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Mounted by the Petit Palais in collaboration with the City of Paris’s Musée de la Vie Romantique, William Blake: The Visionary Genius of English Romanticism—featuring over 150 works borrowed from major British collections, the Louvre, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others—was the first French retrospective devoted to Blake since 1947. This overdue exhibition was expansive and thorough, if not inspirational; it was beautifully installed in the Petit Palais’s well-appointed special exhibition rooms, but the roughly thematic groupings were at times opaque or barely articulated.
Arguably, Blake is as much a poet as a visual artist, and with a museum show such as this, one inevitably favors the visual dimension of his art over the literary. Typically problematic in this sense are his “Illuminated Books.” Among his most important works, these hand-printed manuscripts are miniscule in some cases; many, including his Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789–94), were certainly not meant to be presented as individual framed sheets of paper, but rather as objects to be cradled in one’s hands or lap, like a book of hours or diary. The texts of the Songs are their heart and soul, and brief excerpts printed on the walls did not do them justice. Meanwhile the framed sheets, each hung on the wall, are tiny, and the faintly printed texts become effortful, rather than visionary.
Despite such inherent difficulties, the exhibition succeeded in creating several intimate spaces and in offering a comprehensive presentation of Blake’s range. Blake’s long absence from France was remedied, and French audiences did get a broad view of Blake’s world. However, it is not certain that they came away from the exhibition with anything like a clear vision of his art (to the extent that such a thing is possible). The exhibition did not begin with an introductory wall text as one typically finds in a similar exhibition in the United States. Instead viewers were launched straight into a series of modestly scaled rooms, arranged around major works, themes, or historical benchmarks. In some ways the exhibition seemed to take a cue from Blake himself. Rather than offering a rationalized, chronological, and fully organized arrangement of Blake’s idiosyncratic production, the show combined thematic and even technical groupings of works with a loose chronological organization that was constantly disrupted with invaders from the future or past. For example, the first room focused on Blake’s influences, and included some of Blake’s earliest work as well as pieces from the end of his career, apparently gathered together in order to show the range of his sources. Several works produced when he was an apprentice display his well-known admiration for Michelangelo and his attraction to Gothic art and architecture. Examples from a series of portraits of English Poets in tempera on canvas, made later in his career (around 1800), were presented at this early point in the exhibition to announce Blake’s deep connection to poetry, most importantly to the poetry of Milton.
The star of this room was a small engraving of the Laocoön claustrophobically surrounded by waves of handwritten text. The work, from the end of Blake’s career, is titled The Laocoon as Jehovah with Satan and Adam (1820). Among the proclamations Blake makes in the waves of text are: “Where any view of money exists Art cannot be carried on, but war only”; “the Old and New Testaments are the great codes of Art. Art is the Whole Business of Man”; and “Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature and Imitation.” This little work seems to encapsulate many aspects of Blake’s vision and his art: his attraction to the seer Laocoon and his struggle, which is expressed physically—as a bodily struggle against death—in the Hellenistic sculpture; the statements on art, money, the Bible, and nature; the reinterpretation of canonical objects from the history of art and literature; and perhaps most importantly the unorthodox, vibrant integration of image and text. While this first room did make sense as an introduction to Blake, I am not convinced that the visitor would be able to enjoy all it has to offer without further guidance than was offered.
The following room presented the first of Blake’s “Illuminated Books.” These works, the most famous of which is Songs of Innocence and Experience, were made by hand with a process of relief etching that Blake developed at the end of the 1780s. This process allowed him to print word and image together, using the same process on the same plate, eliminating one kind of “division of labor” that characterized most illustrated works. Several versions of Songs of Innocence and Experience—which Blake continued to produce and hand-color until the end of his life—were presented in a vitrine, accompanied by six framed pages from this work. The text is lighter than if it had been printed by letterpress, more ethereal, as if penned in watery ink. One of the songs, entitled “The Chimney Sweeper,” is almost covered with text, but wreaths, foliage, and bird-like forms encroach from the sides, complemented by a tiny image of naked boys, revived by an angel, at the bottom of the page, corresponding to the passage: “And by came an Angel who had a bright key, / And he open’d the coffins & set them all free. / Then down a green plain leaping laughing they run / And wash in a river and shine in the Sun. // Then naked & white all their bags left behind, / They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.” At three by five inches, the pale printed texts of the Songs are hard to appreciate behind glass, but it was illuminating to see several versions of this handmade book, and even multiple versions of the same songs next to one another.
Also in this room, and much more accessible to the eye, was Blake’s America: A Prophecy from 1793, a work that captures the tumult of the time in which it was produced, when France and the United States were experiencing their respective revolutions. Larger in physical scope and presented more cohesively than most of the other pieces in the exhibition, this work places Blake in his historical moment, as a visionary who was nonetheless deeply aware of his surrounding material conditions and of the cataclysmic historical events of his time. America: A Prophecy captures the spirit of history, and Blake’s own excitement about the energy of revolution, in the “fiery joy” of the heroic figure of Orc. The complete plates of America: A Prophecy were presented on one wall, allowing viewers to move back and forth between them.
The next room displayed Europe: A Prophecy (1794), beginning with the iconic image of “The Ancient of Days,” the white-bearded tyrant, equipped with compass, who crouches, intent on measuring and controlling the world by rational means. Hand-painted as well as unpainted versions of this image and the nearby print Newton from 1795 reveal the extent to which Blake worked, re-worked, recycled, and repurposed images throughout his career. As with America: A Prophecy, the epic scope of this work was made clear thanks to the presentation of all of the individual pages together on a single wall.
Blake’s Newton and two printed versions of Hecate (1795) were featured at this midpoint in the exhibition. Called “portable frescoes” by the artist, and described in the exhibition as similar to monoprints, they are larger images, rich in surface texture and color. The two versions of Hecate were shown side by side to illustrate the range of effects Blake was able to achieve with this technique. Thickly textured surfaces, built up with lead white, animal glue, and pigments, could, in second or third impressions, be transformed into translucent films of color.
Blake’s adventures in printmaking continued throughout the rest of the exhibition, and perhaps one aspect the show made clear more than anything else is the extent to which Blake challenged and stretched the limits of printmaking in his era. A small set of woodcuts made as illustrations for Virgil’s Pastorals are virtuoso compositions of no more than one by two inches each. Rich in imagery and technique, each one could be easily held in the palm of the hand. Here and in other later works, Blake is revealed to be a literary omnivore, whose sources ranged from Virgil to the Book of Job to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Dante. Through these relationships, Blake’s work seems less the product of an idiosyncratic and isolated visionary than that of an artist who was deeply invested and involved in the European tradition, in which rationalism and empiricism are one side of a coin, with emotion and the supernatural on the other. In light of this, the final section of the exhibit, focusing on Blake’s influence on later artists, was less interesting than it might have been; but in fact that could be another show altogether.
Michael Phillips’s excellent catalogue essay, “William Blake Graveur Visionnaire,” provides some much-needed and detailed information on Blake’s printing processes. Phillips offers a lucid discussion of Blake’s technical innovations in printmaking, as well as discusses the symbolic significance the medium took on for Blake, pointing out how the artist drew parallels, for example, between the corrosive action of the acid on the plate (in etching) and a similar corrosion of the soul. The catalogue’s overall format mirrors the exhibition itself in its avoidance of linear narrative, choosing again a thematic and multi-vocal presentation of the artist. It does not provide a roadmap to the exhibition in any sense, but is a stand-alone volume with high ambitions. There are, in all, a total of thirty essays in the volume, some of them as short as five hundred words, all of them in French. While some essays are informative, others seem to end abruptly, or to focus on esoteric topics. Nonetheless, this approach clearly demonstrates the many dimensions of Blake’s work, as well as the range of current approaches to it. Topics span from “William Blake et Thomas Paine,” “Blake, Reynolds, et la Royal Academy,” and “Blake et le gothique” to treatments of specific works in “Les Illustrations de Blake pour le Divine Comedie” and “America et Europe. La Prophétie comme Histoire.” Other essays touch on Blake’s reception in the United States and in Great Britain, his reception in France, and his 1809–10 exhibition in London. Perhaps this wide array of topics, some only briefly introduced, was necessitated by the relative lack of scholarship on Blake in French—a lacuna that this exhibition and accompanying catalogue help to address.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Ramapo College of New Jersey