WILLIAM BLAKE – Apprentice and Master.
Exhibition at Ashmolean Museum Oxford.
Few artists have ever been so versatile, or so original, as William Blake, artist, engraver, poet and satirist. Most people will recognize some of his extraordinary, powerful and arresting images. They have an impact far greater than their physical size might lead you to anticipate. The picture used on the poster for this event,
“Los howl’d” is actually quite small but amazingly bold and intense. The male figure is crouching, gnomelike, the arms wrapped around the head, whose face is a mask of indescribable horror, fear and dismay. It is comparable to the Expressionist painting “The Scream” done more than a century later by Edvard Munch. Both have a nightmare quality enhanced by their livid colouring. Blake’s picture is an illustration to his own book “The first Book of Urizen” published in 1794. He continued to write and depict his own stories and poems all his life, following the unfashionable belief that a work of art could be both literary and visual in tandem and on an equal footing. The pictures were not secondary, and nor was the text. They were complementary.
This exhibition traces Blake’s career and development. He never went to school but was apprenticed to an engraver, before training at the Royal Academy. He rejected fashionable taste and took inspiration from mediaeval and Renaissance art, particularly Michelangelo, with his perfect understanding of anatomy. Soon his creations started to depict a world of imagination, spirits, allegory and dreams. Many people enjoy Blake’s religious poetry, such as the hymn Jerusalem, without realizing how unorthodox his beliefs were. His parents brought him up in the Moravian Church and as well as reading the Bible he encountered belief in inspired visionary trances, Kabbalistic sacred sex, mysticism, alchemy, and the imminent Second Coming. The Moravian sect regarded Emmanuel Swedenborg, who believed that he had seen the New Jerusalem in visions, and spoken with angels, as a mystic and a prophet, and although Blake did not retain his faith in Swedenborg, his imagination was stimulated by such Continental and exotic currents of thought coming from far beyond the limited London world he inhabited.
In his twenties he produced a series of etchings entitled “All Religions are One and there is No Natural Religion”, followed by “The Book of Thel” which creates its own mythological world, in words and pictures. It was followed by “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, which proclaimed a philosophy of liberation from traditional restraint, and he risked prosecution as his Song of Liberty openly proclaimed his support for the French Revolution. In this work he included the astonishing image of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who went mad and lived as a beast for seven years. Like Los, the image has a ferocious intensity, a face full of horror staring out of a mane-like beard, claws growing out of his disturbingly animal footlike hands, so that we are not sure if he is human or quadruped.
Blake went on to publish “Europe: A Prophecy”, whose frontispiece features the famous image of God measuring the universe with a pair of compasses. It has a strong resemblance to his picture of Isaac Newton. In the book’s engravings, human figures seem possessed with demonic power and intensity; they weep, they shriek, they mourn, they supplicate. Two women crouch by a fire with a dead baby; angels are seen in company with devils; serpents writhe symbolically. The originals of these and many other immensely powerful pictures are brought together in this wonderful exhibition. In some cases there are several different versions of the same image as Blake coloured and finished them by hand. There are also examples of some of the inspired Bible illustrations he produced in later life - the images of Job and of the death of Ezekiel’s wife are full of suffering and compassion.
This is a very important exhibition. It is running only until 1st March 2015 so don’t miss it.