Los Angeles

“William Blake And His Circle”

Huntington Library And Gallery, San Marino

William Blake (1757–1827) lived in modest obscurity, mostly in London, making illustrated editions of his own poetry. Although his influence wasn’t marked until mid-nineteenth century he did inspire admiration among contemporary artists. It is to him, his generation and those slightly older that the present exhibition is devoted.

Actually there are two exhibitions. One of independent drawings, etchings and woodcuts, another of Blake’s books. Blake’s ideas and meanings are obscure and allegorical. They have been widely discussed and disputed by scholars, for Blake valued ambiguity. Easy compartmentalization is an aspect of his enemy, whom he personified in a saturnine old anti-Christ named Urizen—a rebus for “You Reason.”

Blake’s thought, characterized by contraries, represents a reaction against the unimaginative doctrines of eighteenth century rational philosophy which had nearly reduced the universe to an efficient, spiritless clockwork mechanism in which the only cardinal sin was “enthusiasm.” Contemporary literature and poetry, with its wit and measured classicism, were Blake’s natural enemies. He compared Samuel Johnson to a bat, “winking and blinking,” preferring the soaring, poetical heroics of John Milton. Milton offered not only epic faith and humanity but, one suspects, Blake was attracted to his sense of drama and large gesture as well. Although rarely above folio size, Blake’s tinted drawings are theatrical in their simplified and bursting monumentality.

The artist’s small life in Lambeth absorbed the French and American revolutions. He saw these great social events as religiously apocalyptic. They marked the imminent downfall of Institutions––another of Blake’s black beasts. He detested the Royal Academy, calling its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds a “Dutch-English bore.” He opposed the church and marriage as institutions, for, although a happily-married pantheist himself he felt worldly involvement and compromises of love and belief to have fatally corrupted their spirit.

The artist’s individualism was prophetic. Yet, in significant ways he is a product of both his times and his country. Blake lived when art was ransacking the past. Architects built in styles to order: Oriental, Classic, Gothic, or Renaissance, pure or mixed. Gentleman archeologists and historians classified history. Lord Elgin, in a fit of cultural indignation, commandeered Greece’s national treasures, the pedimental marbles of the Parthenon. Blake too predicated his style on the past. Its visual sources include antique urns and friezes, Gothic sculpture, manuscript illumination and maps. He admired, copied and transformed Michelangelo, Durer, and Raphael. The neoclassical draftsman, John Flaxman, was closest to Blake among his more conventional friends and there are marks of his influence. The others of the circle may all be fairly described as conventional artists with a private interest in imaginative art. Mutual respect existed between them and Blake although it is not even certain that he met them. At any rate it is refreshing to see personal works by official painters of portraits and histories. Represented at Huntington are: George Romney, James Barry and John Hamilton Mortimer. There are absorbing examples by illustrators Thomas Stothard, Edward F. Burney and the gifted amateur, William Locke.

In style Blake’s dry linearity is characteristic of English graphic art but in speaking of Blake’s “Englishness” it seems more important to point out his connection with their long tradition of appreciating ideas and stories in art. Here Blake joins Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson, The Pre-Raphaelites and, in our own time, Francis Bacon.

Blake’s art compounds its sources into emblems whose flowing line and beautiful allegorical figures exalt the divinity of human imagination. If the flesh of this art must dwell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its spirit lives in our own. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) offers work which, along with Blake’s, is the most absorbing to contemporary taste. Both men appeal to our preoccupation with subconscious and automatic aspects of art. The dream-like quality and erotic suggestion of Blake and Fuseli’s symbolism make them precursors of the modern mythology of Freud.

––William Wilson