Art Criticism

Tate frames William Blake

Nearly two centuries after his death, the visionary artist’s work has a new relevance in a fractured and febrile Britain

LONDON. Major exhibitions are a long time in the making but Tate Britain’s survey of William Blake’s (1757-1827) work, the largest in the UK for a generation, could not be more prescient. The British poet and painter’s exploration of the narratives of Albion—the ancient, mythological name for Britain—point to a central question for our times: what does it mean to be British?

Living in London’s Soho and Lambeth in the late 1790s, he was well aware of the atmosphere of febrile radicalism. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave a political urgency to his views, while new radical groups were emerging in the British capital, demanding political change. Blake was employed as an engraver by the Unitarian bookseller Joseph Johnson, which became a centre for prominent radicals including Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Out of this intellectual ferment, Blake created some of the most emblematic images in the history of British art and has been an inspiration to numerous artists and writers.

Tate Britain will bring together more than 300 of the artist’s rarely seen works and re-imagine his output as he intended it to be experienced. Vast frescos that were never fully realised, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (around 1805-09), will be brought to life by being digitally enlarged and projected onto the gallery walls.

Vast frescoes that were never realised will be brought to life by being projected onto the gallery walls in a new light


Blake’s colour engraving Albion Rose (around 1793) is loosely based on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The exhibition will include a recreation of Blake’s ill-fated 1809 exhibition in a room above his family hosiery shop, the artist’s only significant attempt to enter the public arena as a painter, and will open with Albion Rose (around 1793), a nude male figure loosely based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, that explores the founding myth of Britain. This ideal is set against the prevalence of what Blake saw as the evils of populism and austerity that have their parallels in our own current politics. This extraordinary seer, who foreshadowed Surrealism and Expressionism, has found a fresh relevance in our moment of national crisis nearly two centuries after his death.

The exhibition is supported by Tate Patrons and Members.
William Blake, Tate Britain, London, 11 September- 2 February 2020

The Art Newspaper

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