William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven Is Begun”


The Morgan Library and Museum September 11, 2009 – January 3, 2010

William Blake, plate 2 (title page) from America: a Prophecy (1793). Relief etching with hand coloring and white line etching. Copy A, printed ca. 1795. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909; PML 16134.

Once, when complimented on his reinvigoration of the painted image back when the smart money was betting on its extinction, Richard Artschwager grinned and replied, “I do everything wrong.”

That could be the epitaph, and battle cry, of William Blake: enemy of the state, abominator of religion, self-starting prophet, and overt reactionary in technology and art. Shredding every bit of common wisdom, then and now, Blake breached the unassailable wall between the literary and the pictorial, achieving acclaim (albeit belated) equally as a poet and a painter (in the modern era, only Pier Paolo Pasolini and Henri Michaux approached similar influence in dual disciplines). He worked his day job as a commercial engraver his entire life and never achieved his ambition to paint the large public works awarded to members of the Royal Academy; instead, the majority of his output was in the minor arts: book illustration, drawing, engraving, and watercolor. Compared to the dash and polish of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, the trendsetters of his time, Blake’s artwork is plodding and archaic. His figure drawings, at first glance, seem like clumsily muscle-bound imitations of Michelangelo, rounded and patterned so artificially that they could pass for doorknob designs. His color was often tonal and sometimes bloodless. And his illuminated books, as he called them, turn their back on printing technology since Gutenberg, using a single copper plate for both text and image. He had one retrospective in his lifetime, which was mounted in his family’s hosiery shop and panned by the one critic who wrote about it. Like Cézanne, he was discovered in the latter part of his life by a group of younger artists, but while Cézanne’s admirers became Fauves and Cubists, an epoch-defining avant-garde, Blake’s followers branded themselves the Ancients, rejected all modern trends in art (for a while, at least) and quickly fell into obscurity.

All of which, of course, makes William Blake the patron saint of our day. He was the paragon of DIY, seizing control of the means of production to promulgate his paeans to political revolution and Anglican apostasy. He was interdisciplinary to the core, not recognizing (or, more likely, not noticing) categories or credentials. His art was the sum of his passions, wresting perfection from impurity and inconsistency through the ferocity of his convictions. Resisting the masterpiece syndrome, his most important works are small scale and serial—incremental rather than overwhelming in their effect. His anticipation of the ever-burgeoning art of the graphic novel is too obvious to discuss. And his achievement remains well outside any arc, pantheon, or canon. He wrote his own narrative, and illustrated it as well.

Not quite the world in a grain of sand, but close, the exquisite new exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum packs nearly 100 works by Blake and related artists, all from the museum’s collection, into a single large room. We can’t help, in 2009, but witness Blake through the lens of post-colonialism, global warming, liberation struggles, religious scandals, and nuclear terrorism, and his visions and pronouncements are just as dire and magnificent as they were in his own day. Apocalyptic prophecy never dies, it just changes contexts. But what is most intriguing when confronted with these works is the way their delicacy, humor, and melancholy interact with Blake’s visual exuberance and striking inventions: the limpid gray washes depicting the sea in “The Wandering Moon” from Milton; the sepia text that hovers as if in 3-D above rainbow-colored inks in America: a Prophecy; the “Vision of Christ” that bursts from The Book of Job like a sunrise, an emblem of salvation without reference to an established creed, but embedded in the jewel-like pigments scrubbed into the paper. It is a heaven that admits souls, in the artist’s words, “not because they have curbed and governed their passions, or have no passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion, but realities of intellect, from which all the passions emanate, uncurbed in their eternal glory.”

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Thomas Micchelli