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