Tate Britain is showing an exhibition of William Blake at the moment. It includes portraits of Blake, by other people (although there may be self portraits there as well). He does not look like you think he does. I at least imagined a prophetic wizened bearded man as we see in so many of his paintings. Instead we have what looks like a chubby accountant. This pleased me because it is more or less how I look and one can console oneself that genius comes in unlikely packages. Most of us are unlikely packages.
Anyway, onto the art. There is as you might expect and would be disappointed if you didn't see, lots of religious depictions. It is a very packed show and there is much to see. I will only skim the surface to give you a taste. Blake does a lot of watercolours and they have always struck me as rather monochrome and insipid. In many ways as you can see from the above they are. However it is also clear I have been doing the man a diservice. What I hadn't realised is quite how much watercolour can fade. As the clever curators (who have done a marvelous job by the way) point out. In the top left picture do you see that line of blue in the bottom right hand corner? That is a part of the painting that is usually covered by the frame and has not been subject to fading. You can see how much more vivid and bright it is than the rest of the piece. This fired my imagination and I began to try and image what the paintings would have been like in their pomp.
The one above right for example with the man on the kneeling horse, I forget who he is and what he is doing. It is a striking and arresting image. Oddly modern, almost abstract in its depiction. Imagine how it would look with the blues, and yellows popping out. Would have been quite a sight.
You get much more of a sense what the watercolours would have been like with some of the oils. Like the one above left with Satan afflicting Job with boils (which reminds me of my favourite religious joke; Ahh yes, the book of Job. If it wasn't in the bible then you wouldn't believe it). Very vivid blue and I particularly like the sun boiling below the horizon with that thorn like crown of dark blue sky above it.
More meditative and looking slightly like he is perching on an underwater rock is a portrait of Newton (above right), although I suspect that Newton was never that buff or that naked in real life. Here is Newton risen to angelic of grecian form.
Scattered around the place are these beguiling dark paintings. They no doubt have faded, but I suspect that they were also painted this dark. Because I am foolish I have lost my notes of what some of these paintings are. No doubt if one is sufficiently religiously adept one can read them from the painting. The one above left has a haloed figure atop a dragon, St George possibly. The one above right is one of the most baffling pictures. It is small and very dark and difficult to see. It is called the Flea. Why? who knows, what was in the bowl, is he on stage? It is a painting that invites you to take your own journey, no doubt with many a visual clue for the cognoscenti.
Back into the light and the religious themes that dominate Blakes output. Many of the paintings are quite small, just above A4 size and where then rendered as prints. I find him less successful when he is dealing with the New Testament era stuff like the above left. In its stilled rendering it is very reminiscent of the Renaissance artists, who frankly do it better. Where Blake is best is when he is going full Old Testament bonko like in the above right. There is always more movement, like that flowing cloak, or flames, or possibly a cloak of flames. There is more drama and the visuals are more arresting. Fortunately there is no shortage of these. These after all are probably the images you think of, when you think of Blake.
There are some prints on display and one of the neatly contradicts what I was saying about Blake and bible era. The scene above left takes a new testament scene, the Crucifixion but presents it in a more ominous and looming light. We cannot actually see Christ, just the dark shadow of the cross obscuring the sun, and then these no doubt nefarious figures in the foreground who appear to be gamboling and it would seem are destined for the Bad Place. I particularly like the way their halberds echo the lines of the cross and the shadow crown in the back ground.
I also like this scratchy on velum like material depiction on the above right. It is almost like an instruction manual for how to ascend into paradise. The figures are nicely poised but there is glorious detail sitting in the background and it is easy to just blow right past it. This is what makes Blake (and indeed many artists great) is the attention to detail. Knowing when to have it and when not, when others might get it the wrong way round. Those trees at the bottom, not really needed for the subject but they almost literally ground the painting.
Above left we have what I think is one of my favourite pieces in the show. It is god judging Adam. Adam it would appear is not coming off well. But I love the composition. The background with the triangle of light and then blackness. The circle of flame and then the figure pointing which, it seems to me at any rate, is a Sistine Chapel ceiling reference. What I really like are the pair of insane looking horses and the hunched posture of the figures as though they have both been utterly defeated. God, presumably is disappointed.
Blake also produced illustrations for various pieces, including Dante's Inferno. There are a number of scenes from throughout the poem but by far my favourite is of Cerebus. Mashing up your Greek myth with your Christianity and you get what is to my mind, quite a cute looking three headed guardian of the underworld (above right). He looks as though he is relaxing in front of the fire.
Where Blake is at his most eye-catching though is where his work has this strong structural elements. Triangles he does best and so I will leave you with two excellent examples of this. The show is quite something, I would recommend you go and see it.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.