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Review: William Blake, at Tate Britain. 

Very recently the precise location of William Blake’s body was identified in Bunhill Fields nonconformist cemetery just north of the City. There followed the unveiling of a brand new grave stone on 11 August last year. The organisers were caught out by the many hundreds of Blake fans (including around a dozen London Historians) who turned up to honour this eminent painter, poet, engraver, printer and visionary.

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Dedication of William Blake gravestone, 11 August 2018.

That occasion made it clear that he is revered, among Londoners in particular; he commands a place on the pantheon of British artists with fellow sons of the captial Dobson, Hogarth and Turner.

Apart from four years spent in Sussex (1800 – 04), Blake spent his whole life in London: in Lambeth during most of the 1790s but the rest always a stone’s throw from his birthplace in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). It is horrifying to learn that the Blake family home was demolished as recently as 1963, replaced by an ugly block of flats named William Blake House, adding insult to injury.

It is marvellous that so soon after that momentous event of last year, Tate Britain is hosting the most comprehensive William Blake (1757 – 1827) exhibition in a generation. Over 300 of his works are on display, arranged chronologically. This is broken down in to distinct phases of his professional life. In Room 1 we learn about his family background and training as an engraver and how he rejected the methods and strictures of the Academy; we then go on to find out how he went on to earn a living, first as an engraver and then as a illustrator and printer, exploiting a printmaking technique of his own devising: ‘relief etching’. This allowed him to illuminate text on the same page. Subject matter came from many sources including the Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare and of course, his own mysterious, other-worldly poetry. Out of this, emerged the likes of The Tyger and Jerusalem, though the larger body of his copious writing is forgotten by all but aficionados.

And here the medium commands the format, so virtually everything that Blake produced was perforce quite small, tiny even. Book size or smaller. Except for four or five pieces near the end of the exhibition, the largest pieces in this show a the roughly A3 sized series of 12 (including the rather unhappy Nebuchadnezzar, and bizarrely naked Newton) But it is mostly exquisite and no, you can only really appreciate it properly in the original rather than a modern book, however well printed.

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Nebuchadnezzar

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Newton

But what about the art? I’m a bit conflicted about Blake. All those beardy scary old men, endless in the biblical stuff; all those wraith-like female spirits whooshing diaphanously through the air or sea or stars; all those muscular bottoms! I feel I like him because I’m supposed to like him and that he’s a Londoner. I don’t think he’s technically good as an anatomical illustrator: all those muscles flatter to deceive. That said, his style and his imagination are unique. There’s an El Greco quality to the stretching of body and limb; there’s a Bosch quality to his animals, monsters and nightmare visions. You can examine all these 300 plus works and not become inured to the eeriness: all is fresh. There’s also a graffiti style to a lot of periphery of the illustrations which is quite interesting.

Very few of Blake’s images are standalone; mostly they are series, and mostly for publication. The Tate has assembled many complete series for this exhibition, one of my favourites of which is America A Prophecy, in 18 plates. Here, below, is possibly my favourite, Plate 15, ‘What Time the Thirteen Governors …’ The series was made in 1793 during Blake’s Lambeth spell, a nice mid-career example. What attracts me to this particular plate are the scary fish at the bottom which very much have a cartoony quality. There are, here and there throughout the show, images that make you smile a bit. You’d like to think that this is Blake having fun, being playful. But even for Blake experts, one feels you cannot be sure.

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Almost as you walk out of the exhibition, Blake bids you farewell with a version of the Ancient of Days, originally from 1794 as the frontispiece for Europe: A Prophecy. Yes, because it’s probably his most famous painting, yes, because it was one of his favourites but more than that because he was still creating versions of it right at the end of his life.  Like most of the works in this show, it is smaller than you imagined.

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Our Man from the Telegraph, Alistair Sooke, called this exhibition ‘over-curated’. As a perfectly straightforward chronological romp through William Blake’s life, surely the opposite is more likely to be the case? No, I think the Tate has kept it simple: displayed as many works in as much light as the mainly watercolour medium will allow; given visitors as much space as possible to get around these quite small works; and given just enough background information to prick the sufficiently curious to find out more.

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Blake – I reckon I’m far from alone in that – but I do know I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and should have given myself at least another hour. I must go again.

Other views:
Londonist
Evening Standard

 

The Blake Society
William Blake on Wikipedia

 


William Blake runs at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020. Standard adult entry is £18 with various discounts from there, including £9 for National Art Pass/Art Fund holders.

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