At the Tate Britain in Westminster, the restless mysticism of the time between 1700 and 1800 that permeates the work of the English painter
From September 11th, 2019, to February 2nd, 2020, at the Tate Britain – the art gallery that is part of the Tate museum complex together with the more famous Tate Modern – an exhibition with about 300 works including paintings and watercolours that represents a truly impressive retrospective of the last twenty years on this intolerant artist. Here we find some understanding of his multifaceted talent, a man who claimed to have had “supernatural visions” as a child.
Along these lines, there was the time he saw angels in a tree in the Peckham Rye park. His works present a dreamlike and visionary style. He lived in an era influenced by neoclassical rationalism, yet there was also a romantic push that was already beginning to spread.
William Blake (1757- 1827) was a painter, engraver, poet and theologian. Above all, he was a tormented man in constant struggle with himself and with others. His contemporaries didn’t appreciate him. They saw him as extravagant, not understanding the philosophical-religious theories or the artistic expressions. Blake actually was too far ahead of the times. That said, later generations would appreciate it.
For this artist poetry, theology and visual representation are sides of the same coin. The fact that his written production was evaluated separately from the graphic-pictorial one was detrimental to the understanding of this author – including the intellectuals or art historians that dealt with his work.
The exhibition was given an interesting setting. The set-up is organized as if it were through the eyes of the artist himself. For example, the interior was recreated above the family store in Soho, where in 1809 Blake got involved making an exhibition of his works. This was an event that resulted in a colossal failure. In addition, giant works are projected on the walls – works that Blake intended to carry out on a large scale.
The exhibition closes with a famous recording made just before he died, The Ancient of Days. The image is in a certain sense his spiritual testament and represents Urizen. For the artist, Urizen is an expression of the creative principle, a figure that often appears in his writings and in his engravings. The epithet Ancient of Days is taken from the Bible and is one of the appellations of God in the book of the prophet Daniel. The engraving was the title page of a work from 1794, Europe a Prophecy, a composition of 18 tables that mixed prophetic verses and engraved images. His entire production, both written and visual, has the prophetic tones derived from the Bible. However, his religiosity, although inspired by Christianity, is absolutely original and steps out from any officially recognized religion. Ancient of Days is represented as a bearded elder totally concentrated in the creative act. Blake represents the Creator as a great architect who creates the Universe with a compass, trapping man in the limitations of physical laws and in the perception of the five senses. He imprisons mankind in the material at the expense of spirit and creativity. The iconography of the Creator is not far from the God/Father of Michelangelo, an artist of whom Blake had great admiration because he considered him an emblem of artists-prophets, men so inspired that with their art they succeed in representing the Invisible.
It might be surprising that this artist with such an unusual mentality had never stepped out of London. However, he travelled with his mind to the lands of the afterlife, creating a mystical-religious universe that was supposed to reform the world and make it more just and harmonious. Towards the end of his life, he became obsessed with Dante and had begun to illustrate the Divine Comedy. However, he was unable to complete the work and died in poverty. He was buried in a nameless tomb in Bunhill Fields.
Another curiosity, the Blake Prize for Religious Art, a biennial award on religious art, was established in Australia in the 1950s. The last edition was just held in 2018 but the scandal of 2007 remained in the annals when Bracks created “Bearded Orientals“, an image that became Christ or Osama bin Laden, depending on the viewer’s perspective.
Today Blake remains quite modern in our need of a spiritual dimension. Visiting this exhibition could also be a way of dealing with the mystery of Creation and the supernatural.
Anna Maria Calabretta