William Blake was round his old friend Varley’s house when he saw The Ghost of a flea, no camera at his disposal he quickly called for his drawing implements, or so they say, and proceeded to sketch the darned thing:
(some images not my copyright, hope that WB doesn’t mind me used it)
How good is that then? What I saw in the Oxford Ashmolean exhibition of Blake’s work is that he was not averse to satire and he did ‘take the mick’. It’s what we boys do when gathered together, we may do a little caricature of someone we all know, and maybe dislike, and then we have a little giggle. Am not saying Blake did this here, I’m surmising. In fact F. W. Bateson in an article in 1957 explains that Blake had a way of looking upon things with what he called ‘double vision’. He saw it for what we see it as, say a thistle, and he would also see it as ‘an old grey man’. A more Blakean example would be that he saw the sun as the sun AND as ‘Los in his Might.’ Reportedly Blake was once asked, ‘Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?’ and he replied, “All poets believe that it does, and in ages of Imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains. But many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.”
This blArt is looking at one or two other things that he did which have been clarified by Michael Phillip’s (& others) wonderful selection of work for the unique gathering of images in this collection. I have been glancing at Blake’s words & images for over 40 years now and always felt so small, so inadequate, because I couldn’t get the overall ‘feel’ of the man nor his work. There was always something more I had to read, go see, ask about. I think Blake was a highly intelligent, talented, practitioner who was much, let us say, ignored, maybe maligned, by his contemporaries. And I know from personal experience what that type of man does sometimes he stretches the limits. He looks at what’s happening and says to himself, “Now then, I understand what they are doing there, I can do that, only when I do it I shall do it better. And if possible I shall find new ways to do it, better ways.” Now the problem with being an initiator, an original, is that many folk out there neither want anyone to rock the boat/status quo nor do they understand innovation. Most people like it to be explained to them by ‘someone who knows’ before they can adapt to anything ‘new’. So when some of us are dissatisfied with the ‘norm’ and wish to move it on and some of are built that way, for whatever reason, we push, we discover new ways and we are not always the best ones to ‘sell’ the new ideas to , anyone. Well I believe Blake was like that. So he received scorn but was unaffected at being ridiculed. As Samuel Palmer said, “he was…one of the few who cannot be depressed by neglect and to whose name, rank and station could add no lustre…He enobled poverty…”. He rattled boats like Joshua Reynolds’ craft when he disdained painting in oils. He made powerful enemies who would not wish to find ‘good qualities’ in his work and who may (as such is the nature of the human being) even have quietly declared the ‘new kid on the block’ to be insane. It has been a title I have noticed about my own efforts, “You call that art, you must be kidding, my monkey can do better” and other pleasantries. But you see Blake had no desire to convince any of the status quo of his genius, he knew he was rocking boats and continued to do so. His mentors were proven already; Milton, Dante, Botticelli, Durer and his mentor, John Varley whose beautiful water colours must have impressed both Blake and Turner. The nice thing about having mentors who have been there and done it who appreciate from experience the qualities in your work, you don’t need everybody else to give you credit. Blake even disputed Dante with Dante, his late work on Dante is in fact not an affirmation but a disputation! Blake did not agree with Dante’s take on Heaven and all and he satirises his own hero, but such wonderfully illustrated satire, I don’t think Dante would include Blake in Purgatory.
Let’s look at some of the other incredible revelations in this exhibition. I knew before I went in that Blake had had an interest in Swedenborg. Blake’s own parents were non-conformist Christians and in their day that meant REALLY none conforming and Blake had obviously been influenced. Swedenborg in his book ‘Heaven & Hell’ and other writings had us believe he had been taken by angels to other planets and introduced to beings of non-human origin. Obviously to ‘believe’ him we would all need to suspend our understanding of what is real. Blake came to the conclusion that Swedenborg was a fraud and went on to satirise him in, wait for it, ‘Marriage of Heaven & Hell’.
This work is astounding in its introduction of new techniques of print but more so in its mentions of Swedenborg by name, he was not disguised as a flea. I have dipped into Swedenborg’s writings but came away more confused by his work than by that of Blake. Blake had annotated Swedenborg’s ‘Wisdom of Angels’ on p56 earlier, ‘Good & Evil are here both Good & the two contraries married’. I knew of ‘Marriage of Heaven & Hell’ as one of Blake’s works BUT, idiot that I am, I had not realised he had used Swedenborg’s title within his own ‘Marriage of Heaven & Hell’. He is using it as pure satire. Taking the mickey out of the Swedenborg title by incorporating it in his own title. One of Blake’s disputes with Swedemndborg, maybe why he condemned him (?), was that the latter had not really dipped into ‘hell’. That he was only familiar with heaven. Blake considered that the incumbents of hell had a right to their opinions and had a right to be represented, so he married them. Brilliant. How better could you rectify an omission? And I believe this also gives a deeper insight into the way Blake’s mind worked. He was like Peter Cook & Spike Milligan combined into one. Almost as important he represented Swedenborg in the guise of his first draft of his later larger print of Nebuchadnezzar. He had him crawling on hands & knees. Then the technique he used was also new and it heralded his later larger version of Nebuchadnezzar in technique.
Back in 1978 I had stood and admired his larger works with their mottled surfaces but I waited to hear from Michael Phillips last week to see/realise that Blake was hundreds of years ahead of his time with his technique which predicted that of Max Ernst’s ‘decalcomanie’. Or behind the time, depending on which way you view it. ‘Tempera painting was an ancient form executed with pigment ground in a water-miscible medium.’ Tempera was the form he was mimicking because he disdained oil. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/586515/tempera-painting
So he put water based inks onto his plates but allowed the colours to permeate and intermingle, so each ‘take’ was different from the last and all of his takes were in fact monoprints, each unique in itself! So am lifted from the hell of not-knowing into the heaven of finding out how he did it and more importantly that should be reflected in my own future work. This is a massive injection of inspiration into my willing to be influenced by Blake hands. I did a series of etchings during a recent Master’s degree and I, deliberately as I have always done, made each print I took from the plate different from the last. What I did not do, which Blake did, was add more layers of colour. So, watch out prints of the six mystics, I’m coming back to see you.
So, inspiration, that’s what I will finish this little blArt with, how Blake has inspired so many by his work. Blake’s graphic revolutionary technique of ‘illuminated printing’ and his other innovations were so ‘far outside the ken’ and were not picked up on by the print trade of his day except maybe in Samuel Palmer’s adaptations and one or two others of the ‘Ancients’ group directly influenced by Blake. The fact is few would have had Blake’s tenacity, his dedication to task (for little immediate remunerative reward), his technical dexterity and his DRIVE to create in every area; print, write and make image. Blake would also, like Rembrandt after him, change images as he took different pulls from the plates.
This is shown amply in three prints of The House of Lazar on show. One recumbent fellow’s hand moves from limp to ‘splayed in tension’.
One face changes from a toothful grimace to an open mouthed gasp. The long length of paper (?) which straddle across the top of the page in the hands of the bearded character changes in each print. In two there are arrows and in one the ends which curl in the other two become as a scroll.
Blake was using visual imagery to show fluctuating ideas and meanings which themselves changed as a result of the imagery shifting. It’s a self-perpetuating wholistic creativity, a process in which the most of us are mere dwarfs compared to the Master, Blake.
Also three versions of the title page of Europe A Prophecy show how Blake experiments with creating difference. First he did a trial grey monochrome proof, then on another he added some water colour on the snake and added a figure beside the snake. In a third version in ‘relief etching with colour printing’ which in fact shows as textured like tempera. So Blake was really working surfaces for effect and for the difference that visual creativity brings but he always maintained a tight grip of the textual printed outcome, so they can be read, except that is in instances where he obliterated the title words Europe & Prophecy maybe to enunciate the figure? Blake was giving his customers individualised visual feasts. I see similarities in the modern artists Frank Frazetta http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/fantasy/Frank-Frazetta.html & Richard Corben’s work http://www.corbencomicart.com/gallery.html. He could never have been still. Even on his death bed he created over 100 images to Dante’s writing. Samuel Palmer who became one of the so called ‘Ancients’ who followed after Blake reported on visiting him, “ …’tho 67 years old but hard working on a bed full of books sat he like an Antique patriarch, or a dying Michael Angelo. There he was making in the leaves of a great book the sublimest designs from his Dante.” These were no acolyte’s acceptance of the words of another genius, no, Blake disagreed with some of Alighieri and he satirized him too, even expressing his own alternative views one of which was his belief in a form of Christianity which believed in a merciful god which would allow forgiveness for all sins, rather than a vindictive one.
Blake’s experience and imagination was one of the most developed ever witnessed in the western world and his dexterity in making word & image remains unrivalled. He has inspired including, in my view; William Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites, Kahil Gibran, Baum, Tolkein, Kenneth Patchen, Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling and myself (Pete Kennedy), plus many many more, maybe even including the children’s favourite in the 1950’s Tiger Tim.
I wonder what he might have done with modern technology at his fingertips. He would be fascinated with the luminosity that emanates from our computer screens and of course we know Blake had no access to Photoshop, did he? All the changes he made were rendered by hand. Bless him and his ever helpful wife Catherine.
And by the way the Ashmolean’s catalogue is a great read so thanks to they for doing it and to Michael Phillips, Colin Harrison & Martin Butler for the insights written into it.
Well done, I nominate all three o’yez Honorary Ancients!
Above are my own views and they are not necessarily all based in worldly reality but I believe they give added insight into the marvellous man whose feet did indeed traipse upon the streets of London and it’s hallowed hills which would ‘assume a kind of grandeur from the man [passing] near them’, as Palmer would say of this fitting companion for Dante, this man without a mask!
Another blArt composed by Pete Kennedy MA (Art & the Book), Adv Dip Ed (Cambridge), DMS (Danbury), B/Ed (Exeter), RA Doubtful. Thorsday 11.12.14