William Blake, a prophetic artist

Illustrazioni che riproducono le opere di William Blake di Zoa Studio (2001)

William Blake, poet but also painter and engraver died on 12 August 1827. Even today, almost 200 years after his death, Blake never ceases to amaze with his modernity and avant-garde talent, both in the literary and figurative arts. But on the other hand, one cannot write prophetic masterpieces like Milton, The Four Zoas (guess who this blog pays homage to) and then not even know how to do some watercolor for the Divine Comedy, right?

It is not the first time that we have dealt with such multifaceted talents, for example  Harry Clarke or Tarsem Singh. But keep reading to discover the story of one of the most expressive and “visionary” artists of all time.

William Blake – short biography

The beginnings

William Blake was born in London (in the Soho district, certainly different from what it is today) on November 28, 1757.

The son of a middle-class merchant, William Blake received vocational training rather than purely school education. Enrolled in drawing school at age 10 and an apprentice to a master book print and illustration engraver at age 15, Blake faced a predictable career in the world of typography. The importance of reading that was nurtured in his family meant that his artistic and literary skills develop in parallel, so much so that he began writing poetry around the age of 12.

He later enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art to study painting, but dropped out after a year. He found the teachings incompatible with the direction of his work. Gradually, Blake merged his writing with visual media – prints, watercolors and drawings – in a unique expressive form of enlightened poetry. Ladies and gentlemen, we are already talking about merging of media 250 years ago!

Eventually Blake founded his own commercial printing house, which allowed him the freedom to use his own presses and self-publish his richly illustrated volumes.

Blake’s personal life was peaceful. He married Catherine Boucher, who became his business partner and a great supporter. The couple had no children.

Dedication to art

Blake found affinity with some artists of the time, including Henry Fuseli, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but had only a few permanent patrons and died in financial trouble on August 12, 1827.

Later in the century, particularly British Pre-Raphaelite artists and later the Surrealists, found inspiration in Blake’s original and visionary art. Over the course of the 20th century Blake assumed a post alongside J.M.W. Turner and Constable as one of the greatest British artists. His statue was placed in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey on the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1957.

Blake’s dedication to his personal art was ambitious and uncompromising. He was attracted to epic themes that expressed his beliefs, deeply rooted in the fallen condition of humanity, on the pervasiveness of the forces of evil and on states of spiritual and moral crisis.

Busto di William Blake a Westminster Abbey
Busto di William Blake a Westminster Abbey

Works

His works make few references to reality; they are images of a parallel cosmos contained in William Blake’s imagination. This alternate universe was fueled by his extensive reading of the Bible, mythology, Milton and other literature, but it was also reflected in his study of art history.

During his training as an apprentice engraver, for example, he spent hours designing the Gothic architecture of Westminster Abbey. There, he absorbed the lessons offered by the cathedral’s stylized forms, lines and symmetry, the echoes of which can be seen in his art. Other sources, such as medieval illuminated manuscripts and engravings of works by Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer, proved to be other very important sources for Blake.

The originality of his work and the sometimes graphic content, as well as the eccentricity of his character, led some of Blake’s colleagues to question his sanity. Blake had visions of angels or spirits. The first occurred at the age of 10 when he saw “a tree full of angels, bright angelic wings that stood out on each branch like stars”. These experiences were a source of inspiration for the artist and he recorded them in letters and writings.

Yet Blake didn’t just live in his fantasy world. Much of his work has responded to the events of his time. London in the last years of the eighteenth century had absorbed the effects of the American and French revolutions, the internal revolts against class inequalities and the transformations of the industrial revolution. Blake viewed these political and social changes with suspicion, believing they predicted an impending apocalypse and the subjugation of humanity through new orders, including technological ones.

William Blake’s technique

Blake was able to control any stage of printing, from text to illustration, with the exception of paper production. But it didn’t stop there. In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake experimented with engraving, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing and finished products such as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. The plates were subsequently etched with acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design in relief (hence the name).

This is a reversal of the usual etching method, in which the lines of the design are exposed to acid and the plate printed with the carving method. Relief engraving (which Blake called a “stereotype” in The Ghost of Abel) was intended as a means of producing his illuminated books more rapidly than by carving. The stereotype, a process invented in 1725, involved making a fusion of metal from a woodcut, but Blake’s innovation was, as described above, very different. The pages printed from these plates were then hand colored with watercolors and stitched together to form a volume. Blake used illuminated print for most of his famous works, including Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.

Themes dear to William Blake

There are some distinctive themes in Blake’s poetry and although they often overlap, they deserve separate consideration, if only to bring them into focus. As mentioned earlier, they emerge as part of Blake’s indignation over late 18th-century conditions in England. They are, of course, expressed both explicitly and implicitly in his models of symbolism. An exploration of the following key themes will deepen understanding of Blake’s poems and relationship to contemporary conditions.

On being an artist

Blake firmly believed that his art would make a contribution to a moral, spiritual and intellectual revolution. In this respect he was in line with other conceptions of the romantic artist: genius inspired by special insights and visionary powers. The artists were distinguished by the powers of their creative imagination. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake conveyed his artistic manifesto and his desire to dedicate his prophetic craft to achieve social renewal.

Innocence

Blake’s understanding of innocence is a consequence of insight into the mysteries of the cosmos. He was never sentimental or naive about innocence. He once wrote: “Disorganized innocence: an impossibility. Innocence dwells in wisdom, but never in ignorance” (note written on the back of an edition of The Four Zoas).

As with much of Blake’s writing, the reader should be alert to the levels of meaning. In this case, we move from simple childish innocence to a vision of a universe of love and harmony. In addition, for Blake, innocence is not entirely reserved for children; it also manifests itself in the attitude and actions of men and women filled with the spirit of the divine as in The Cradle Song and The Divine Image. A central theme in Blake’s poetry is that of protection. The successful guardian is the adult who listens, who is attentive to the voice of innocence and responds appropriately.

Society and politics

Blake’s sympathy for the suffering of ordinary men, women and children in the real world was profound. He was a friend and partner of many radicals of the time, including Thomas Paine. He may be seen as a “visionary” but he was also keenly aware of social and political realities, as we have already seen, and was particularly upset by the Church’s complacency towards social abuse.

Blake was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, which he believed would eradicate tyrannical monarchs and false religion. He talks a lot about it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Tyger is a complex poem that has been interpreted in several ways: one of them is as a celebration of the revolutionary energies that purify a corrupt world and establish a new order.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Love and sexuality

What is notable about Blake in the religious and moral climate of the times is his celebration of sexuality due to his association with innocence, energy and desire. Blake was aware (for example in “A Little Girl Lost“) of the possibility that experience could corrupt sexuality and this dialectical opposition is revealed in the symbolism of The Blossom and its opposite The Sick Rose. In Songs of Experience, however, Blake explores the potential of human sexuality and the dangers it faces in the world of experience.

The Church, the Bible and Red Dragon

As introduced a few lines ago, another very important theme for William Blake was religion. Blake was particularly hostile to conventional religion and especially to the Church of England which he included among the “dark satanic mills”. Blake attacked the Church of England priesthood for promoting a rational religion that denied divinity in the human.

However, around 1805-1810, Blake was commissioned to create over a hundred paintings illustrating books from the Bible. Among them was a cycle of four paintings of the Great Red Dragon (Satan) from the Book of Revelations in the Bible. The dragon is described as “having seven heads and ten horns and on its heads seven crowns. Its tail attracted a third of the stars in the sky and threw them to the earth.”

Ralph Fiennes | Armitage AgonistesThe images are powerful. Many will remember the Red Dragon tattooed on Ralph Finnes’ back in the prequel film of The Silence of the Lambs entitled: Red Dragon. Finnes plays Francis Dolarhyde, a killer who has an obsession with WIlliam Blake’s painting. In the film he will attempt to make a metamorphosis to become the dragon of the Apocalypse himself. We even witness a scene in which Francis manages to access the illustration. which is located at the Brooklyn Museum and to eat it!

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