William Blake art exhibit in Los Angeles explores the limits of imagination

My encounters with the work of the early English Romantic painter, printmaker and poet William Blake (1757-1827) have been marked by respect, awe and sometimes confusion.

Respect and awe, because both Blake’s poetry and visual art are grounded in a unique, purposeful perspective that, for the reader and art lover, is not easily categorized—visionary, spiritual, aspirational, remarkable in its moral wholeness.

But these are also the reasons why at times, especially in the visual work of prints and paintings, Blake’s unconventional visual art can be bewildering and confusing.

And that’s okay, as I found out during a recent afternoon at the J. Paul Getty, who is currently hosting a major exhibition on Blake’s work, titled William Blake: Visionary, which is now on display at the Los Angeles museum through January. 14, 2024

William Blake’s religious views were complex, even contradictory.

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“Radical, fantastic and unforgettable,” said Timothy Potts, the museum’s director, in a statement about the exhibition. “Blake’s works will make visitors feel like they have been transported to another world.”

They do—and in ways that can leave the art lover feeling spiritually renewed.

More than 100 works are exhibited in this collaboration with the famous Tate Britain in London. The Getty’s “William Blake: Visionary” is being called Blake’s first major international loan exhibition on the US West Coast, an event originally scheduled to open in 2020 but postponed due to the global pandemic.

It was worth the wait. I have seen some of the works before, including at the Tate, but it was inspiring to see so many of Blake’s works displayed together.

In exploring what the Getty calls “Blake’s wild imagination,” the exhibition gives his historical context a proper foundation. As art critics Edina Adam and Julian Brooks note in their introduction to the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Blake’s Britain underwent “significant political, economic and social change”, including three major military conflicts on five continents. Among these conflicts, of course, was the American Revolution of 1765-83.

Religious divisions also marked the era. As noted in the introduction, Catholics, Jews, and dissenting Protestants—those who “did not conform to the practices of the Church of England”—had limited rights, which was also true of all women and men who were not property owners.

But the era was perhaps most marked by some of the same controversies and challenges of our time. Although Britain was experiencing great prosperity, the catalog’s introduction notes that “wealth is unevenly distributed and class disparity is growing, leading to social unrest.”

“Blake witnessed these changes,” Adams and Brooks note, and saw London transform into a metropolis in which the traumas of economic inequality were glaringly obvious.

Some of this was expressed vividly in poetry, which often turned boldly from much of the neoclassical verse of the 18th century. Blake’s work became harsher—not afraid to offer social criticism, as the first two stanzas of Blake’s 1794 poem “London” demonstrate:

I roam every charter street,
Close to where the charter Thames flows.
And a scar in every face he met
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every man’s cry,
In every baby cries fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
I hear the mind-forged shackles

In this and other ways, Blake—whose own family were Protestant “dissenters”—took on both the political and religious authorities of his time, and was unafraid to contradict and embrace innovation.

Unsurprisingly, while Blake was educated at the prestigious Royal Academy of Art, he always felt like an outsider and chose not to embrace the popular genre of oil painting that was gaining recognition for his contemporary J. M. William Turner (1775- 1851).

I find this a little sad – no one can question Blake’s talent and versatility in printmaking, tempera and watercolour, but imagine what he could have done had he embraced oil painting – and on the scale that Turner so masterfully achieved.

As it is, the Getty exhibition does a great job of exploring Blake’s spiritual vision—which has its roots in Christian and classical imagery, but is extremely unique. Blake turned to the Bible for inspiration—the exhibit has no shortage of biblically inspired images, such as The Death of the Virgin, an 1803 watercolor, and Satan Rejoicing over Eve, a 1795 print that serves as something of an exhibit centerpiece element.

As the Getty notes in his description of the exhibition, Blake’s religious views are complex, even contradictory. Blake rejected the idea of ​​God “as an all-powerful patriarch or vengeful deity,” the museum said. “Rather, he identified himself as a spiritualist and claimed to have had frequent visions.”

Something of Blake’s spirit comes to life in an exposed self-portrait, a work that suggests an alert, intense man intent on observing the world around him with a hypnotic, straight-ahead gaze.

For many, Blake is a forerunner of counterculturalism.

“William Blake’s deep spirituality, questioning nature and vivid imagination particularly resonated with poets and musicians of the 1960s and 1970s such as Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan,” said Brooks, who is senior curator of the drawings. of the Getty. “Yet Blake’s work continues to pop up in many unexpected places and feels eternally relevant.”

As a poet, I found Blake’s graphics, which combined his original verse with intricately detailed imagery—a genre he called “lit books”—appealing. What poets wouldn’t want their poems illustrated with such care and love?

But for me, the highlight of the exhibition was Blake’s masterful prints of the story from the Book of Job. I kept coming back to them again and again throughout the afternoon I spent at the museum. Beautifully detailed, these works show both humanity and majesty.

Depicting a well-known biblical account of a man overcome with suffering and despair, Blake’s work is presented against a cosmic backdrop – both moving and exciting.

Brooks said the museum hopes “William Blake: Visionary” will leave visitors “feeling empowered to explore the limits of what can be imagined.”

Thanks to the Getty and to William Blake, I certainly did.

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