Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(William Blake, 1794 volume, Songs of Experience)
Who can ever forget these immortal lines by the poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827)? Not only because of its poetic lyricism, but also for its symbolism and significance, its political import, the paradoxes and dualities between the lamb and the tiger, and its relevance in the contemporary world that is hyper-real, hyper-digital, hyper-connected and yet extremely isolated. As a painter, printmaker and poet who created some of the most iconic images in British art, Blake is now being posthumously honoured with a retrospective at the Tate Britain, which presents the largest survey of the artist in the UK.
We might take such an analysis of the poem further and see the duality between the lamb and the tiger as being specifically about the two versions of the god in Christianity: the vengeful and punitive Old Testament god, Yahweh, and the meek and forgiving god presented in the New Testament. Such an interpretation is supported by the long-established associations between the lamb and Jesus Christ.
The tiger, whilst not a biblical animal, embodies the violent retribution and awesome might of Yahweh in the Old Testament, and it is this persistent duality that informs all of Blake’s work, whether it be his poetry, his paintings, his sketches, etchings and his illustrations.
“Radical and rebellious, he is an inspiration to visual artists, musicians, poets and performers worldwide. His personal struggles in a period of political terror and oppression, his technical innovation, his vision and political commitment, have perhaps never been more pertinent,” writes Martin Myrone, Senior Curator, pre-1800 British Art, and Amy Concannon, Curator, of British Art from circa 1790-1850, in their joint curatorial statement.
William Blake was a staunch defender of the fundamental role of art in society and the importance of artistic freedom. Shaped by his personal struggles in a period of political terror and oppression, his technical innovation, and his political commitment, these beliefs have inspired the generations that followed and remain pertinent today. The exhibition is seen as a landmark event because it imagines the artist’s work as he intended it to be experienced.
“Blake’s art was a product of his tumultuous times, with revolution, war and progressive politics acting as the crucible of his unique imagination, yet he struggled to be understood and appreciated during his life,” writes Myrone and Concannon. Renowned as a poet, Blake also had grand ambitions as a visual artist and envisioned vast frescos that were never realised.
For the first time, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c.1805-9) and The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (c.1805) have been enlarged and projected onto the gallery wall on the huge scale that Blake imagined. The original artworks are displayed nearby in a restaging of Blake’s ill-fated exhibition of 1809, the artist’s only significant attempt to create a public reputation for himself as a painter. Tate has recreated the domestic room above his family hosiery shop in which the show was held, allowing visitors to encounter the paintings exactly as people did over 200 years ago.
Inside the exhibition will be an immersive recreation of the small domestic room in which Blake showed his art in 1809. You will be able to experience for yourself the impact these works had when they were shown for the first time. In another room, Blake’s dream of showing his works at enormous scale will be made a reality using digital technology. With over 300 original works, including his water colours, paintings and prints, this is the largest show of Blake’s work for almost 20 years. It will rediscover him as a visual artist for the 21st century.
The exhibition also provides a vivid biographical framework in which to consider Blake’s life and work. There is a focus on London, the city in which he was born and lived for most of his life. The burgeoning metropolis was a constant source of inspiration for the artist, offering an environment in which harsh realities and pure imagination were woven together. Blake’s creative freedom was also dependent on the unwavering support of those closest to him: his friends, family and patrons.
Tate Britain highlights the vital presence of his wife Catherine Blake, who offered both practical assistance and became an unacknowledged hand in the production of the artist’s engravings and illuminated books. The exhibition showcases a series of illustrations to Pilgrim's Progress (1824-27) and a copy of the book, The Complaint, and the consolation Night Thoughts 1797, now thought to be coloured by Catherine.
A portrait of Blake, thought to be his only finished self-portrait, is also exhibited in the UK for the first time. In the 200 years since its creation, the detailed pencil drawing has only been shown once before and never in the artist’s own country. It offers a unique insight into the visionary painter, printmaker, and poet responsible for some of Britain’s best loved artwork. Created when Blake was around 45-years-old, the work is thought to present an idealised likeness. Rather than showing Blake as a painter or engraver, signs of his creative intensity are conveyed in his direct hypnotic gaze It is displayed at Tate Britain, alongside a sketch of Blake’s wife Catherine from the same period, highlighting her vital contribution to his life and work.
Additional highlights include some of Blake’s best-known works including Newton (1795-c.1805) and Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20. This intricate painting was inspired by a séance-induced vision and is shown alongside a rarely-seen preliminary sketch. The exhibition closes with The Ancient of Days 1827, an illustration for an edition of Europe: A Prophecy, completed only days before the artist’s death.
The exhibition, supported by Tate Patrons and Tate Members, is on at Tate Britain till February 02, 2020.