Home Magazine The great success of William Blake at the Tate Britain

"There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott," wrote William Wordsworth of William Blake (1757-1827) after his death in 1827.

During this London Art Week 2019, we already mentioned a few important shows that are now visible in London, read more: Top 10 exhibitions in London during Frieze Art Fair 2019!-Maurizio Cattelan at Blenheim Palace: the perfect exhibition for an existential Great Britain-Kara Walker: Fons Americanus review

Blake was a poet, artist and radical thinker who never achieved a huge amount of recognition during his life and was often regarded as eccentric, to say the very least. His reputation now, however, is that his art and ideas were way ahead of their time, and in some ways, they remain ahead of ours. 

The grand new survey at Tate Britain in London of the prints, engravings, paintings and poetry of William Blake, features over 300 works and reveals Blake's inspiring and complex vision. Blake was famously a loud critic of the empire. He was a radical free thinker that supported the French Revolution and considered the American War of Independence a heroic endeavour. He also believed in free love and the sexual equality of women and was anti-slavery. But because of his claims from an early age that he sees visions of angels, demons and prophets, he was always regarded with doubt and his mental health was debated. 

Upon entering the huge exhibition dedicated to Blake, whose lights have been dimly lit to preserve the works, one of his most iconic images greets you: Albion Rose. It shows a young man with stretched out arms standing on a rocky floor with rays of colour and light spreading from his body. A nod to the curators behind the show, it is the perfect openner for Blake's oeuvre. With a relatively simple composition and a signature Blake style, the work has been open to several interpretations. It's an image of a muscular, red-faced youth, inspired by the frescoes of Michelangelo and the works of Raphael, and one that would be replicated throughout Blake's career. 


William Blake, Albion Rose, 1794-1796 work detail. British Museum Collection. 


With 300 works on display, the show spans Blake's lifelong career and illustrates how Blake proved himself to be a great innovator, both artistically and technically. In the late 1780's, Blake famously invented a new form of painting in colour, which combined text and images. Admittedly, 300 works on display is quite an amount to take in at once. The mere idea of it can overwhelm visitors. But getting up close with Blake's works can be quite rewarding. The details in the miniatures are excellent and the textures of the pages can only be appreciated in person and never with reproductions. The curators' objective was to tell the story of a man with an intense imagination who battled the realities of being an artist in a commercial and somewhat superficial world and in that, they succeed.

Blake once organized an exhibition in 1809 of just 13 works. It went down as one of the most famous disasters in British art, attracting very little visitors and no buyers. A partial reconstruction of the 1809 exhibition was attempted by the curators, with projections occasionally showing the brilliant colours the works originally had. What may have come off as gimicky, now feels like an excellent commitment to show Blake's works as they originally came to an audience, and not just hung on a wall in a gallery space. 

The most successful of the rooms in the show is a seemingly less significant one: the 12 large colour prints made specifically for Thomas Butts. This includes the famous and enigmatic Nebuchadnezzar and Newton. In the latter, Newton appears to be sitting on an encrusted rock at the bottom of the ocean floor. Pink fronds stand by his feet and an inky darkness extends behind him. With all that, he seems oblivious. He only has eyes for the paper scroll at his feet, where he seems to be marking out a series of lines with a compass. Both paintings are well-lit and hang on a dark color. They present their meaning without any comment, simply for us to contemplate them and engage on our own terms. 

Overall, the show holds as an extraordinary gathering of Blake's work, both exhaustive and exhausting. What it displays, above all, is how Blake's intensity of concentration lasted his entire career. It also shows that despite how timeless Blake's work is and how eccentric he might have been, his work is infact rooted in the social and artistic agendas of his time. 

William Blake is at Tate Britain, London, until 2 February

Cover image: William Blake, Nabucodonosor, 1795–1805. 


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