• Sun. May 26th, 2024

William Blake’s Prints Tapped the Power of a Wild Mind


Dec 28, 2023


“A wild pet for the supercultivated,” as T.S. Eliot called him, is only half the story of William Blake (1757-1827), a poet who is more famous for his influence on certain moderns (Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith) than actually read.

Blake combined extremes: rambling incantations about European history alongside short ditties on the soul that any child can enjoy. As he wrote in 1794: “I was angry with my friend; / I told my wrath, my wrath did end …”

He made drawings and paintings, too, and some nice ones appear among the 112 works in “William Blake: Visionary” at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, curated by the museum’s Edina Adam and Julian Brooks in cooperation with the Tate Britain, where the show originated. But the works that steal this concise and compelling retrospective are his prints, which were the primary means of Blake’s living.

In an age of pamphleteering and upward mobility, Blake’s “illuminated books,” as he called them, stuck out like a Gutenberg relic. His best known collection, “Songs of Innocence and Experience” (1789-94), six sheets of which are on view here, occupies a print block not much bigger than a credit card. Lean in close to “The Tyger,” his short hymn on creation from the “Songs.” Each detail bespeaks a child narrator’s awe and the clipped meter of a lullaby: the squiggly tails of his y’s (printed in booby-blue ink), the tendrils of green vines framing his tiny stanzas, the spotting of his folk-drawn beast at the foot of the page.

Born in London to working-class parents, Blake never saw the Continent, missing the Grand Tour and a classical education. His drawings feel both of their time — with neoclassical musculature and big Roman noses — but also self-found and a little palsied, as seen in the faces of “Laocoön” (1815-27), his engraving of the renowned Hellenistic Greek statue surrounded in graffiti-like inscriptions from Greek and Christian mythology.

Blake sought approval from the Royal Academy, London’s artistic gatekeeper, but never quite got it. (The Getty show was postponed by the pandemic, and as a result some of his more traditional paintings, and other telling works from the Tate debut missed their loan window.)

He apprenticed instead as an engraver — a title he could never shake — and made his living illustrating the books of others. By age 33, according to his skilled engraving of William Hogarth’s “Beggar’s Opera” (1790), he knew how cross hatching could convey depth and shadow — and showed deference to Hogarth, the society satirist whose work hung in London’s most exclusive clubs.

But Hogarth was 25 years gone. Revolutions were afoot: monarchies toppling in America and France, William Wilberforce’s crusade against the slave trade, deism on the loose. Blake found fellow travelers — the abolitionist bookseller Joseph Johnson, the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the Swiss gothic painter Henry Fuseli — and cut plates for them all. “Blake is damned good to steal from,” said Fuseli, whose dramatic ink drawings on view feel tame beside Blake’s wildings. “Fancy is the end, and not a means in his designs.”

Back then, text was printed from small pieces of metal type that stamped ink onto the page in positive. Conversely, illustrations such as Blake’s Hogarth were transferred to paper in negative, and had to be printed on separate sheets from text. Ink filled the incisions of an engraver’s plate, the metal face was wiped clean, and then the paper, squeezed deep into those incisions, bonded with the ink. Thanks to conflicting processes, text and images had to alternate pages.

Instead Blake found a new, empowering way for his books. He drew both words and images together directly onto his plates in wax. He then used acid to etch away all the negative space, revealing a unified, positive matrix, like a metal stamp. He inked impressions in different colors, then added pigments and inks to the page with brush.

This new process took time but allowed auteurship. In “America, a Prophecy” (1793), his 17-panel paean to the revolution of 1776, we follow Orc (rebellion and creation, personified) in his struggle against Albion (George III’s England, roughly) and Urizen (Blake’s deity of cold, unfeeling logic). Among squiggling roots, gusts and hellfire, the nude Orc, Blake’s strongest use of the human form, vogues and flops around stanzas, printed in blue, that tell how “British soldiers through the thirteen states sent up a howl / Of anguish, threw their swords and muskets to the earth and ran.” These pages look both scribal and conjured, like Polaroids from the Enlightenment unconscious.

No one else made such things. Not Fuseli or Francisco Goya, painters who confronted but seemed to fear such depths of imagination. While some poets who were Blake’s contemporaries (Keats, Shelley, Byron) also unearthed old verse forms (Blake preferred the long-winded “fourteeners” of George Chapman), only Blake so fully assaulted neoclassical visuals.

His allegories reach the density of J.R.R Tolkien. Occasionally cloying, they ask how much interpretation true political art can invite. But they were also necessary protection. When Thomas Paine supported the French Revolution in 1791, denouncing the conservative warnings of Edmund Burke, infamous trials followed in London. In an altercation with a soldier in 1803, Blake was charged with sedition; he was ultimately acquitted.

Glad those days are over. But recall one of the most talked-about acquisitions of 2023: a full-length portrait of the Polynesian prince Mai (1776) by Burke’s friend Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), founder of the Royal Academy, which cost $60 million, jointly raised by the Getty and London’s National Portrait Gallery. In 2026, “Mai” will come to the Getty. Reynolds sought a quiet dignity, and found it in his tattooed and turbaned subject. (And a wonderful portrait it is.)

Blake thought Reynolds was “hired by Satan for the depression of art,” and instead went for the jugular — his busy books attack colonial rule, child labor, patriarchy, religious zealotry and sexual repression (he and his wife, who was his colorist and collaborator, read “Paradise Lost” to each other in the nude, à la Adam and Eve. in his dense works, using an esoteric printing method that matched the spur of that moment. (His most abolitionist works, traditional engravings for John Stedman’s 1796 book on Suriname, don’t appear here because of the pandemic delay.) As our museums struggle to reflect colonial realities, this 18th-century debate — the hushed humanism or the wild radicalism — lives on.

In a final bid for a painter’s renown, Blake staged a solo show in 1809, which flopped. One oil painting, a scene from Thomas Gray’s ode “The Bard,” appears here, browned by bad varnish, odd and antique. Blake wouldn’t live to see the longed-for reforms of the 1830s: emancipation, voting, representation.

His last great illuminated book, “Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion” (1804-20), better reflects the final, frustrated years of this black sheep of Romanticism. The copy here is from Yale University, and its rainbow-colored creatures include the uber-mensch Orc bound like Prometheus, and a giant birdman contemplating the nature of vengeance, a pursuit that Blake, in incandescent orange cursive, calls “the destroyer of Grace & Repentance in the bosom.”

Put more simply, in the rest of that quatrain quoted at the top of this review: “I was angry with my foe; / I told it not, my wrath did grow.”

William Blake: Visionary Through Jan. 14, 2024, at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles; 310-440-7300; getty.edu.


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