An exhibition at the Tate shows both the triumphs and failures of the poetby Seamus Perry / October 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
In 1809, William Blake decided to re-launch his faltering artistic career at the age of 51 by putting on an exhibition of his works. The venue was the first floor of his brother’s haberdashery shop in Golden Square in Soho, not an obvious location for the art-loving public. Nevertheless, the poet, printmaker and artist intended the show to make an immense splash, and in the Descriptive Catalogue that he produced to accompany 16 of his pictures, he noisily advertised his anti-establishment credentials.
It is a superbly intemperate bit of grievance: “As there is a class of men, whose whole delight is in the destruction of men, so there is a class of artists, whose whole art and science is fabricated for the purpose of destroying art.” The principal hallmark of such artists was their use of oil paint, a medium that for Blake had blighted painting ever since it came in with Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian and other such second-raters. This trenchantly counter-cultural view of art history was designed to set him against the major institutions of the day. For it was the example of exactly these Old Masters that shaped the judgment of the Royal Academy, as well as the more patrician British Institution in Pall Mall—both of which, Blake complained in the Catalogue, had rejected his works.
His own exhibition was an attempt to side-step the system: “Mr B appeals to the public, from the judgment of those narrow blinking eyes, that have too long governed art in a dark corner.” Tendentiously, Blake considered oil to be an inadequate vehicle for colour, reducing everything to a yellowy murk. He offered, by contrast to Turner and Constable, what he provocatively called “real art.” This meant working in watercolour or tempera (where the pigment, dissolved in water, was mixed with a binding agent such as carpenter’s glue), a technique Blake called “fresco,” as though to imply its continuity with an older school of painting. Stylistically, his works were quite distinct, too, abandoning the chiaroscuro of the Old Masters for “unbroken lines, unbroken masses, and unbroken colours.” Blake saw himself as single-handedly rescuing an ancient skill from the crushing weight of the “blotting and blurring” favoured by the establishment. “The art has been lost:…