In real life, William Blake must have been a pain in the ass. Even today his work—now filling the Metropolitan Museum’s Lehman Wing—can seem apocalyptic, angry, difficult, and dogged. Born in 1757, into a world that was not ready for him—that may not be ready still—Blake was probably the first hippie. He was one of the most antiauthoritarian artists who ever lived. He railed at every hierarchy; detested money, churches, society, fashionable opinions, Newton’s rationality, Voltaire’s flippancy, and Royal Academy president Joshua Reynolds. Blake rejected anything that reeked of repression—including the concept of sin. His entire being was devoted to replacing Descartes’s cerebral dictum with its opposite: “I experience, therefore I am.” To all who believe this, Blake’s your man. I revere him.
Declaring, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s,” Blake fabricated his own crackers cosmology. A real shaman, he saw angels and ghosts on the streets of London, and the mighty shade of Milton implored him to correct the errors in Paradise Lost. His life was hard. He had few friends—some of whom were iffy. Painter Henry Fuseli said he was “good to steal from.” Wordsworth called him “insane.” His only exhibition, in 1809, was reviewed as “a farrago of nonsense.” Dismissed as an eccentric, demeaned as “an engraver,” he died unrecognized and destitute.
His art is a blend of gothic woodenness, illuminated manuscripts, Michelangelo, and Dürer. As exquisite as his work is, paintings often break down into moody traffic jams of brown, and illustrations can be so busy they make you sleepy. His symbolism is all but impenetrable; his tone, archaic; his space, cramped. In an era that venerated history painting, Blake didn’t believe in history, only divine time. Uninterested in character, he whips his crazy archetypes into various states of hysteria: They wail, flail, pull their hair out, and cower in fear.
A lot of bad art can be traced to Blake. Flagrant egocentrics and blowhards like Thomas Hart Benton and R.B. Kitaj come out of him. The superliterary spirituality of Edward Burne-Jones and Stanley Spencer leads back to Blake. But Blake’s contentiousness and insights were so extreme and original, they transformed his stiff, antinaturalistic talent into something transcendent. Few artists have brought us closer to the wilder shores of the imagination.
Although Keats, Shelley, and Byron admired him, T.S. Eliot ridiculed Blake’s art as “an ingenious piece of home-made furniture put together from odds and ends.” Since then, the tide has turned. In 1959, literary critic Alfred Kazin deemed Blake “one of the most prophetic and gifted rebels in the history of Western thought.” Because of his passionate belief in intellectual freedom, Camille Paglia dubbed Blake “the British Sade.” The Beats adored him and Patti Smith says he “speaks in tongues.”
Today Blake is everywhere, even if you don’t know it. His poem “The Tyger” is the most anthologized verse in the English language. Jim Morrison named the Doors after a line from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In Hannibal, Lecter sends detective Clarice Starling a postcard bearing the very spirit of blood lust in quasi-human form, Blake’s voracious Ghost of a Flea. Although he is never mentioned in Daniel Boorstin’s book on great thinkers, The Seekers, Blake’s The Ancient of Days decorates its cover. This image—which is also on my mouse pad—depicts God reaching down from the heavens and inscribing ultimate order upon the world with a giant compass. Never mind that Blake believed the world had been too circumscribed, and once wrote, “To God: If you have formed a circle to go into, go into it yourself & see how you would do.”
The Met’s Blake show is enthralling. Admirably organized by Met curator Elizabeth Barker, this 175-piece retrospective is considerably smaller than it was at Tate Britain, where it originated. Which may be a blessing. In London, it logged in at a mind-boggling 629 items. There, I freaked out, then tripped out. Here, I was absorbed, not thunderstruck, by the installation in the Lehman Wing’s octagonal ring. In this space, Blake’s gigantic, defiant vision of the universe of good and evil, heaven and hell, never really crashes in on you; the high he produces comes in more palatable doses. In any event, a little Blake goes a long way.
At the Met, next to the teeny, gruesome Ghost of a Flea, hangs one of my favorite drawings of the 19th century, the truly shamanistic The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in His Dreams. Equal parts genie, sorcerer, and self-portrait, this oracular creature with fire on his forehead watches us with alien eyes. Suddenly you get why Blake’s art looks like it’s from another planet. Next to this is a delicate pencil portrait of Blake by his wife, Catherine, who pictures her husband as young and handsome, with fire on his forehead.
From 1789 to 1797, Blake was in an unreal aesthetic groove, producing many of the small-scale books he is known for. On hand at the Met are some delectable selections from Songs of Innocence, The Book of Thel, America a Prophecy, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Book of Urizen, Songs of Experience, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion. This last includes a disturbing image of oppression and misogyny: A naked man and woman are chained to each other on some rocks, while another male cowers nearby. The woman is Oothoon, who is bound to her rapist, Bromion. The cringing figure is her lover, Theotormon, who is unable to face the fact that his love has been defiled. Intentional or not—though everything Blake did had a reason—Theotormon’s name, if broken apart and pronounced phonetically, almost says what he has become, as well as his obsession: the other man.
After 1800, Blake leaves the littleness behind and makes a number of brilliant prints and watercolors based on Shakespeare, Milton, mythology, and the Bible, as well as the freaky-deaky pictures of Newton under the ocean and Nebuchadnezzar as the incredible crawling hulk. For me, Blake is best in the 122 illustrations he made for Dante’s Divine Comedy during the last three years of his life. Sadly, only 11 are on view. These visionary gems are Blake’s last testament, his odes to joy, and reconciliation of the cosmic rift. With them, Blake not only frees his hand and color, he unites the warring parts of his soul. His frenzied Beethoven side is finally at peace with his exquisite Mozart self.
One watercolor, The Inscription Over Hell-Gate, is less about the portal’s terrifying “Abandon All Hope” inscription than it is about tenderness. Virgil gently leads Dante to Hell’s entry, through which four earthly continents are visible, along with the submerged Atlantis. Joining the supernatural and the natural, the netherworld and our world, Blake shows us one last time that all opposites are one. Even Hell, he seems to say, is part of us.
“William Blake” continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, at 81st Street, through June 24.