William Blake was an English tradesman -- and a mystic, a visionary, an artist with the prophetic burden of being dismissed in his own day. Not just ignored, but disparaged as eccentric and deranged.
Blake's sanity is still a contentious subject nearly 200 years after his death, but the significance of his work as poet, painter and printmaker has long been beyond question. His persona, too, has become magnified over time. Not only does Blake, who lived from 1757 to 1827, have fans; he also has followers, creators for whom he serves as guiding inspiration: patron saint of the unabashed.
The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens will put some 200 of the artist's creations on display starting today in "Vision and Verse: William Blake at the Huntington." While he made his living, in London, as a craftsman, translating the designs of others into engravings, Blake's reputation rests on his own visual responses to Shakespeare, Dante, Milton and the Bible in the form of intense line engravings and jewel-like watercolors that mimic the brilliance of medieval manuscript illumination. Equally remarkable are his illustrated poems -- the famously memorizable lyric beginning "Tyger Tyger, burning bright," the "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" and many, many others.
The Huntington show, guest-curated by UC Riverside scholar Robert Essick, promises to open wide a window onto Blake's world, an entire metaphysical system he conjured up out of sheer will to comprehend the spiritual, sexual and social aspects of being. "I must create a system," he declared, "or be enslav'd by another man's." He rewrote origin myths, and recast the gods, bards and heroes of ancient days.
So complex and idiosyncratic was his universe that Blake -- who felt his visions gave him sacred purpose -- stayed seriously at odds with his contemporaries. Wordsworth thought him mad for sure, but "there is something in his madness," he said, "which interests me ... more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."
Blake's words and images continue to intrigue. For these four L.A.-based artists -- who, in the manner of Blake, revere the imagination as divine wellspring -- Blake remains very much alive, and relevant as ever.
A self-professed "oddball painter," Knechtel makes intricate pictures charting his personal thought process. Scale and time are fluid in these tableaux; a fearless, autobiographical mode of free association takes over. The wild inventiveness of his work owes much to his earliest influences, Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake.
In high school, basically I wanted to grow up and become William Blake. I made my parents crazy because when it was time for me to take the SATs, I refused to take them because William Blake wouldn't have. He would have taken off his clothes and had tea in the garden with Mrs. Blake.
He was really the template for how my imaginative life was constructed -- his idea that you turn your eyes inward rather than outward, that you look to your imaginative life for the forms you use in your art; his interest in doing art connected to narrative and storytelling, and the intimacy of it, too, because most of his work is really small. It's so wholehearted and enthralled and enthusiastic about the world. It's not an art of irony. It's an art that's very direct and emotional. That directness goes right to your heart.
Another thing that remains seductive about Blake is that he's describing an entire world that he's conjured up. I'm conjuring a world, and my art is the things that come out of that world, art that reads the way one reads a book or experiences a play. His work consistently pushes forward and develops. That world deepens and alters. By the time you get to the last things that he was making, they're astonishing.
I don't think mad people can do that. And I've always viewed the stuff where he said he was talking with spirits as his own romanticization of the process, a way to draw people into the work. He was creating an aroma around the work, which again is not something that someone mad would do. Blake gives you a tremendous permission as an artist to dive into your imagination. That's what keeps him vital from generation to generation. He's the kind of artist I will go back to over and over in my life. Blake is how I think.
Ellis first encountered Blake's world as an adolescent, around the same time she discovered the reverberating, spiritually charged landscapes of American painter Charles Burchfield. Her own extravagantly beautiful paintings represent nature as radiant, pulsating, sacred. They reflect a belief, propounded by Blake and the Romantics who followed him, in art as a spiritual practice.
For Blake, the imagination is sacred. It guides the artist to create a truer and more intense world than that of mere appearances. There is nothing vague or deliberately mystifying in his world. It's this clarity of vision expressed through his amazing composition and line that continues to startle. When I saw Blake when I was young, there was something startling about him, and there still is. That's amazing. That's what you want in art.
Another thing about Blake is that he reminds you that the compositional structure of visual things is everything. Sometimes I think I make my work the way I do simply because it allows me to play with all of those classic things in art: space, composition, color, line. The attitude of Modernism is to somehow go beyond those things, because they're old, conventional problems. I enjoy playing with them.
Blake is a great example of how people use the word "representation" as if it's the opposite of "abstraction." He's a good reminder of how that's a ridiculous distinction. Representation in art doesn't mean a specific thing, it doesn't mean depicting appearances. I guess Blake would say that God's forms are a certain way, and that our world is a bad reproduction of God's world, that the forms of this world come from the ideal forms of God.
What is it that we're getting when we're also confused by him? I think it has to do with how clear his vision is. When people talk about art being mystical, they expect a certain vagueness in the form itself, to signify the vagueness of the vision. It's very phony. It's an unformed adolescent attitude about what mystical things are. Being a mystic is seeing clearly.
Painter and sculptor McGraw has drawn upon a variety of literary sources in his work, including Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, W.D. Snodgrass and Blake. Innocence and its passing are recurring themes in his art, which, like Blake's, is allegorical, visionary, intensely colored and often populated by angels. It's also characterized by a childlike sense of wonder, something McGraw admires in Blake. The man and his art, he says, have become part of his own iconography.
When I did "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" [paintings and sculpture based on the story and an illustrated version of the book, published by HarperCollins in 2001], I thought, another opportunity to be ridiculed, but Blake's "Songs of Innocence" was such a stamp of approval for my consciousness. It was such an anchor for me to feel the assurance that approaching this was all right. It was a green light for me to be able to work with Alice.
His willingness to experience and stand by visions that he had is important. In his personal life, he seems to have done everything wrong. But he had the conviction of his beliefs, regardless of what the art world of the time was doing. He makes a statement that anyone with less strength than he had couldn't possibly have lived his life. He had so many failures of experience. He was up for some kind of stipend to travel in Italy and didn't get it. His travels, his only experiences were what he conjured up.
I always feel like an impostor in art, like I don't belong. Blake gives me courage. They never let Blake in the club, and the [Royal] Academy was the club at that time. They said, how can we have a man who goes around talking to himself?
Blake's best work is when it's embarrassing. And what's being embarrassed? Our sophistication. Our experience of what we're supposed to relate to or not. I feel the same way, that my best work's on the edge of embarrassing. It might be dumb, but it's not pretentious. It's genuine, and when that happens, it has a life of its own. It's a living painting, and there's nothing more important than that.
"I think about Blake or some aspect of his work just about every day," says painter and sculptor Jackson. Her recent series "The Dreamer" tells a story about enlightenment through a sequence of 12 small gouache paintings. Archetypal images of lone, searching figures, caves, mountains and fiery visions pervade her art, which fuses the mystical and the mundane, the spiritual, fantastic and daunting.
When I came across Blake, I felt I had found a mentor, a beacon. At the least, he's an artistic genius. But I really think of him as more than that, as one of the few openings to divine creative energy that we have in the human race.
The poem that's taught to young children, "Tyger Tyger" -- that's part of the mystery of the process of discovering him. Here's this rhyming poem that's given to you as a child that has cosmic meaning.... Here it comes in this seemingly innocent poem. That was the beginning for me.
I imagine Blake working in an English landscape that's green, with fairy beauty, listening quietly to his inner voice. That is the pivotal image that inspires me to listen to my inner voice. Part of what I love about him is that he has in his work the looseness of a true wanderer. He also has this courage, this bravery that he can walk in those inner landscapes without fear.
That sense of permission is true in his way of working, his actual process of applying the paint. There's this blend of decorative, natural line that seems to come from observing nature with this classical style that adds to this feeling of a hero's journey. His style of painting is very unstudied. It looks like he taught himself how to draw. I don't know if that's true, but that's how it feels, how it looks, and that's another permission ticket to artists: Go ahead, teach yourself, and you can teach yourself pretty well.
You must have a life that comes organically from yourself, there's no alternative, there's no gray area, is what he's saying. The alternative is not that you're slightly influenced, but that you're a slave. That speaks to the extreme sensitivity of the inner world. It's so influenced by the words and actions of others that it must be protected with the silver sword.
We need him now, his understanding of the inner life. He's someone who went into the darkness, the unknown, the places that aren't lit by the light of consciousness. He gave us all permission to go in there, and he sent back messages that we can all learn from.
"Vision and Verse: William Blake at the Huntington," Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Through May 25. (626) 405-2100