The two works at the beginning and the end say much about what is in between. At the start is ‘Albion Rose’ (1793) which illustrates the complexities in Blake’s work where images have a multitude of meanings if you look for them and is said to be a symbol of ‘youthful rebellion, spiritual freedom and of creativity’. The last is the Frontispiece from ‘Europe’ which he coloured in 1827 towards the end of his life. He viewed ‘The Ancient of Days’ as one of his greatest works and it is one of his dozen or most recognisable images, with the figure of Urizen appearing like a Olympic god representing scientific investigation in a dark human world lacking in exploration, imagination and creativity, a theme which seems to resonate through the ages – even today.
Tate Britain’s masterful exhibition explores the immensely talented 18th century poet, illustrator and painter William Blake (1757-1827), with his visionary, if often mythical and mystical, works that were often misunderstood by his contemporaries but have influenced generations of artists after him, with some works relevant to modern times including ‘The Future of America’ and ‘Europe – A Prophecy’.
Although he studied at the Royal Academy Schools, he threw aside the traditional classic tradition that many of the students followed to create his unique deep, dark and mysterious style which is what we remember him for today. Towards the end of his life, in 1809, Blake held a one-man exhibition on the first floor of the family home in Broad Street, Soho – a strange location for such an exhibition, with the result that there were few visitors and it was not a success. In many ways, this seemed to mark the end of his career; his style of work had had its day and he became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. The Tate have recreated that exhibition here.
But wait; there was a last renaissance in 1818, with the completion of some of his most ambitious works in 1820 including the books ‘Jerusalem’, ‘The Divine Comedy’ and ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ which has a new lightness to the illustrations.
This was a large and ambitious exhibition of Blake’s work and life which reminds us what a rebel he was in his day, breaking all the artistic rules of the time, which is why we his work is still as relevant today as it was then.