Order vs chaos: it's the great Blake debate

William Blake | Tate Britain, London
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All pictures that's painted with sense and with thought Are painted by madmen as sure as a groat; For the greater the fool in the pencil more blest And when they are drunk they always paint best.

All pictures that's painted with sense and with thought Are painted by madmen as sure as a groat; For the greater the fool in the pencil more blest And when they are drunk they always paint best.

You might like to murmur these lines to yourself as you wander around Tate Britain this autumn, not least because it was penned by the subject of the gallery's current show: William Blake, engraver, mystic, revolutionary and loon. Scribbled in Blake's capacious notebook around 1810, the poem claims great art as the exclusive property of the mad. The world of logic, organised religion and proper drawing lessons is for minor folk like Blake's arch-enemy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It is the world beyond the rational that is home to the true greats: Dante, Michelangelo, the Gothic masters and (of course) William Blake.

There are good reasons for remembering all this as you stroll through the Tate's Blakefest. First, the idea of Blake as a self-professed nutcase may fill you with a certain sympathy for the exhibition's curators. The thing that strikes you as you walk into the show is how comprehensive it all is, and how difficult it must have been to organise. The hundred plates from Blake's greatest work, Jerusalem - on show together in Britain for the first time since their completion in 1820 - have been flown in from America, as has the Metropolitan Museum of Art's late copy of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. These, and a great deal else besides, have been organised by polymathy rather than chronology. Thus sections are devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, Blake the Gothicist, Blake the Interpreter of Dante, Blake the Printer, and so on.

It is this sense of organisation that is the problem. The Tate has tried to loon things up a bit by inviting fruity Blakeites such as Patti Smith and John Tavener to take part in associated events, but the exhibition itself is definitely, unavoidably sane. Scholarly, even. An admirable quality though this normally is, you can't help feeling that it doesn't do Blake any favours: indeed, that were he to wander into the show, he would probably set about him with a stick.

For the meticulous organisation of this exhibition demands that we view its subject as exactly the thing that he was not, which is to say, a fine artist. A quick look at pictures like Adam Naming the Beasts and Eve Naming the Birds is enough to tell you otherwise.

Icky pieces of faux-archaic-Siena with a dash of half-digested Michelangelo thrown in, these are interesting not as works of art so much as artefacts. To appreciate them as anything more than bad paintings, you have to know that they're painted in tempera and why, in Blake's mind, that mattered. (His use of what he called "fresco" was intended to put Adam and Eve on a programmatic footing with Michelangelo.) You also have to see them in the context of Blake's theory of a bifurcate Christian godhead - Jehovah, "the Angry God of This World" who does nasty things to his createes, versus Jesus, the embodiment of unconditional forgiveness.

The same is true of The Ghost of a Flea. Painted directly from one of the artist's frequent visions, Blake's bloodsucker isn't interesting because it is good art but because it suggests some kind of biographical peep through the doors of perception. While other mystics lost themselves in generalities, it's the specificity of Blake's imagination - every scale, each écorchéd muscle painted blearily but as though from life - that makes it so terrifying. Like all of Blake's works, his flea is a roman-à-clef with Blake himself as the key.

That isn't to deny his greatness, simply to define where it lies. For most people (as, it seems, for Blake himself), madness is his method. Blake belongs to that select band of grotesques - Arcimboldi, Dali, Escher - whose work has acquired a popular, poster-buying following because it is seen to be irrational, and irrationality is thought of as subversive.

The trouble with the Tate show is that it talks about Blake's subversiveness without making us feel it. Rather the opposite, in fact. "William Blake" is like a gallery full of Rorschach blots: useful as a clinical indicator of madness, but giving no real sense of what madness itself is like. As you would expect of a show of this size, there are moments of real discovery here - individual works such as Blake's portrait of the Canterbury Pilgrims, his studies from the Gothic. But you do emerge from it with a sense of order that is at most misleading, and at least a little dull.

' William Blake', supported by Glaxo Wellcome plc and 'The Independent on Sunday', Tate Britain, SW1 (020 7887 8000), to 11 Feb. See offer below

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