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Indepth Arts News:

"Vision and Verse: William Blake"
2003-01-19 until 2003-05-25
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, CA, USA

Nearly 200 works by William Blake will be on view in a major exhibition of the renowned artist/poet, opening January 19 and continuing through May 25 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. "Vision and Verse: William Blake at The Huntington" will include works from both the art and library collections. Blake scholar Robert N. Essick, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a member of the Huntington's Board of Overseers, is serving as guest curator of the show.

Although little known in his own lifetime, William Blake (1757-1827) is now one of the most celebrated artists and poets in the English-speaking world. His ability to express his imaginative vision through both pictures and poems makes his talent doubly intriguing. His lyric "The Tyger" may be the most anthologized poem in English; his prints of "The Ancient of Days" and "Albion Rose" are among the most reproduced images. The Huntington has mounted a number of small Blake exhibitions over the years, but space limitations meant that only a few dozen works could be displayed at any one time. The renovation in 2000 of the former garage into the Boone Gallery now permits display of a generous selection from the Blake collection.

As one of two exhibitions inaugurating the Estate Centennial at The Huntington, which marks the 100th anniversary of the purchase of the estate, the exhibit honors the institution's founder, Henry E. Huntington, for his foresight in collecting outstanding works by Blake between 1911 and 1923. The entire Blake collection will be available on a full-color computer display throughout the run of the show, along with an illustrated brochure.

The son of a shopkeeper, Blake spent all but three years of his life in London. At 14, he was apprenticed to an engraver from whom he learned the trade he pursued throughout his career: the etching and engraving of designs created by other artists. Blake's ambitions in the arts, however, extended beyond commercial printmaking. He had begun to draw and to write poetry while still a boy. Finding few opportunities to publish and exhibit his works, he invented a new form of relief etching to produce, by the late 1780s, illuminated books integrating his pictorial visions and poetic verses. But Blake's career was not totally devoted to these complex and now extremely rare works; he continued to produce prints, book illustrations, watercolors, and paintings for several publishers and patrons. Most of his pictorial works have a literary basis, including his own writings, the Bible, and John Milton's poems.

Blake's early training as a line engraver greatly influenced all his work as an artist, for he generally favored strongly linear compositions over more painterly styles. In his drawings and watercolors of the 1780s, Blake developed a neoclassical idiom characterized by rather flat, frieze-like compositions. At the same time, his love of gothic art, and the works of the Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael, continued to shape his art. These crosscurrents of influence evolved, by the early 1790s, into Blake's version of the sublime, a style featuring heroic figures in exaggerated poses expressive of powerful forces both physical and psychological. During the first two decades of the 1800s, Blake continued to execute watercolors characterized by radiant washes constrained within strong outlines, several large tempera paintings (all but a few now lost), and commercial engravings. His final works as a watercolorist and an engraver deploy an interplay of darkness and light to symbolize the journey from despair to spiritual illumination.

The exhibition is divided by subject and genre into six inter-related sections. "Biblical Themes" includes drawings and paintings that show Blake's pictorial responses to the text most responsible for shaping his sensibility. Two rooms are devoted to the "Illuminated Printing" of his illustrated poems. "Art and Commerce" situates Blake within the commercial art of his time through the display of some of his most important engravings commissioned by book and print publishers. "Blake and Milton" includes the magnificent series of watercolors illustrating three of Milton's poems: Comus, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," and Paradise Lost. "Job and Dante" explores Blake's return, late in his career, to traditional line engraving to illustrate the Biblical Book of Job and Dante's epic poem, The Divine Comedy. The exhibition concludes with a "Final Testament" revealing the youthful vigor of Blake's artistic spirit to the end of his days.

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