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Art Review : William Blake's Vision Shines in His Prints at Huntington


There's a curious, dated look to William Blake's art. The piquant problem is that it's impossible to tack down when that date would be.

The British poet, mystic and artist was born into 18th-Century Rococo, lived through Napoleonic Neoclassicism and into the dawn of the Romanticism he inadvertently helped invent. He loved the Gothic and Renaissance past--especially Michelangelo. He let such influences show in his work.

But Blake's work also looks as if it could have been made right here in Angeltown within living memory. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine him as a contemporary of L.A. artist-poets like Wallace Berman and George Herms in the late 1950s. Like Blake, they were visionaries who lived on the margins and did their own printing.

It fits right into this scenario that one of the world's greatest collections of Blake's work is right here in San Marino at the Huntington Library and Art Gallery. It certainly was not assembled with the notion of identifying Blake as the spiritual father of L.A.'s Beat Generation free spirits, flower children and outsider artists, but the coincidence is so delicious as to feel fated.

Now there is a very special exhibition in celebration of the Huntington's 75th anniversary, "William Blake's Illuminated Prints, 1799-1822." The gallery has done numerous exhibitions of these admired holdings but this one is singular. The 95 or so images it contains were previously bound in books and could only be seen a couple at a time. When it was discovered the volumes were deteriorating, there was nothing to do but take them loose.

It was a blessing in disguise. Framed, mounted on gallery walls, and restored, they clarify the artist's sensibility dramatically. The hand-colored relief technique he invented gives the prints unusual sensuous presence.

Blake specialist Robert N. Essick organized the show and thoughtfully wrote the companion book, "William Blake at the Huntington." His deft juxtaposition of images takes us from postage-stamp-size early works like "All Religions Are One" with their sweet Rococo feel, to monumentally scaled apocalyptic masterpieces like "Satan Exulting Over Eve" on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The Getty work's tendril line makes its two nude bodies weightlessly erotic, lending the picture an unsettling power that renders rank evil into something both beautiful and desirable. No doubt such work helped fuel Art Nouveau's decadent appeal.

Next to it, like the other side of a coin, hangs "Hecate" (or "The Night of Enitharmon's Joy") freighted with guilt and foreboding. It was clearly influenced by the nightmare visions of Blake's friend Henry Fuseli, but it outstrips its source, joining the ranks of images so profound as to become branded on the brain. You think of Durer's "Melencolia I" and Goya's great prints.

In one of the rare reviews of Blake's art in his lifetime, a critic described him as "an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement."

It is said Blake literally sang the poems in "Songs of Innocence and Experience" to tunes of his own devising. (When poet Allen Ginsberg tried to re-create this chanting, he became persuaded that graphic devices like the tree branches that enlace the verses of "The Tyger" actually function as musical notation.)

A friend once found the artist and his wife, Catherine, nude in the garden playing Adam and Eve. She said of her husband, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise."

He was also pugnacious, paranoid and a trial to the little band of supporters and patrons that eventually gathered around him. He complained of poverty but rejected official posts. He said Sir Joshua Reynolds, head of the Royal Academy, "was hired to depress art."

He was brought to court and charged with sedition after he threw a drunken soldier out of his garden. There is almost no way to avoid placing him somewhere on the continuum between psychopath and major eccentric.

Except one. The work itself reveals a man with a complete complement of human feelings to which he had uninhibited access. Much of his conventionally odd behavior can be traced to a perfectly sane desire to protect the freedom of his inner life. After initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution, the Terror convinced him that humanity could not be achieved with politics but only with a revolution of the human spirit.

It seems likely that Blake's insistence on leaving himself internally interconnected fueled the boggling range of his talents. Today, he is virtually unique in holding a top rank as both artist and poet, as well as being taken with scholarly seriousness as a political, philosophical and metaphysical seer.

That may be worth keeping in mind the next time our friends look at us as if we're a little nuts.

* The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino, through Jan. 15, closed Monday, (818) 405-2141 .

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