The Radical Artistic & Philosophical World of William Blake: A Short Introduction

Over the years, we’ve fea­tured the work of William Blake fair­ly often here on Open Cul­ture: his own illu­mi­nat­ed books; his illus­tra­tions for every­thing from the Divine Com­e­dy to Mary Woll­stonecraft’s Orig­i­nal Sto­ries from Real Life to the Book of Job; pairs of Doc Martens made out of his paint­ings Satan Smit­ing Job with Sore Boils and The House of Death. Blake con­tin­ues to cap­ture our imag­i­na­tions, despite hav­ing lived in the very dif­fer­ent world of the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to the mid-nine­teenth — but then, he also lived in a world well apart from his con­tem­po­raries.

“Blake belonged to the Roman­tic age, but stands utter­ly alone in that age, both as an artist and as a poet,” says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in his new Great Art Explained video above. “He is some­one who invent­ed his very own form of graph­ic art, which organ­i­cal­ly fused beau­ti­ful images with pow­er­ful poet­ry, while he also forged his own dis­tinc­tive philo­soph­i­cal world­view and cre­at­ed an orig­i­nal cos­mol­o­gy of gods and spir­its designed to express his ideas about love, free­dom, nature, and the divine.” It would­n’t be an exag­ger­a­tion to call him a vision­ary, not least since he expe­ri­enced actu­al visions through­out almost his entire life.

Not just a visu­al artist but “one of the great­est poets in the Eng­lish lan­guage,” Blake pro­duced a body of work in which word and image are insep­a­ra­ble. Though it “address­es con­tem­po­rary sub­jects like social inequal­i­ty and pover­ty, child exploita­tion, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, and reli­gious hypocrisy,” its world­li­ness is exceed­ed by its oth­er­world­li­ness. What com­pels us is as much the pow­er of art itself as the “vast and com­pli­cat­ed mythol­o­gy” under­ly­ing the project on which Blake worked until the very end of his life. His ide­al was “lib­er­ty from tyran­ny in all forms,” polit­i­cal, reli­gious, sci­en­tif­ic, and any oth­er kind besides; in pur­su­ing it, he could hard­ly have lim­it­ed him­self to just one plane of exis­tence.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Oth­er­world­ly Art of William Blake: An Intro­duc­tion to the Vision­ary Poet and Painter

William Blake: The Remark­able Print­ing Process of the Eng­lish Poet, Artist & Vision­ary

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fan­tas­ti­cal “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books”: The Images Are Sub­lime, and in High Res­o­lu­tion

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.



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