The William Blake Blog

William Blake – Visionary
The Catalogue for the latest Blake exhibition at the J. Paul Getty museum is a beautiful and erudite contribution to Blake's art.

In a fashion that seems particularly apt for its subject, William Blake - Visionary is a book with two lives. First published in 2020 - which is when I picked up this catalogue - my reason for reviewing it now is that the accompanying exhibition of the same name is finally drawing to a close at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, having been delayed by three years because of the outbreak of COVID. It is a beautiful, hardbound book complete with erudite essays, two of which at least expand our knowledge of Blake's in the context of the arts, yet I have a strange feeling from re-reading this book that were it not for the images themselves, those essays alone would give us little sense of why we should consider Blake a visionary.

The exhibition, which finally opened on in October last year, was organised in conjunction with Tate and with loans from the Yale Center for British Art and with support from the Huntington Gallery. It is, as the curators are rightfully proud to declare, the first such exhibition of Blake's work on the West Coast since 1936, and the range of works available to visitors is a truly marvellous accomplishment of their hard work. The two principal curators, Edina Adam and Julian Brooks, demonstrate fine acumen in their selection and framing of Blake's works, and their thanks to a range of other professionals in Blake studies and the art world demonstrate what a significant achievement that this whole exhibition has been.

With that praise in mind, I turn now to the essays. The introduction to Blake life is very well written, and draws attention to certain staples of Blake criticism today such as the importance of his commercial work (with a nod here to the vital contribution of Robert Essick, who has strongly emphasised the importance of Blake's commercial prints in recent decades). Where I am more critical is that the view of the publishing industries in Blake's time seems somewhat askew: Blake famously wished a degree of independence for his illuminated books, but he was also very much an engraver for hire when working for other publishers such as Joseph Johnson or Richard Edwards with whom he worked on Edward Young's Night Thoughts. Blake's failure, later in life, to capitalise on book publishing projects was very much a tragedy as commentators such as G.E. Bentley have shown, and the notion of Blake the illustrator heroically striving against the tide of the publishing arts of his day is really a post-Gilchrist invention, for all that the later Blake inveighed against those arts. To be fair, my own quibbles with the text arise more from its brevity, and it is a good introduction to Blake's art in his times.

The second essay, Adam's "William Blake's 'Bounding Outline': On the Sources of Artistic Originality", is an excellent guide to Blake's artistic inspirations, as well as how some of the peculiarities of his own artistic practice were due to factors such as his inability to see originals of Titian and Reubens so readily on the continent, which set him apart from his more well-connected peers: 

If Vasari and Fuseli provided Blake with a framework, it was the artwork he encountered that cemented his views. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Blake never embarked on a journey across the Continent, he never visited Italy's renowned sites or saw its countless Renaissance treasures. In England, prior to the establishment of the National Gallery in London (1824), he could only consult the works of old masters in private collections and public institutions. Guidebooks, like the one published by Thomas Martyn in 1766, would have provided him with information on which palace, governmental building, or hospital to visit in London in search of masterpieces. Despite these riches scattered across the city, Blake's familiarity with the old masters was primarily based on prints.
- Adam. pp.21-22

Such idiosyncracies in his education contributed, of course, to his highly original style and his bounding line (which, it must be admitted, critics such as Essick have shown to be sometimes a more theoretical construct than one to be applied strictly in practice).

If Adam's essay is a thoroughly robust contribution to the framing of Blake, made important by its rich emphasis on Blake's art, then it is the final essay, Matthew Hargraves's "America's Blake", which is the truly outstanding piece - yet also the one that left me strangely most dissatisfied. The good first: this is an excellent piece of scholarship on Blake's American collectors. I am aware of some of the details included here, from writers such as Bentley and Essick in particular, but I have never read such a clear and cogent article on the role those collectors had to play in - quite literally - bringing Blake to America. This is the chapter that, more than the others, will be valuable to Blake scholars as well as the general public:

Thanks to the breadth of Blake's work gathered in America over the last one hundred and fifty years, Blake and Blakean imagery have now entered the mainstream of American culture, not least because of the enthusiasm of the illustrator Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) who called Blake "my teacher in all things" and formed a significant collection of Blake's work[.]
- Hargraves, p.34

The illustrations themselves are gorgeously arranged into six sections: The Professional Printmaker, The Painter-Illustrator, The Painter-Poet, Blake's Contemporaries, The Visionary, and The Mythmaker. Each section includes a short framing statement, and it is through the images themselves - whether the astonishing illuminations to Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion or America a Prophecy, or the large colour prints and biblical illustrations - that the book most justifies its subtitle. The Visionary may be only one subsection of the catalogue, but those visionary qualities of reflecting the inner eye of the poet-painter rather than simply being a recording device for the external world are what gives Blake's art such an extraordinary quality.

Which brings me to my one caveat with regard to William Blake - Visionary. This is a remarkable catalogue of an exhibition that I am, quite simply, very jealous I cannot see in Los Angeles. The contribution by Hargraves is exemplary, and that by Adam is extremely good. Any quibbles I have with the introduction are those of a pedant, and yet the overall sense left behind by the essays in this beautifully reproduced book are ultimately cool. In contrast to another recent exhibition catalogue, William Blake and the Age of Aquarius, edited by Stephen F. Eisenman in 2017 to accompany his exhibition, Visionary brings little of the strange fire of Blake's energy to its essays. It is, to repeat, erudite and beautiful, but it feels ultimately that its text speaks more to the angels than to those devils with whom Blake often conversed.

Edina Adam and Julian Brooks, William Blake - Visionary, Getty Publications, 2020. 167pp, 114 colour + b&w illustrations. RRP: $35.