William Blake's printing and engraving: New show does not do his vision justice

William Blake’s influence as both visionary and revolutionary is felt to this day. For an exhibition to do justice to his frenzied imagination and political zeal is a big ask, says Zoe Pilger

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The Independent Culture

“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,” wrote William Blake (1757-1827), poet, artist, and visionary in the true sense: he had visions of angels in the trees of Peckham Rye when he was a boy.

Like Orwell, Blake has been claimed by left and right. His poem “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” (1808) has become famous as the nationalistic hymn “Jerusalem”, sung at party conferences and church services, which is absurd. He would most likely have been on the side of the rioters in London in 2011.

Blake remains as relevant as ever. In his poem “London” (1794), he described “the mind-forged manacles” imposed on the population by the tyranny of Church, State, and monarchy. The people’s enslavement is both economic and spiritual. Responsibility for the great social inequality in England “runs in blood down  Palace walls”.

It seems that Blake can be whoever people want him to be. The political elements of his work can easily be played down in favour of a more sanitised idea of the artist as a whimsical nutter, a genius, or, worst of all, a national treasure. While aligned with the Romantics, his was a singular imagination. He was angry. The personal cosmology that he developed, expressed in “illuminated books” of both text and image, was deeply moral, while rejecting conventional morality. 

For all these reasons, I was excited to see  the new exhibition of Blake’s life and works at  the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. William Blake: Apprentice and Master focuses on his method of printing and engraving. This  is a potentially interesting angle; however, I was underwhelmed.

Blake lived through an astoundingly rich period: the Enlightenment, revolutions in America and France, both of which he supported, and yet there is not enough historical context here. This exhibition does not convey with enough excitement or imagination why Blake was so exceptional. 

There is too much technical detail about engraving, which is dull, and weighs down the story of how he came to be an artist. The son of a Soho hosier, he was not born into the establishment that he so reviled. He wrote in the margins of his copy of The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1798), esteemed President of the Royal Academy where Blake was briefly a student, “this man was hired to depress art”.

The book is included here; it is wonderful to see Blake’s handwriting. Indeed, it is wonderful to see all his works, but the narrative is skewed. It begins with a painting of the  Covent Garden auction house that Blake visited as a child. He was prodigious and largely self- educated. Apprenticed to an engraver, he quickly became commercially successful, which meant he earned a good living by copying other artists’ work. However, he wasn’t interested in compromise.

The power of Blake’s work begins to emerge at the end of the first gallery. Head of a Damned Soul or Satan (c1789-90) is a black-and-white etching with engraving of a man in the throes of demonic torment. His eyes are rolled up to show only the whites; his mouth is open and gasping; the muscles in his neck bulge; the sky beyond is stormy yet pales to a kind of halo around his head. The effect is one of terrible yet vital suffering. In agony, he appears bursting with life.

In fact, the work is a copy of an oil sketch by Henry Fuseli. Soon Blake would abandon his commercial success and pursue with dogged independence his own creative project. For this reason, he spent the rest of his life in poverty and, aside from a few disciples, his work was overlooked. Some commentators have pointed out that this was probably for the best. Becasuse of the revolutionary zeal of his ideas, he might otherwise have ended up in prison.

You have to look hard in this exhibition in order to gauge Blake’s subversiveness. The second gallery is more exciting than the first.Here are his coloured etchings of cosmological story-telling, but they lose meaning without context. Nebuchadnezzar (c1795-1805) is a startling colour print of a grand old man with a long beard, crawling on his hands and knees. His expression is hunted and guilty, recalling Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (c1819-1823) or latterly Paula Rego’s Dog Woman (1994).

The titular hero of the work was the King of Babylon, punished by God for his arrogance. According to the Old Testament, he was exiled and forced to eat “grass like an ox”. Blake’s work was allegorical, made at a time when kings’ heads were rolling and it must have seemed that the hierarchy of the world had been turned upside down.

Also fascinating is the title page of Songs of Innocence (1789), a relief and white line etching. In the foreground, two children read to a woman robed in blue. The conventions of the day dictated that children should learn from their elders, but here hierarchy is reversed. Innocence is teaching experience, which suggests that the adult world is inexorably “fallen”. The rational progress of the Enlightenment had led to barbarism.

Blake believed in creative destruction. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), he wrote “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion / Reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.” In his view, evil was not merely “bad”, but dynamic, generative, even liberating.

Milton, he argued, “[was] of the devil’s party without knowing it.” Blake’s love of Paradise Lost (1667) was rooted in his belief that Milton glorified the devil. This is shown in Blake’s eerie Portrait Head of Milton (c1800-1805). Milton’s serenity as a wise old man of letters is undercut by the serpent weaving around him, an apple in its mouth.

One of my favourite works in the exhibition is The Circle of the Lustful (1824-27), Blake’s illustration of canto five of Dante’s Divine  Comedy (1308-1321). This pen and watercolour over pencil work shows a great gust of wind, which appears flowing and blue like water, carrying naked lovers, both men and women, in a swirl of voluptuous punishment. They are in the second circle of hell. However, while Dante condemned the sin of lust, Blake forgives the lovers. Against a twilight sky, they are shown ecstatically released; two have taken their place in the centre of the sun, which is radiant. Their naked bodies are entwined.

Blake’s celebration of free love made him an icon of 20th-century counterculture. From the Beats to 1960s psychedelia, he was revered as a mystic seer. In works such as “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” (1793), the title page of which is displayed here, he explored themes of sex and oppression. In “London”, he refers to “the marriage-hearse”.

However, his marriage to Catherine was a long and happy one. She knew on first sight that she would marry him, and a portrait of him by her is included in the exhibition. Aged around 28, Blake is shown in profile with large, sensitive eyes. His nostrils are flared, his mouth pursed, as though ready for a fight.

And fight he did. The single-mindedness of Blake’s vocation, his faith in his own “inner eye”, which in turn illuminated the real world in which he lived, offers inspiration to all artists. Unfortunately, this exhibition does not quite do justice to his vision.

William Blake: Apprentice and Master, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (01865 278000) Thurday to 1 March