The Ashmolean Museum presents ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ – a major exhibition focusing on the extraordinary life and work of Blake (1757–1827), printmaker, painter and revolutionary poet of prophetic books. The show sheds light on Blake’s evolution as an artist, apprenticeship as an engraver, and his maturity during the 1790s when he was at the height of his powers as both an artist and poet. The exhibition also draws on the artist’s influence on the young artist-printmakers who’s own formative years were Blake’s final, and how he inspired the artistic ‘youth’ of his day; including Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert.
But the question is: how do you choose to curate William Blake? It is a tricky proposition; the reason is that Blake is hard to reduce, both physically through the quantity of his works, and in the number of facets to the artist’s extraordinary career. There are so many elements to Blake’s life – art, his poetry, and revolutionary philosophy, that it can be difficult to choose which of the many possible narratives that run through his career one should address first.
When thinking of William Blake one is instantly seized by the artist’s visionary images, poetic, mystical works that are strangely modern. His imagery expresses artist as seer, saint, visionary and prophet. But instead the Ashmolean and its curator Michael Philips choose to focus the exhibition in part on the artist’s techniques. How, for example, the visionary artist developed monoprint and relief etching; how the gigantic images known as the “large prints” were actually made, or one of the artist’s great advances of how to incorporate words and images on a single plate – were created.
The exhibition draws the viewer into documents and data, proposes the changes to the artist’s works as they advance through his career; and compares and contrasts process and practice. For Blake the technical process was of great importance; and the exhibition examines the artist’s technical innovations in the creation of his illuminated books, which brought new innovation to colour printing. Among the works on display in the exhibition are several of the most extraordinary illuminated books, which include ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, a complete set of the plates from ‘Europe: A Prophecy’, together with beautiful individual plates, among them Nebuchadnezzar and Newton. But with this spotlight on the technical, one can’t help but feel that it detracts a little from the great poetic and esoteric nature of the images.
With this particular focus the exhibition even recreates the artist’s studio from 13 Hercules Buildings, in Lambeth, south London, which was demolished in 1918. Curator and print-maker Tom Phillips recently discovered the floor plans, made for a Victorian survey of the estate, which were recently discovered in the Guildhall library. The narrow work space housing the large wooden press is installed in the exhibition; including descriptions by younger artists who made a pilgrimage to Blake’s studio and home, as well as later accounts by art lovers who tried to save the studio and Hercules building in 1918.
But there is something missing from the studio; something that is in fact a signifier of how dealing with Blake from the perspective of ‘technical data’ loses something. It loses some of its life. What instantly struck me as I surveyed this narrow studio was its lifelessness. I wanted oil smudges on the walls, and a bit of grime, I wanted the smell of printing inks, I wanted the mess of a practising artist in the heat of creation. I wanted something with the energy of Francis Bacon’s recreated Reece Mews studio – with its sea of paint tubes, painted over photographs, and layers of detritus – I wanted it to live. I wanted it to avoid simulation. I wanted it to be as expressive as Blake.
That esoteric life-force thankfully returns on viewing a classic example of Blake’s extraordinary vision with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Unique in its utter originality; a truly singular ‘wild man’, a hybrid man-beast, of sinew and bedraggled hair – crawling on clawed hands and feet in a fantastical landscape. This is the Blake that stirs me; this is the focus that has no reason to try and ‘explain’ the artist. The fact that Blake was an extraordinary visionary of complete originality needs but a millisecond to speak for itself, and Blake knew as much, stating: “My style of designing is a species in itself.’’
There is a tendency when confronted with the ‘data’ to become distracted by the intricacies of process – and it is true that the narratives of the illustrations often do need a critical interpretation. But to sell Blake’s primary genius as technical innovation is to ignore his powers to their fullest extent; as a prophetic and unique master, and revolutionary artist of works as dense with meaning as any great volume of writing. Blake’s finished works have always stood apart from his practice.
The show’s focus on the ‘technical data’ is as if the magician wants to reveal the trick; and in doing so goes a little way to destroy its wonder. It unintentionally subverts the artist’s intent. Perhaps wrongly, the viewer will always be more interested in Blake the visionary; rather than Blake the master of technique – even though this exhibition wholeheartedly succeeds in illuminating the artist as a truly technically innovative master.
William Blake: Apprentice and Master – Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – until 1 March 2015
Words: Paul Black Photo: courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum © Artlyst 2014 all rights reserved