William Blake in the twenty first century

Reader! lover of books! lover of heaven,
And of that God from whom all books are given,
Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave
To Man the wondrous art of writing gave,
Again he speaks in thunder and in fire!
Thunder of Thought, & flames of fierce desire:
Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear,
Within the unfathomed caverns of my Ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be:
Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony.

from the preface to Chapter I, Jerusalem, by William Blake

Twenty one decades separate between William Blake’s only solo exhibition and the retrospective exhibition, titled “William Blake”, that has recently opened at Tate Britain.
The first exhibition was at Blake’s brother’s hosiery shop in Soho. Sixteen pictures were displayed for show and sale, including “The Ancient Britons”, the largest picture Blake ever made. The price for admission was one shilling, the same as the much larger and more prestigious exhibitions at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution. Blake’s exhibition was attended by few, and the only review it received was from The Examiner. It was published anonymously in the issue for 17 September 1809:

“…When the ebullitions of a distempered brain are mistaken for the sallies of genius by those whose have exhibited the soundest thinking in art, the malady has indeed attained a pernicious height, and it becomes a duty to endeavour to arrest its progress. Such is the case with the productions and admirers of WILLIAM BLAKE, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of the EXAMINER, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate.”
(from G. E. Bentley Jr’s biography of William Blake)

The admission price to the exhibition at Tate Britain (one of the most visited museums in the UK) is 18 pounds, but it includes over 300 of Blake’s watercolours, paintings and prints, as well as “an immersive recreation of the small domestic room in which Blake showed his art in 1809”, and a promise that one will be able to experience “the impact these works had when they were shown for the first time. In another room, Blake’s dream of showing his works at enormous scale will be made reality using digital technology.”
Those of us who live faraway and cannot see the exhibition, get a glimpse of what to expect in a video trailer.

Modern critics’ reviews are more civilized:

  • BBC Culture calls William Blake “The greatest visionary in 200 years” and notes that “Blake’s ability, granularly, to narrow his focus to a single speck of the material world and to perceive eternal poignancies in it, is instructive for how best to appreciate the intensities and achievement of his own work.”
  • Five stars from the Guardian William Blake review, which starts with “This stupendous show opens with a starburst: the naked figure of Albion rising in glory, rainbows exploding around his outstretched arms. It is a curtain-raiser, a full frontal performance: the beautiful dancer in mid-sashay on the edge of a cliff, bringing light to dispel the darkness. And Albion’s arms are holding out for more – welcoming this new dawn, inviting us all to rise up with him. It is the great wake-up call of British art.”
  • The Economist’s is more reserved, with a title: “A blockbuster show at Tate Britain gives William Blake his due.” The exhibition’s description is somewhat laconic, politely calling Blake “a challenging artist” who was “reading between the lines of this exhibition, a difficult man who delighted in many antipathies…Perhaps the best and most constant relationship Blake enjoyed was with his wife, Catherine. A talented engraver and colourist in her own right, she had a hand in many of his creations. It was only from the stability of their marriage that he was able to give a full expression to his talent, expressiveness and unique vision.”
  • The Telegraph, however, gives the exhibition two out of five stars. The title, “William Blake review, Tate Britain: an incandescent imagination smothered by dull curating”, suggests that the problem is with the exhibition, which “re-positions Blake – presumably for publicity purposes – as an ‘artist for the 21stcentury’”. But the reviewer doesn’t spare Blake. He start’s with his poetry,
    “Have you ever tried reading the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827)? Not the good stuff, such as The Tyger, which is mercifully short. No, I’m talking about Blake’s bizarre epics: obscure, fire-and-brimstone mythologies of his own devising, starring allegorical figures with made-up names, like Urizen, the bearded embodiment of reason and law.”
    And follows with his paintings. “Visually, Blake was forever reshuffling the same old deck of cards. His figures are either exaggeratedly musclebound (check out Eve’s abs in his illustrations to Paradise Lost), or preternaturally elongated and clad in swoopy, vaguely neoclassical gowns. They all have smooth, pretty, child-like faces, with streaming hair and strangely shining eyes. And most behave like drama queens, waving about their arms. Blake’s compositions, meanwhile, are sometimes symmetrical, and often frontal and flat – like designs for the theatre. As a result, his supernatural subjects have an unwelcome, at times borderline comic, staginess.”
    Anything positive to account for the two stars? Catherine, Blake’s long-suffering wife, is praised for her role in sustaining Blake’s career, and there is a bit of redemption towards the end. Despite Blake’s and the curator’s shortcomings, the exhibition is worth revisiting, because “in one dominion of art – the ability to invent – he reigns supreme.”

    Unable to visit the exhibition, one can still wonder what would the critics say if Blake was not one of the most famous British artists. But then, the question would be superfluous, because what would be the chances that his work would be exhibited at Tate?


    William Blake,
    Age Teaching Youth, c.1785–90

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