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He set imagination free

William Blake's complex metaphysics inspired ridicule in his lifetime. But for artists today, he simply inspires.

January 19, 2003|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

William Blake was an English tradesman -- and a mystic, a visionary, an artist with the prophetic burden of being dismissed in his own day. Not just ignored, but disparaged as eccentric and deranged.

Blake's sanity is still a contentious subject nearly 200 years after his death, but the significance of his work as poet, painter and printmaker has long been beyond question. His persona, too, has become magnified over time. Not only does Blake, who lived from 1757 to 1827, have fans; he also has followers, creators for whom he serves as guiding inspiration: patron saint of the unabashed.

The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens will put some 200 of the artist's creations on display starting today in "Vision and Verse: William Blake at the Huntington." While he made his living, in London, as a craftsman, translating the designs of others into engravings, Blake's reputation rests on his own visual responses to Shakespeare, Dante, Milton and the Bible in the form of intense line engravings and jewel-like watercolors that mimic the brilliance of medieval manuscript illumination. Equally remarkable are his illustrated poems -- the famously memorizable lyric beginning "Tyger Tyger, burning bright," the "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" and many, many others.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 563 words Type of Material: Correction
Painting reproduction -- DeLoss McGraw's painting "In Response to a Poem by William Heyen, but Thinking About William Blake" was incorrectly reproduced in Sunday's Calendar. The correct orientation is shown above.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 26, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 4 inches; 145 words Type of Material: Correction
Painting reproduction -- DeLoss McGraw's painting "In Response to a Poem by William Heyen, but Thinking About William Blake" was incorrectly reproduced in last Sunday's Calendar. The correct orientation is shown above.

The Huntington show, guest-curated by UC Riverside scholar Robert Essick, promises to open wide a window onto Blake's world, an entire metaphysical system he conjured up out of sheer will to comprehend the spiritual, sexual and social aspects of being. "I must create a system," he declared, "or be enslav'd by another man's." He rewrote origin myths, and recast the gods, bards and heroes of ancient days.

So complex and idiosyncratic was his universe that Blake -- who felt his visions gave him sacred purpose -- stayed seriously at odds with his contemporaries. Wordsworth thought him mad for sure, but "there is something in his madness," he said, "which interests me ... more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."

Blake's words and images continue to intrigue. For these four L.A.-based artists -- who, in the manner of Blake, revere the imagination as divine wellspring -- Blake remains very much alive, and relevant as ever.


Tom Knechtel

A self-professed "oddball painter," Knechtel makes intricate pictures charting his personal thought process. Scale and time are fluid in these tableaux; a fearless, autobiographical mode of free association takes over. The wild inventiveness of his work owes much to his earliest influences, Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake.

In high school, basically I wanted to grow up and become William Blake. I made my parents crazy because when it was time for me to take the SATs, I refused to take them because William Blake wouldn't have. He would have taken off his clothes and had tea in the garden with Mrs. Blake.

He was really the template for how my imaginative life was constructed -- his idea that you turn your eyes inward rather than outward, that you look to your imaginative life for the forms you use in your art; his interest in doing art connected to narrative and storytelling, and the intimacy of it, too, because most of his work is really small. It's so wholehearted and enthralled and enthusiastic about the world. It's not an art of irony. It's an art that's very direct and emotional. That directness goes right to your heart.

Another thing that remains seductive about Blake is that he's describing an entire world that he's conjured up. I'm conjuring a world, and my art is the things that come out of that world, art that reads the way one reads a book or experiences a play. His work consistently pushes forward and develops. That world deepens and alters. By the time you get to the last things that he was making, they're astonishing.

I don't think mad people can do that. And I've always viewed the stuff where he said he was talking with spirits as his own romanticization of the process, a way to draw people into the work. He was creating an aroma around the work, which again is not something that someone mad would do. Blake gives you a tremendous permission as an artist to dive into your imagination. That's what keeps him vital from generation to generation. He's the kind of artist I will go back to over and over in my life. Blake is how I think.


Sharon Ellis

Ellis first encountered Blake's world as an adolescent, around the same time she discovered the reverberating, spiritually charged landscapes of American painter Charles Burchfield. Her own extravagantly beautiful paintings represent nature as radiant, pulsating, sacred. They reflect a belief, propounded by Blake and the Romantics who followed him, in art as a spiritual practice.

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