Heavenly Bodies

'In Blake, the human form becomes a token, a versatile but empty symbol'

By Tom Lubbock
Tuesday 07 November 2000 01:00

William Blake: was he a nudist? There is just the one story. It comes from the 1790s. Blake was living with his wife, Catherine, in a house in Lambeth. There was a printing press in the front room (this was the decade of Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, among other great works). And in the garden there was a vine-covered arbour.

William Blake: was he a nudist? There is just the one story. It comes from the 1790s. Blake was living with his wife, Catherine, in a house in Lambeth. There was a printing press in the front room (this was the decade of Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, among other great works). And in the garden there was a vine-covered arbour.

One day a friend called - and he "found Mr and Mrs Blake sitting in this summer-house, freed from 'those troublesome disguises' which have prevailed since the Fall. COME IN! cried Blake; IT'S ONLY ADAM AND EVE, YOU KNOW! Husband and wife had been reciting passages from PARADISE LOST, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden, a little to the scandal of wondering neighbours, on more than one occasion."

That's the story, and pretty amiable it seems. But it is not first hand. Some of Blake's biographers believe it. Some firmly disbelieve it: back in the days when the image of "Mad Blake" still obstructed appreciation, there was an understandable wish to play down any sign of eccentricity. And some simply aren't sure - but are sure all the same that, even if it did happen, it "tells us nothing significant" about Blake. Oh really?

Now, of course William Blake was not a nudist, not as we understand that today. Modern nudists sometimes cite Blake as a great precursor, but both the word and the movement are 20th-century inventions. It's true there were various fringe religious groups who practised principled nakedness, and Blake might have got the idea from there. But then, as the story makes clear, the idea of a life without clothes wasn't hard to come by - it was in the Bible, in Milton.

Even if the tale is untrue, it's still significant. It's like a good joke about Blake. It touches on many sides of his work - on the themes of innocence and experience, for example (and when Blake printed Songs of Innocence and Experience in a combined edition, the title page had an illustration of Adam and Eve - innocence now lost, shamefully clothed in leaves). It reflects his life-long devotion to the poetry of John Milton, here getting an undress-rehearsal. And it involves the human body, which was Blake's central artistic subject. As he once declared: "Art can never exist without Naked Beauty displayed."

But what I like about the story is specifically the aspect of impersonation - and the emphasis this puts on Blake's own body. Here are William and Catherine, acting at being Adam and Eve in their original state. It would be an ambitious feat of imagination, if you think about it - not just a matter of shedding clothes, but feeling oneself into the lives of the first two human beings in the world, with bodies newly created by God. It's as if Blake was entering into the strange and not-quite-human bodily life of one of his own visual fictions.

That would be some feat, too, given how strange this life is. And really I was wrong to say that the human body is Blake's central artistic subject. It is certainly his chief pictorial resource, but that's another matter. There are thousands of bodies in Blake, but only a few of them mean the everyday body. There's a sense in which Blake doesn't believe in the physical human body. But whatever spiritual force or state Blake wants to show, he represents through a version of the human form. It is his all-purpose symbol. Almost as a by-product of this, his art becomes a comprehensive experiment with the human form whose only parallel is found in Picasso.

But does Blake really enter into these figures, imagine what they'd feel like? This seems to me the central issue of his visual art. The visions are amazing, but - it's a general problem of visionary art - they can also seem very limited and solipsistic, just someone's made-up world, because they have it all their own way. It is an art that meets no resistance.

You can see the point, if you compare Blake with his great contemporary, Goya. There are fantastic scenes in Goya, but the strange creatures are drawn from a solid reality. He always makes you feel they could work. But with Blake's art, while its main components are bodies, they aren't really bodies - just the infinitely amenable figments of his imagination. Or rather, this is the question for Blake's figures. Does he imagine them as bodies, however strange? Or are they simply means at his disposal?

In Blake, a body is always a body-in-a-certain-position. The figure is subordinate to its configuration. There is never a sense that a body happens to be in particular pose. It is that pose. A developing repertoire of body-configurations is the basic currency of Blake's work, and they're not hard to identify. Leading examples include: the figure with expansively out-flung arms, the figure bunching itself into a knot of limbs, the figure in a sideways hair-pin.

In the process, Blake's art becomes a gym where the body is put through drastic contortions, extensions and elisions. He was not alone in this sort of interest. His friend, the artist Henry Fuseli, had a procedure for constructing bodies - a five-point exercise.

You strike down five dots at random, and take them as marking the positions of head, hands and feet of a possible human figure. You must then draw a figure around them. The idea of this pictorial game of Twister is to produce extreme body situations, weird postures, at unusual angles. It's a good game. But to play it, you do have to try and draw bodies properly, or there's no challenge and no point.

I don't know if Blake ever played it, but if he did there would have been no point. So often, his configurations look like someone who's cheating at the five-point exercise. Think of those extraordinary bunched-up, head-in-knees figures, for example the character from Blake's personal mythology called Urizen, symbol of repressive Reason. There's no real 3-D body there - it's just a construction of head and limbs. It's impossible to imagine this figure stretching a leg, standing up. It is identical with its constrained, defensive shape, its particular mould. It's just an image, and only an image. And it's the same with Blake's more energetic archetypes. They too are made for their stencils.

Blake's bodies are not just stretched, crunched and edited. They aren't really made of flesh and bones. Often, it seems that they have no skeleton, that they're spineless fillets, whose articulation is not so much disjointed as unjointed - fluid and flexible creatures like an otter or a tadpole.

Or again, flesh and clothing often seem to interfuse. The flowing, transparent robes of a figure become at some points indistinguishable from its musculature, and at others to be an extra layer around it, an emanation, an ectoplasmic body-extension. Even naked figures appear to wear their bodies as a kind of sleek membrane.

All of which points to a central fact about these bodies. Their "insides" are not the important thing. Their most vital feature is their outside edge. With Blake's figures, as with the amoeba, identity is contour. I mean specifically the outline that bounds and defines the figure.

The shape they make, the shape they fill, is essentially what they are - whether their bodies twist like flames, curl like tendrils, roll up in a ball, or entirely lose themselves in the echoing forms of the surrounding design.

So the impulse to describe these bodies as fillets, or even as spirit manifestations, is mistaken. It's being too realistic. It's applying three-dimensional standards where they don't apply. These contour-defined figures are inherently two-dimensional beings: only flat images have outlined edges.

It's the same with the sense of weightlessness. Blake's bodies are certainly that. They leave the ground at a drop of a hat. But figures in art can defy gravity in a variety of ways. They may jet like Superman. They may levitate like a moon-man. They may fly like a kite. Blake's figures have their own peculiar weightlessness - they are like divers, with underwater buoyancy. They move up or down or around, under no pull at all, in a perfectly free medium.

But really what they are swimming about in is not any space, but the page. Gravity doesn't apply. They are no more weightless than the dot on an "i" is weightless, or any letter. This is one of the big effects of Blake's illuminated books, where figures and writing mingle together in the same area: to suggest that the figures are as free as the words.

These bodies are creatures of the page. Most of their distinctive features - the configurations, the contours, the free motion - are things that can only be true of two-dimensional figures. The two-dimensional is a supernatural realm, in which impossibilities become possibilities.

Blake's great artistic discovery was the potentialities of two-dimensional life. But this world of flats may go two ways. Sometimes you feel that there are simply no real bodies there. The human form has become a token, a bit of diagram, a versatile but empty symbol. But there are pictures, and they are Blake's best, where his two-dimensional inventions take you not away from bodies, but into them and out the other side.

In one of his illustrations to his poem Jerusalem, for instance, there's a couple embracing (they may both be women, it's hard to say) in the cup of an open lily. The effect is all in their fluid contours, which both establish their identities and utterly merge them, making these bodies into a single continuous organism, folding them into the petals of the flower, and into each other, in a totally absorbing embrace.

It's a fine line, and I'm not sure I know what makes the difference - what turns Blake's two-dimensionality from something flat to something piercingly felt. But I'm sure it is the crucial difference in Blake's art. On the one hand there's a slightly gimcrack fantasy universe. On the other, images that enter realms of bodily feeling that almost no other art can reach.

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