The Ancient of Days – frontpiece to Europe a Prophecy

The graphic of the exhibition and undoubtedly one of Blake’s best works, we see Urizen, a representation of the fallen, and a challenge to imagination. Here with his golden compass, he exats measure and law onto the universe, to Blake limiting the powers of imagination. The Tate Britain exhibition, named quite simply William Blake, was full of information and hundreds of his works, but fell short of having imagination. Perhaps Urizen exacted his compass over the exhibition, chronologically organised and explained in great detail, yet without a spark that made it feel like Blake.

There were over 300 works in the exhibition, not just from Blake, but from many of his contemporaries. There was a real attempt to contextualise Blake in this exhibition, understanding his place in the canon of Georgian painters, and more importantly, how he does not belong in any canon at all. There was a massive variety of his own works in the exhibition too, demonstrating his varied abilities in so many different mediums. Engravings, paintings, sketches, illuminated manuscripts, etchings – Blake’s vast array of talent was on full display here.

This all sounds brilliant right? But sadly, it was just, frankly, too much. It seems like a strange complaint to have of an exhibition doesn’t it? Too many works, too much variety, too much to see, too much value for money… But at the end of the day? I just couldn’t get my head around it all. There was a room where there were just a few paintings, and a room where an illuminated manuscript was split into pages and you could inspect each one, and this was absolutely brilliant. But apart from that, there was so much stuff and information in each room that it was almost impossible to work out what you were meant to understand. And though contextualising work is interesting, it was done so much that often it felt like Blake himself was lost among the chatter. Information about the value of a shilling, about his patrons, his buyers, his locations in London – so much description, but for what real value?

Normally, I don’t complain when an exhibition doesn’t force upon you a curator’s opinion/interpretation of individual works. But this exhibition swung so much the other way that one often had little ideal of what you were looking at. For example, in a room where there was a phenomenal painting of Nebuchadnezzar, and another of Lamech, there was not even a simple description of who they were (a description that would have completely transformed the viewer’s understanding of the painting). Why fill me with information about the value of a shilling, but not tell me who Lamech is?

My final complaint, before I gush about Blake for a bit, is that his life as an author was almost ignored. We could see his illuminated manuscripts, and even read his poetry if you could be bothered to go up and close and read his writing (the person I was with made me read almost everything to her aloud). But Blake is one of the Big Six romantic poets, comparable to the likes of Wordsworth and Byron. So as an English graduate who spent quite a large amount of time studying Blake, I felt almost slighted that his majesty as a romantic poet felt slightly ignored.

Luckily though, I have read enough about Blake and studied him enough to have been able to make sense of the majority of the exhibition. And I was completely bowled over by his imaginative powers. For example, this trio of paintings of the devil took my breath away –

I hope you can see the detail, which is as phenomenal as it is petrifying. I sat there and stared at them for about 10 minutes, trying to work out what corner of his phenomenal mind he pulled these beasts out of.

Not everything was quite so horrific though. Look at the beauty of just one page from his illuminated manuscript –

A poem from the Songs of Innocence which describes a boy who is reluctant to go to school on a beautiful summer’s day. Perhaps a comment on the restrictions of formal learning, but without my English Literature hat on, it’s just a sweet and relatable poem.

However, innocence very much transforms into experience as the exhibition goes on, and a late painting of an aggrieved man searching for his lost lover in heaven was incredibly sensitive and touching.

Too small to see on this photo perhaps, but on this painting is tiny yet perfect writing,labelling characters and giving some explanation to the intricate detail of the work.

How much Urizen’s compass seems to have dominated the imagination of this exhibition, nothing can manage to strip Blake’s works of their inherent brilliance and unparalleled imagination. You are constantly surprised through this exhibition, even sometimes at how bad some of the works are, yet Blake’s artistic majesty never fails to shine through. There is nothing and no one quite like William Blake, and this is an invaluable, albeit slightly confused, opportunity to peak into his phenomenal work.

“As he drew the figure he meditated the song which was to accompany it, and the music to which the verse was sung, was the offspring too of the same moment” – Alan Cunningham

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