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by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 26
October 2019

Blake’s visionary imagination

Jenny Uglow reviews the current William Blake exhibition at the Tate Britain, in this week’s long read pick...
by Mary Harrington

Jenny Uglow reviews the current William Blake exhibition at the Tate Britain, in this week’s long read pick. The first major Blake exhibition for some two decades, the show takes “exactly the kind of crisp, rational, time-bound framework that Blake himself railed against so passionately”, as Uglow puts it, though she acknowledges that “on the whole, it works well”.

Uglow takes us through a brisk outline of Blake’s chronology, from his early days studying at the Royal Academy through a rejection of its teachings along with much the empirical trend in Enlightenment thinking in favour of visionary imagination. Then his adult work as an engraver working with sometimes radical political causes of the day, to the greater freedom from financial worries and the artistic demands of others he attained in the last decade of his life.

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Blake’s subversive politics and visionary exuberance are a consistent theme throughout his life, and this exhibition:

Blake’s radical politics first came to the fore in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), in which Satan is the voice of imagination and desire, and Eternal Delight defies the shackles of Reason. But the illuminated books could never be produced in enough numbers to make a profit, and by 1790 Blake was making his living as an engraver, in particular working for the radical printer Joseph Johnson. The influence of two of Johnson’s authors can be felt in Blake’s poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). One was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Original Stories he illustrated in 1796, and whose anger in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) echoes in the tirade against sexual oppression delivered by Blake’s heroine Oothoon. The second was the denunciation of slavery in John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative (1796), for which Blake was already engraving illustrations. It is perhaps in relation to this image that the Tate has put a “Content Warning” outside the entrance, acknowledging that ‘The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.’
- Jenny Uglow

In our age of new (if confused and sometimes self-defeating) radicalism, with magical thinking re-emergent in ‘social justice’ activism and Extinction Rebellion’s colourful protest movement branded a ‘millenarian death cult’ by the Daily Telegraph, Blake’s political commitments, hallucinatory visuals and countercultural outlook feel remarkably contemporary.

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