Patches of color burn brightly in the shadows. Up close, details become clear: writhing nude figures, humans morphing into trees or insects, bits of Stonehenge, grinning monsters, winged devils. As visitors peer at the pictures, strange phrases, lyrical or obscure, combining windy rhetoric with the names of London districts, spring out to haunt the mind. The Tate Britain — formerly London's Tate Gallery — is mounting the largest-ever exhibition of the works of England's favorite "mad genius," William Blake. Born the son of a shopkeeper in 1757, he studied art at the Royal Academy and learned engraving. He illustrated Dante and Shakespeare, as well as his own idiosyncratic poetry and prose. Throughout his life he claimed to see visions, from a tree full of angels in prosaic Peckham Rye to the sinister ghost of a flea (whose portrait he painted).
The show, which runs in London until Feb. 11 and then moves to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is divided into sections named in Blake's own words: "One of the Gothic Artists," "The Furnace of Lambeth's Vale," "Chambers of the Imagination" and "Many Formidable Works." It moves from his early interest in Gothic art and the tombs of Westminster Abbey, through the social and political issues he engaged with, illustrations of Milton's Paradise Lost and Biblical scenes, into the often impenetrable world of his imagination.
The show's curator, Robin Hamlyn, has tried to avoid making an already big event too "sprawling and distracting." Including all of Blake's influences, like neo-classicists John Flaxman and Henry Fuseli, or heirs such as Samuel Palmer, would have required a space like the Millennium Dome. The pictures have been assembled from Scotland, Australia and the U.S., giving a rare opportunity to take in Blake's work as a whole. All 100 plates of the prophetic book Jerusalem, from the Yale Center for British Art, are on display for the first time in Britain since the book's completion in 1820.
Blake himself would probably be surprised by this generous coverage. Often friendless and short of money, he was chronically unsuccessful in his lifetime, depending on hack engraving jobs and occasional patrons. He was rediscovered in 1847, two decades after his death at age 69, by the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and again by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in the late 1880s. A Blake Society sprang up in 1912 — it still flourishes at St. James' church, Piccadilly — and a year later his work was shown in a public gallery for the first time. A Blake industry was born, and he became a magnet for diverse groups including mystics, Jungians, hippies and rebels — for many years a London graffito proclaimed one of his Proverbs of Hell: "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."
The exhibition tries to rescue Blake from his admirers and show him as a man of his time. His books Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are displayed next to photographs of his house and its surroundings in Lambeth, with handbills for local chimney-sweeping services. Though rural when Blake and his wife Catherine moved there, this South London area quickly became a dumping ground for dirty industries, orphanages and workhouses. Blake's innocent-seeming poems and illustrations savagely attack the coldness of charity and the barbarity of sending children up chimneys to clean them.
But this righteous wrath is dissipated as the visitor moves farther into Blake's mental realm. Beautiful as many of the images are, the effort of decoding his personal mythology can be fatiguing. According to novelist and Blake biographer Peter Ackroyd, the artist was a contradiction: an obstinate, vain man who loved his wife and was kind to children. The art displayed reinforces this view. Blake had a message for the world but made it willfully obscure. He could produce jewel-like printed books and also pictures, such as his Milton series, in which high emotion and drama lapse into bathos. Blake himself embraces "contrarieties": innocence and experience, lamb and tyger. And nothing can take away from the quality of, for example, Songs of Innocence, where living tendrils wind around ballad-like verses — words, human figures and vegetation printed in subtle leaf-greens and dull pinks — or the dramatic impact of the shadowy Entombment series, where Mary Magdalen's veiled face is obscured by the candle she holds before it.
He was such a one-off, such a polymath, that his reputation is constantly up for reappraisal. "Blake always had great hopes for his art," says Hamlyn. "It was his misfortune to be out of kilter with the times — but he was never going to be in kilter with any times he lived in." Blake's contemporaries considered him backward-looking. Determined to do everything his way, he rejected oil painting and took inspiration from the distant past. "Artists in his day," says Hamlyn, "were supposed to be shifting the British school forward," their self-esteem boosted by the country's status as a "big shot in Europe." According to Ackroyd, the neglected Blake's own self-worth bordered on megalomania and increased as he became more marginalized, but Hamlyn feels his vanity was justified. His illustrated books, printed in the relief method he invented, were unique in Europe at the time. Blake certainly never lost touch with the wilder shores of the human spirit that are often bypassed by high art. That could explain his enduring popularity, which this show can only enhance.