William Blake

Awakened by ideas of personal and political liberty and of the energy and sublimity of the natural world, artists and intellectuals of the Romantic Age sought to break the bonds of 18th-century convention, and William Blake, a British poet, painter and printmaker, did just that. Both his literary and artistic labors represent his strong vision and voice for rebellion against doctrine and all forms of repression producing a diverse and symbolically rich oeuvre.

Blake was considered a complex character by his contemporaries, even mad at times. His watercolors and engravings, like his writings, were not fully appreciated until after his death. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) houses an internationally acclaimed collection of Blake’s artworks, exquisite in both quality and quantity. Rarely displayed due to conservational issues with light sensitivity, these works are on display for the first time in fifteen years. On view is a showcase of Blake’s early printed works, illuminated and illustrated books and magnificent watercolours from his later years.

Blake deemed art’s primary function was to reveal the truth of the spiritual world by freeing the imagination. By uniting text and image, Blake was able to further convey his own visionary universe, as well as that of other poets such as Dante and Milton. The NGV owns thirty-six of the 102 watercolours Blake completed in the 1820s to illustrate Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ – a narration of Dante’s journey out of the dark forest where he found himself in the middle of his life. Faithful to the text, Blake also brings his own perspective to bear on some of Dante’s central themes, including sin, guilt, punishment, revenge, and salvation – all omnipresent in works such as Dante running from the three beasts (1824-1827). In these works, Blake devised his own personal mythology to illustrate his own mystical interpretations of the universe. Often his works appeared Biblical and apocalyptic, filled with metaphysical and existential themes.

Blake’s early career is represented in the exhibition by a selection of his reproductive engravings as well as an exquisite copy of one of his earliest illuminated books of his own poetry, ‘The Songs of Innocence’ (1789); a dramatic tale juxtaposing childhood innocence with the corruption and repression of adulthood. This book, together with three single-pages from his prophetic books of the 1790s and early 1800s, typify the uniquely beautiful and original system of printing by copperplate which Blake devised for his illustrated books of poems in colour.

The exhibition will also include two print series executed by the artist in his later years, along with 14 wood engravings illustrating Thornton’s publication of Virgil’s poetry (1820-21). Grouped into four frames, these capture the various moods of the text in images which are filled with intense, bold forms and outlines and further enhanced by its colour palette.

Blake’s intricate illustrations and their idiosyncratic and esoteric imagery, render the artist and his works difficult to understand at first however, their philosophical and mystical undercurrents only further entice the viewer into Blake’s expressive and complicated world. You are left not only to admire his artistic efforts but his philosophical notions.

NGV International
Until 31 August, 2014

Dante running from the Three Beasts, 1824-1827, illustration for ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri, pen and ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk, 37.3 x 52.8cm

The Circle of the Lustful. Paolo and Francesca, 1826-1827, illustration for ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante Alighieri, engraving on Japanese paper, 38.5 x 45.8cm

Courtesy the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne