November 22, 2007

Blake stuff for Art History Seminar

Born 28thNovember 1757
From about the age of 8years, Blake began to have visions and saw ‘angels’ among the haymakers at dawn in a tree at Dulwich.
Aged 10 he left school and entered a drawing school. Four years later he became an apprentice engraver with Besire and learned the craft until he was 20.
Aged 22, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy where he developed a strong dislike of its president (and his art) Sir Joshua Reynolds. He particularly rejected Reynolds’ ideas of ‘High Art’ and advocacy of patronage and ‘royal liberality’. In the margins of Reynolds’ Discourse, Blake annotated “ Liberality! we want not Liberality. We want a Fair Price & Proportionate Value & a General Demand for Art”.
Blake left the RA to earn his living as an engraver, not a painter, and remained largely self taught which may have helped him to become one of the most outstanding imaginative painters and original poets that England has ever produced.
Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher in 1782.
Blake opened a print shop in 1784 and began working for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, at whose house he met some of the leading dissenting intellectuals of the day, including the scientist Joseph Priestley, the philosopher Richard Price, the artist Henry Fuseli, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the international human rights revolutionary Thomas Paine.
Revolution and political intrigue became deep interest for Blake. He closely followed the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. These interests gave rise to his greatest works Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789), The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1983), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), and The Book of Urizen (1794).
Blake developed and retained a deep interest in revolution both of the mind, the body and the country throughout his life. Although he was not hugely successful during his lifetime, his books of poetry and etchings were and are among the most irrefutably important commentaries on socio-political climates that England has ever known.
William Blake died on August 12th1827 in obscurity and poverty. He had the misfortune of being born into world wracked by war and industrial change completely out of joint with his own visionary and libertarian impulses.
Blake passionately supported the American Revolution 1775-1783, and when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 he sported the bonnet rouge in a show of solidarity with the revolutionaries. Throughout the early stages of The Revolution, Blake was a loud voice in the artistic and poetic landscape, supporting it both spiritually and through his work. However, when the revolution entered its authoritarian phase, with the rise to power of Robespierre and the Terror which followed, Blake began to doubt the power of revolution. When Britain declared war on France in 1794 he became wholly disenchanted with European politics and the revolutionaries. However, it was clearly a turning point in his work. . In the period of reaction that followed storming of the Bastille in 1789, Blake witnessed the government repression of radicals, the censorship of the “gagging Acts”, and the anger of the Church and King mobs who were ready to ransack libraries and throw the disaffected artist or poet into the mud. Blake was obliged to clothe his radical message with allegorical garments. But he never retreated into an ethereal world of the imagination or turned his back on politics in the broadest sense. The Industrial revolution of the late 18thCentury stood for everything Blake found sinful in the world and he continued to engrave and etch despite the production of industry that made his artistry redundant.
The poet Swinburne observed of Blake that “to serve art and to love liberty seemed to him the two things (if indeed they were not one thing) worth this man’s life and work.”
Blake’s politics seem to be neither coherent or consistent. He disliked traditional political philosophy, associating it with the mechanical and utilitarian mind. Blake blamed “the wretched State of Political Science” for the state of the Arts in Europe. Blake was, however, not frightened of politics, but he reached the anarchist conclusion that conventional politics in the form of governments are a denial of life and an insuperable bar to human freedom. His political views also formed an inseparable part of his religious thought: “Are not Religion & Politics the Sme Thing?” he asked, adding “Brotherhood is Religion”. And just as his political and religious views were intertwined, so are his poetry and his art-all in turn based on his particular view of nature, society and the self. Blake was an avid supporter of abolition and also saw many of the horrors of slavery reflected in the treatment of women in his own society. The ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake’s Jerusalem are the new age of Industrialisation but also the metaphorical prisons of the mind. To the north, the new factories of England produced smoke and consumed workers; to the South, there was the din of revolutionary war and the rotting corpses on the ‘battlefields’ of Europe. In 1800, Blake recalled how in his life a ‘mighty & awful change” threatened the earth and despaired hos it ended in war:
The American War began. All its dark horrors passed
before my face
Across the Atlantic to France. Then the French Revolution
Commenc’d in thick clouds,
And My Angels have told me that seeing such visions
I could not subsist on the Earth.
However, Blake never lost his vision of a free society which the revolutions had inspired. While most of his radical contemporaries went over to reaction or fell by the wayside, Blake remained faithful to his libertarian and egalitarian ideals. Due to the state of censorship in which Blake created his art, no image or writing directly links into the revolution the way David’s of Gericault’s did. Blake’s is a more subtle use of the politic in artform and he uses both the written word and the engravers tools to furnish himself and his viewers with the armour to approach political, radical upheaval in any age.
In his old age, Blake’s revolutionary views inevitably made him an outsider. A republican and an anarchist, he could hardly feel at home in Tory England. Apart from Godwin and Hazlitt, nearly all the old radicals of his generation had died or lost their way. In 1827, he wrote to a friend, “since the French Revolution English-men are all Intermeasurable One by Another, Certainly a happy state of Agreement to which I for One do not Agree”. In the same year, in his annotations to Thornton’s New Translation of the Lord’s Prayer, Blake offered his own liturgy. It shows that for all the complexity of his imaginative world and the depth of his alienation from the everyday world, he was still calling for economic justice and social freedom to prevail on earth. He continued to pray for an end to Capitalist exploitation, repressive morality, and political authority. Blake believed that the political is the personal, and called for individual rebellion in everyday life even while working for a total transformation of society.
In his own life, Blake was an eccentric living in virtual internal exile. Yet we can now see him at the centre of the Age of Revolution in which he lived and as a key figure in English Romanticism. We continue to live in a very similar world, with warring Nation States threatening on a daily basis. The machine still dominates human beings who are divided within, from each other; and from nature. The agents of Urizen are still at large.
For this reason, Blake’s message remains as potent and relevant as ever. He offers the prophetic vision of a free community of fully realised individuals who act from impulse and who are artists, kings and priests in their own right. Neglected in his own day, distorted by posterity, Blake’s sun is beginning to rise as the post-industrial society reasons with itself and the love of freedom grows stronger every day.

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