Advent’s Radical Prophet

“William Blake” at the Tate Britain Museum, Millbank, London.
Until February 2, 2020.

By Mark Michael

London’s Tate Britain Museum lies just a few steps from the Pimlico tube stop, bordering some of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. But I’d suggest approaching its massive “William Blake” exhibition, as I did, by alighting at Westminster, and walking alongside the Houses of Parliament in what seems an apocalyptic twilight for British politics. “Madness, madness, Brexit is madness!” a trio sang on one side of me, while protesters hoisted high their placards on the other, “I’m with Boris! No Surrender!”

Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon, the curators of the 300-piece exhibition, the largest display of Blake’s work in a generation, emphasize that the artist, too, was cursed to live in interesting times. His was, they say, an age of “radical thought, war and global unrest.” The American Revolution, France’s Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Corn Law riots framed his life. A self-professed radical, Blake counted public crusaders for universal suffrage, women’s rights and the abolition of slavery among his friends and patrons, and he lifted up a vision of liberated humanity and a hope for a new city of justice and peace.

This is a woke Blake for the 21st century. The exhibition’s selections and interpretive materials are quick to tug at the threads of race consciousness, sexual liberation, pacificism, and proto-environmentalism clearly present in the tangles of the great artist’s mind. “A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows,” an engraving of a Caribbean lynching scene that kindled his deep hatred of slavery, is centrally featured in a survey of his early work. Nearby are a series of plates he executed (for a handsome fee) to illustrate a German childrearing manual translated by the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Selections from Blake’s allegorical epic, America, a supernatural contest between George Washington and “The Guardian Prince of Albion” waged on the fields of the lost continent of Atlantis, are selected to emphasize Blake’s hatred of tyranny and trust in self-government.

The exhibition also, perhaps, connects with 21st century experience in casting the artist as a continually beleaguered gig-worker, running through an immense chain of unreliable or offended patrons. The prices paid for many of the pieces are carefully documented, and several of the comparative works are by students Blake took in to extend his continually dwindling resources. Extended series of illustrations for contemporary meditations on death and fantastical tales of his own stand alongside commissions based on texts from Milton, Dante, Bunyan, and, of course, the Bible. The wide variety marks out deep wells of imagination, as well as wearying progression of recycled bearded ancients, histrionic maidens and muscle-bound warriors.

A large number of Blake’s illustrated books, which feature his own arcane poetry alongside vivid, though sometimes unrelated, imagery are displayed, and invite close inspection. Blake himself designed the process, “relief etching,” that he used to print them. Evocatively deploying acid to eat away copper plate to reveal the desired image, the technique saved the cost of hand-coloring and allowed the text to be printed in (sadly faded) colored ink.

Like many contemporary exhibitions, the Tate displays unfolds the technical mysteries of the process in great detail. It frustratingly pleads a variety of interpretations to pawn off its duty to help the viewer understand the complex combinations of text and image. That Blake claimed that relief etching was revealed to him in a vision and that the process resulted in works with a noted affinity to medieval illuminated manuscripts goes unmentioned.

This gestures at a missed opportunity at the heart of this otherwise deeply significant collection. Perhaps half the works on display deal with Biblical themes, including the marvelous gallery of Old and New Testament watercolors commissioned by Thomas Butts. But the curators consistently give short shrift to Blake’s profound Christian faith and his sense of responsibility to England’s religious heritage.

Blake’s first major assignment as an apprentice was drawing the grave monuments of Westminster Abbey, a place he described to his friend Samuel Palmer as the site of “his earliest and most sacred recollections.” In his magisterial biography of the artist, Peter Ackroyd remarks, “His poetry and paintings are imbued with Biblical motifs and images; the very curve and cadence of his sentences are derived from the Old Testament” (25). An autodidact, he read widely in Christian mysticism, orthodox and heretical, and his seemingly modern sexual attitudes spring mainly from Swedenborg’s theories of the body’s spiritual energies. Blake was also, to the bafflement of his many secular contemporaries, a visionary all his life, having first glimpsed a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye, then a meadow on London’s edge, at the age of eight.

He continually reworked his Ancient of Days, the famous image of the mighty Creator plotting the worlds with his golden compass. A vividly colored version, completed just days before his death, is prominently featured in the Tate exhibition. The powerful figure clearly evokes Blake’s hero Michelangelo. Ackroyd argues for inspiration from a carving on Richard II’s tomb canopy in the Abbey. But Blake also said he had seen the Ancient of Days atop the staircase in his cramped London house.  He rendered on paper nothing less than what God Himself had revealed.

Blake viewed himself first not as a poet or an artist, much less a political activist, but as a prophet, a seer who glimpsed the glory of God and was forever transformed. A deeply arresting self-portrait in the exhibition’s first room marks him as a man of penetrating vision, one who sees through the events of his own time to the eternal verities.

Early biographer Allan Cunningham noted this mingling of the ages in Blake’s final epic, Jerusalem, a factor which he blames for the project’s abject commercial failure. “Of new designs there are no less than a hundred and what their meaning is the artist has left unexplained. It seems of a religious, political, and spiritual kind and wanders from hell to heaven and from heaven to earth, now glancing into the disturbances of our day and then making a transition to the antediluvians.”

As he aged, Blake’s attention turned insistently back to Jesus, and the exhibition includes several of his most notable images of the Savior. These include an evocative treatment of Psalm 18:16, “He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.” David, bound in chains (a recurrent motif in Blake), barely lifts his dead above the dark waters. But a youthful Christ gazes at him in love, glowing with light and strength. Christ’s arms are outstretched, cruciform, and he swoops down on a throne of seven cherubim. He comes as the Savior to a world bound in chains of its own making, chains that technological progress and sharp new ideas could not ultimately sever.

Blake did not deal out a vague, undifferentiated “spirituality” to his own age of “radical thought, war and global unrest.” Like John the Baptist-he thrust his finger toward the Lamb of God, and awaited in hope the new city coming down from God. “Just before he died,” an onlooker remembered, “His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brightn’d and he burst out into singing of the things he saw in Heaven.” Blake’s is an Advent vision, pained by the world’s ancient wounds, seeing clearly to the truth of things, and full of the joy of heaven.


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