Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Madman Across the Water

In May 1809, William Blake set up an exhibition of his works in a room above his brother’s hosiery shop in the house in which he was born and raised. Few people came to see the sixteen oddly beautiful works hung there, fewer picked up the Descriptive Catalogue Blake has written and printed to help explain his works, and even fewer bought anything. The sole review of the show published in The Examiner called the paintings “the wild effusions of a distempered brain.” Visitors straggled through as late as June 1810 to see the works. The length of the exhibition, however, marked not public interest but Blake’s own disappointment and wish to forget the hanging entirely. Two centuries later, the Tate Britain has recreated Blake’s failed show in an exhibition and Martin Myrone resurrects Blake’s weird and wonderful catalogue in William Blake’s Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. Through Myrone’s scholarly introduction and editing of Blake’s own effusions, we can travel back in time to see works such as Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (above, from 1805-1809) as Blake’s contemporaries may have seen them. Myrone paints Blake’s 1809 fiasco as a turning point in the poet-artists’ career in which the Blake we have come to know and love today is seen as just one of the many possible “Blakes” that could have come down to us.

Blake always thought on a cosmic level, and this exhibition aimed no lower. In his introduction, Myrone calls Blake’s 1809 exhibition “not merely a celebration of an artist’s work, a straightforward retrospective of a career, but an agenda-setting, forcefully polemical intervention into the art world, and an enterprise aimed at reforming not only the tastes of the public, but their morality as well, through the revival of the ‘grand style’ in art.” In Blake’s black and white world of art and morality, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Durer emerge as the heroes of the grand style, whereas Titian, Rubens, Correggio, and Rembrandt represent the weaker elements that have cheapened art and drained the energy from public morality. Blake specifically challenged the art and morality of his time by “calling out” artists, including one-time friend Thomas Stothard, by interpreting subjects in his own “grand style” way. Blake’s The Canterbury Pilgrims (above, from 1808) challenges the more conventional rendering of Stothard by going bigger and bolder and attempting to convey the human drama embedded in Chaucer’s famous work. “He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see,” Blake writes in his catalogue, “does not imagine at all.” Anyone who loves Blake’s almost superhuman confidence in his poetry will eat up similar brashness in the catalogue. When Blake decries other artists “laboring to destroy Imaginative power, by means of that infernal machine, called Chairo Oscuro,” it’s easy to forget that Caravaggio, the king of chiaroscuro, languished in near obscurity in the 1800s, remembered mostly through his imitators. I also wonder what Blake’s friend, Henry Fuseli, himself a fan of chiaroscuro’s effects, may have thought of Blake’s “infernal” judgment. Blake never pulled his punches. Seen in My Visions allows you to step in the ring with the poetic pugilist for as many rounds as you can stand.

Of the sixteen works shown in 1809, eleven survive, including Blake’s The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments (above, from 1800). The survivors show Blake’s work in tempera on canvas and watercolor on paper. Blake disdained oil painting as a symptom of art’s decline. Fresco, the medium for Michelangelo and Raphael, was forever, and Blake desired nothing less than eternity. In 1809, Blake still imagined a place in the mainstream art world for himself. None of the works shown in 1809 relate to the poetry Blake was writing and would later illustrate himself, gaining the fame he now enjoys posthumously. Chaucer, Thomas Gray, and the Bible provided the subject matter for Blake’s art. I found it difficult imagining a “Blake” different than the “Blake” I know so well, but Myrone convincingly argues for the possibility of at least one “Blake” that could have been. One of the lost works, titled Ancient Britons and standing at 3 meters high by 4 meters long, broke all the rules of what a “Blake” is known as. “A privately commissioned painting on a serious historic subject, painted in a severely classical style, full of patriot feeling, and completed on a very large scale,” Myrone describes Ancient Britons from the surviving clues. “If the picture had survived, our image of Blake might be quite radically different: he would be placed even more readily in the company of [James] Barry and Fuseli than he is now.” Would such a “Blake” be better or worse? If Ancient Britons were to reemerge from obscurity tomorrow, would the familiar “Blake” of soaring visions and stubborn independence be lost for good?

In the end, however, despite dreams of a parallel universe in which Blake and James Barry sit cozily beside each other in a prosaic list of painters of the period, we are left with the only Blake we know. After the failure of the 1809 show, Blake turned his back on the conventional art world. He participated in only one more exhibition in 1812. When Sir Joshua Reynolds, official tastemaker of Blake’s time and gatekeeper for artistic success, published his lectures, Blake annotated them with the bitter marginalia of a outsider with no hope of finding his way in. Seen in My Visions shows Blake at his visionary best, especially in works such as Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels (above, from 1805), but also at his pragmatic best, wishing for a way to become an insider without compromising his principles so as to better art and society from within the machinery itself. Even Blake knew that access to the inner workings of the system was the only way to change it. Denied the chance even to touch the levers of power, Blake forged a different path, lighting a long fuse for an artistic and philosophical bomb that would take decades to detonate and contribute to change. Even two centuries later, Blake explodes in our imaginations like few other artists. The exhibition and catalogue Seen in My Visions shows that Blake didn’t begin as a bomb thrower into the future.

[Many thanks to Tate Publishing for providing me with a review copy of William Blake’s Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, edited by Martin Myrone.]