Fearful Symmetry: William Blake as an artist

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Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

William Blake, ‘The Tyger’

The historical and social context in which William Blake lived and developed his art was a period of swift and dramatic changes. American and French revolutions were leaving profound traces of hope for a fairer social and political justice, and the Industrial revolution changed completely the economic landscape. In such a perspective, Blake’s art and his thought reflect the radical ideas and need for change. The themes he explored in his work were linked to the crucial issues that were emerging, such as the outcome of revolution, slave trade and personal, sexual and social freedom. He wrote about these problems in his poetry and prose work often combining his vision in a wider artistic view that aimed to attain the importance of a prophesy.

Blake was trained as an engraver and an illustrator at the Royal Academy where the imitation of classical art and Renaissance masters was paramount. They studied the works of Raphael and Michelangelo with special attention to drawing and body’s proportions as well as to the juxtaposition of the images in the picture. This idea of art developed in what was called the neo-classical style in painters such as Jacques-Louis David and other artists of the Napoleonic era. Differently, Blake wished to be engaged in a personal vision that looked back at medieval art, to Gothic architecture and sculpture and to the illustrations of the illuminated books. His teachers and inspirators were James Barry and Henry Fuseli. They followed the rules dictated by the Royal Academy. Barry’s work was centred on large scale historical pictures while Fuseli emphasised intense emotions in his artwork depicting exaggerated postures and supernatural subjects, as in his famous painting ‘Nightmare’.  Blake’s pictures reflect in part this influence but in a freer and less academic way.

His poetry, pictures and prophetic books were subversively radical but also rather cryptic in their symbolism, conveying an obscure message that could be overlooked as naive or too idealistic. Therefore, the meaning is not obvious but layers of metaphors obscure it. This was probably intentional in part, or in the style of the artist, and certainly contributed to inspire admiration in his fellow artists, on the one hand, and to his partial success and eventual failure, on the other hand. He was an independent spirit, which meant he was at the margin of the mainstream art world and art market. Thus, his radical thought reached only a restricted circle of admirers and supporters without spreading and causing problems to the establishment. Nevertheless, overturning the social order was not probably Blake’s intention. As a poet and an artist, his main aim was to express his feelings and ideas revealing the visions of his imagination, which was the leading drive of his art and, according to him, the central force of human life. 

For him, reason brings to division and dominated the society he lived in. It is a fallen world, symbolised in the image of miners who work in darkness like slaves. In this society, the artist must struggle to maintain alive the voice of the imagination. His effort to regain a whole vision is parallel to his struggle for redemption where the figure of Christ and his sacrifice is central. Hence, in his works, innocence represents a pure free state of being, but mankind must pass through experience as well, and accept it as such to find final fulfilment. The imagination, not the senses or the observation of nature, is the key to attain understanding of the world, an eternal world of ideas that relates to Neo-Platonic vision. In this perspective, his picture of Newton symbolises materialism; he measures the world with a pair of compasses expressing a narcissistic narrow activity. Similarly to Newton, in Blake’s artwork, squatting and crouched postures, bent or caged figures represent the state of slavery, a spiritual despair in which mankind is entrapped by religious or social conventions. On the other hand, figures depicted with open arms, like ‘Albion Rose’ (1793), or floating in the air, sometimes depicted from the back, represent the struggle for freedom, or attained freedom, through imagination, a state of mind in progress rather than a final physical achievement. Thus, art and writing merge in Blake’s work, both in his innovative engraving techniques, that combine text and picture, and in the themes he developed in his writings and illustrated in the artworks.

The exhibition at Tate Britain, which is on until 2nd February 2020, illustrates chronologically his career as an engraver, illustrator and painter highlighting his prophetic vision and skilful technical abilities. The Bible, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Gaelic stories from Macpherson’s Ossian version, Milton’s and Dante’s poetry are the subjects of his illustrations. His original work also shows an invented mythology where rebellious characters, such as Tiriel and Orc, struggle to attain freedom of imagination in a bleak materialistic world. The pictures from the Small Book of Design show his ability to work in small scale with vivid colours using ink and watercolour to mark the line of drawing imitating illuminated medieval illustrations. He refused the chiaroscuro technique opting for a personal pictorial rendering that aimed to convey the message in the form and colours rather than depicting a naturalistic arrangement. His ambition was to work in a larger scale, especially in the last stage of his career, but this project ended in a failure. His independent exhibition in Broad street in 1809 at his brother’s house was a frustrating experience. He felt he was abandoned by his friends and undermined by critics. Nevertheless, he had a new creative phase in the 1820s with Jerusalem and the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, mainly Inferno

Illustrating was the field where he best expressed his ideas and talent as an artist. His friends and supporters, such as Thomas Butts and William Hayley, admired his skilful techniques and originality as well as his independent radical ideas. Despite his frustration and lack of success, his work is still appealing and modern today because of the unique symbolism of his images and compositions, almost surrealist and abstract in some cases. His beasts with multiple heads or his ‘monsters’, like the ‘Ghost of a Flea’, are examples of unique creativity unequalled until the advent of modern art. Unfortunately, his innovative pictorial techniques were not always successful as the watercolour he added to prints sometimes faded or became very vulnerable and the glue he added to tempera, instead of yolk, darkened or deteriorated. However, his attempt to innovate and pursue a personal vision in a creative urge that never faded, is admirable. After the avant-garde movements and the experiments of contemporary art we can appreciate today his relentless inventiveness and experimentation. He fought social and political conventions and injustices throughout his life refusing to compromise, which brought partial failure both in his career as an artist and as an idealist but also produced extreme creativity.  

A final vision of a possible reconciliation of extremes is present in his last works such a Jerusalem. The night watchman holding a lamp on the frontispiece plate enters the dark space of a Gothic door; it symbolises the poet, who, like a prophet, explores the unknown and watches over mankind. It is an ambitious vision that places the poet in an important but potentially vulnerable position and confirms Blake’s wish of change. This might lead to redemption, that is, to a better world in which morality and materiality would balance and human imagination would grant renewal in creativity.

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