal rigors of censorship, something that aided Blake in concealing his radicalism.
There are some expected treasures in the exhibition as well as lovely surprises. Tate Britain, which lent most of the work, has shared Blake’s tempera painting The Ghost of a Flea (1819–20), as well as a suite of mid-1820s watercolors illustrating Dante. Blake’s belief that art history was cyclical, a series of declines and rebirths, set him against the medium of oil paint, which he saw as inferior, believing it obfuscates contours. His solution was to use watercolor or tempera, which he layered with animal glue. He believed that his tempera technique was the same used by Michelangelo when he painted his frescoes, though Blake only ever saw these works in reproduction. The way Blake used watercolor was equally unusual, since he did not mix the pigments on the palette, instead layering them directly on paper. The one exception in the show is Landscape near Felpham, a lovely plein-air watercolor sketch from about 1800 in which the medium is treated traditionally. Compare it to plate 20 of Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1804–10), a relief etching with watercolor where the pigment defies its characteristic liquidity. Blake always stayed faithful to his credo of self-determination and originality, as illustrated by one of several wall quotes: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans/ I will not Reason & compare: my business is to create” (from Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, 1820).
While the art-historical focus is typically on Blake’s pioneering work as a painter-illustrator and a poet-painter, the Getty exhibition also includes his drawings and engravings, as well as a selection of works by his contemporaries Benjamin West, James Barry, John Flaxman, George Romney, and Henri Fuseli. Among the most confounding works in the show (and given Blake’s visionary proclivities, his bar for confounding is set high) is an etching and engraving of the Vatican’s sculpture Laocoön and his Sons. Most likely, he first produced it in the process of illustrating Abraham Rees’s The Cyclopaedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and Literature in 1815. Then, over a decade later, within a year of his death in the summer of 1827, Blake filled hitherto blank background space with a jumble of inscriptions. Given the irregularities in font, size, and direction of the text, these writings appear to have been added at different times. These inscriptions reinterpret the familiar tragedy of the Trojan priest and his two sons as a Hebraic tale. Among the inscriptions consistent with Blake’s long-held skepticism about imitating classical art, there is a pithy and shockingly germane pronouncement about the relationship between art and money: “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on.” One wonders what the famously recalcitrant artist, poet, and religious visionary would have made of his work being presented by an art institution whose endowment last year was $8.4 billion.