The Secret Universe of William Blake’s Art

CAMBRIDGE, England — How curious! Today the works of William Blake, England’s greatest painter/poet, have been penned into a suite of fairly new and architecturally featureless galleries, illuminated only by artificial light, to the side (and partly at the back? It is quite hard to tell) of a great 19th-century museum called the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, quite separate from the rest of the institution. 

Why? The need to control visitor numbers and flow perhaps? In part, it must have to do with their fragility. Blake’s works are very, very delicate — many are watercolors — and to expose them to light at all is a risky business

The staging of William Blake’s Universe in other respects is very good. The Fitzwilliam owns a great collection of Blake’s works, often gifted by important collectors, and this is an opportunity to show them off. 

As I walk around this exhibition, I begin to warm to the decision. I come to appreciate the carefully controlled atmosphere, which has made it possible for the museum to take more license than is often the case. There are no floors markings to prevent you from getting very, very close to the works, for example. 

And this is important because although Blake nurtured wild ambitions to become a history painter on the grand scale, he almost never had the opportunity to work large. He survived for the most part as a jobbing printer. In fact, part of the excitement of looking at Blake’s works is that they are not only small but, as a consequence, secretive. They yield their meanings slowly, and, what is more, those meanings can be extremely difficult to construe. The installation feels a little hugger-mugger, as if part of its job is to offer up its secrets to like-minded enthusiasts. And it does, little by little.

I am thinking about these matters as I step out of the museum’s lift — whose doors, incidentally, are adorned with an image of Blake’s “Albion,” flinging himself toward us like a spirit-being on fire.

An older man is seated in a chair — there is only the one chair, and it is distinctly his — with his back to me, side on to the hospitality table, with its piled croissants and two somber black jugs of black coffee. He looks very thin and very still and straitened in his dark blue suit. We are introduced. This is David Bindman, the exhibition’s co-curator and the catalogue’s co-editor, with Esther Chadwick. Bindman is one of the greatest of Blake scholars, and he has been at it for an awfully long time. Blake is unfathomable and inexhaustible. 

Bindman wrote his first Blake catalogue in 1970, and he tells me that he conceived the idea for such an exhibition as this one 54 years ago. His co-editor, whose chronological reach is shorter, explains that this particular show has been six years in the making.

What this show tells us is that Blake was not a solitary visionary at all, communing largely with angels, and blessed to be able to profit uniquely from exclusive interviews with, among others, Jesus, Aristotle, and Socrates. Though he traveled outside London only once (to a damp cottage beside the sea in Felpham, for eight years), he lived in our common world too. Although he was poor and much neglected during his lifetime, he gained acolytes and admirers, especially in old age, and he had some fast friends who came to his aid. 

The exhibition reminds us how much Blake was a man of his times — which were incendiary ones from a political and a literary point of view. The French Revolution broke out when he was 32 years old, and at the height of his powers as a poet. And, although no traveler himself, he was a man of Europe whose currents of thinking were shared by other European artists — that mixture of passion, idealism, nationalistic drum-beating, and mystical fervor. 

And so the exhibition opens on a note of pleasing intimacy, with portraits of his friends, fellow artists, acolytes, and European counterparts: Blake is drawn by his devoted wife, Catherine, after his death, for example, flame-headed and eternally youthful in his burning prescience. Here too is Samuel Palmer, painted brilliantly by Palmer himself, in white and black chalks, at the age of 25, touchingly bashful. When the young Palmer got to know Blake, the latter was already an ancient seer. When Palmer visited Blake at his last lodgings in Fountain’s Court, just off the Strand, he would kiss the door knocker. Palmer worshipped the very ground Blake trod. He was also a little alarmed by his heterodoxy. Blake’s version of Christianity seemed to be full of strange paradoxes. 

This heterodoxy is on grand display in the other galleries, in groups of hand-colored etchings from The Prophetic Books, unique specimens that only the dark walls of the vaults usually get to enjoy. This is Blake at his wildest, his most wonderful, and often his most baffling. 

One of the delight of this show is to read the captions, and discover how the very learned scholars have smoothed away the difficulties of understanding how the myriad of gods and spirit-beings that Blake invoked with such passion and insouciance made any kind of coherent and comprehensible sense. They do not. To read The Prophetic Books is still a baffling and maddening experience. To look at his deftly embedded illustrations is something else altogether. 

Blake is as unreachable as he is magnificent. He is a well that will never run dry.

William Blake’s Universe continues at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Trumpington Street, Cambridge, England) through May 19. The exhibition was curated by David Bindman and Esther Chadwick. It will travel to Hamburger Kunstalle in Hamburg, Germany.

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