William Blake’s exhibition at Tate Britain comes at the right time. It takes place at the time when the British are faced with the decision whether to cling to their messianic self delusions of Imperial destiny or to accept the reality of post-Victorian impotence in which they have been living for more than a century. The particular interest of this show is that is not centred on Blake’s work per se but in the conditions of production, circulation and viewing of that work. It deconstructs him as a cultural cipher. This makes this show an oddly honest one for someone like Blake who could be considered a national treasure who has repeatedly been cornered into the role of those mythic images he painted by the art historians of his country. If Blake embodies Britannia, it is an idea of it which is not self confident, privileged or business savvy. The show portrays him as a privileged, messianic and relatively isolated aritst.
The exhibition is organised chronologically and it takes us through the ups and downs of Blake’s creative and professional life without his usual glorification. The decision to include at the end of the show the architectural reconstruction of the space -the upstairs room- at Broad Street, Soho, where he held his legendary solo exhibition in 1809 allows the viewer an embodied experience of how possibly pathetic that first show could have been. The space where it was held belonged to the town house where his family lived and held a hosiery business. Visitors probably gained access to the exhibition through the shop downstairs. One can only imagine what could have been for a them to pass through the socks to get to the top floor to see works of such visionary character. Unsurprisingly, there were only a handful of visitors and a single published review which dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’. The curators added to the embodied experience of the reproduction of the actual room where the show took place, an illumination system that virtually restores those images to the way they might have looked in 1809 while one hears Blake’s words about those pictures spoken by the actor Kevin Eldon, expressing his ambition to be a painter of large scale wall paintings. This haunting embodied images create a sense of uncanniness that subtly moves this artist from the usual overpoliticised alegorical readings.
The decision to pay little attention to the mythological character of his watercolours and engravings in order to focus on who commissioned them and on the artistic context of its production allows us to understand his rejection of Academic teaching and baroque chiaroscuro to create a new type of image which, as his life progresses, becomes marvelously ocultist and the use of artistic materials that subverted the traditional academic hiearchies. The crystal-like figures that populate many of his images are tokens of purity in messy times. The composition of those images simulate Gothic tracery and the curators have emphasised at different points of the exhibition this link between art and architecture. Those crystal figures sometimes become prisms that decomposes light into colours which might be read as a preconfiguration of post-colonial tolerance. Did he denounce Britain barbaric rule of the world or did he go even further to foresee the disguised barbarism of current post-Imperial pluralisms. How much of a visionary was he and on whose side was he?
I think that the decision to place his legendary Albion at the very beginning of the show is a way of asking these questions while, at the same time, interrogating the viewer about whether Britain should remain connected to the world or fold into its nostalgic ideas of destiny. This folding into itself finds its material counterpart in the genre privileged by this artist: Neo-Gothic Illuminated manuscripts and books which are reminiscent of the insularity of this Nation’s medieval past as a communitarian, pious and virtuous utopia. I am thinking of the Lindisfarne Gospel as analogous images produced by an anonymous lonely monk in Northumbria in the XII century a few years after the celtic church decided to stay in Europe for a few centuries until Henry VIII did otherwise. Negotiating the present through such a culturally distinctive revisitation of the past is what makes Blake’s work and his work oscillate in a continuum between the two extremes of Imperial messianism and isolated victimhood. J A T