William Blake review
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For a man who casts such a huge, dark shadow over the history of British art, William Blake’s drawings, paintings and etchings are quietly unobtrusive little things. The poet, artist and printmaker (1757-1827) spent his life huddled over, creating mesmerising, tiny works to illustrate poems and histories. His giant bearded man who haunts the entrance of the show is barely bigger than a rat in real life. His gods could fit in your palm, his angels are the size of swifts.
It’s at this small, hypnotising scale that Blake drags you into his universe of rebel demons, invented mythologies and head-spinning dissident philosophies.
He had an incredible way with line and composition. His figures, whether allegories for the American revolution or characters from the bible, are solid, dramatic constructions, all rippling muscles, tormented faces and fierce, piercing eyes. They’re all arranged in swooping curves and arcs, whipped up to heaven or dragged down to hell.
Some are tiny, like the incredibly coloured, dramatic works from his Small Book of Designs, drawing you closer and closer. Others are grander, like the breath-taking room of watercolours with the crawling, shocking image of Nebuchadnezzar, his eyes wild and horrified.
Every work is thrillingly, uniquely Blake, These are his visions of society, history, religion and science, and they couldn’t be anyone else’s. That’s probably why he was never rich, never able to achieve his more ambitious projects: he was too busy being himself to care about anyone else.
But the show fails to explain what any of this means. The Tate tells you about engraving techniques, the cost of living in the 1800s, Blake’s relationships with his collectors, etc. etc. But who gives a rat’s ass about a guy called Thomas Butts commissioning Blake or how many shillings were in a pound? I want to know about how much Blake hated slavery, how he fought for feminism, avocated for free love, saw Satan as a rebel against the evils of dogmatic religion and saw each individual as a god in themselves. All those stories are here, in these works, but they stay hidden.
There are some dodgy images here (Blake is responsible for one of the ugliest baby Jesuses in art history, and that’s a serious achievement), but that’s what comes with being a prolific, obsessive artist. For the most part though, this is sprawling exhibition of little images by a visionary artist and thinker who stuck to his often incomprehensible guns at all costs. He believed in freedom, rebellion, emancipation and the power of the individual. You walk away knowing that those messages resonate as loudly and clearly today as they ever did.