Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fearful Symmetry

Magnet # 404:  William Blake's When the Morning Stars Sang Together

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Mom & Dad

British artist, poet, and creative visionary William Blake was born to a hosier in the Soho district of London on this day in 1757.  As a child, he attended very little formal school and was taught at home by his mother, who had six other children.  It was then that he was introduced to the Bible, which would become one of the most important sources of inspiration in his later years.  For a short time, he studied at a drawing school run by Henry Par and when his growing talent became undeniable, his supportive parents sent him away from the family shop to apprentice with James Basire, an established engraver from a family of traditional engravers.  While there, he studied and made many images of London's gothic churches.  The pair worked together for seven years, but little is known about their personal interactions.  Some think that Basire's adherence to antiquated styles may have caused some friction between them, as Blake would soon venture far from established artistic traditions.  In 1779, he was accepted into the Royal Academy, but he quarreled with its president over a variety of issues, including the style of art that was currently fashionable.  Blake tended to prefer the more Classical styles of Michelangelo and Raphael.  But he also connected with other, more radical students.  For the rest of his life, they would be the sort of people whose company he would keep.  And by 1782, Blake had met and married the woman who would become his trusted companion and assistant for the rest of his life - Catherine Boucher.  She comforted him when he had been rejected by another and he fell in love with her.  When they wed, she couldn't even sign her name on the marriage certificate and had to mark it with an 'X' instead.  But Blake would teach her how to read and write and how to engrave.  Not only would his wife help him print his work, she would also keep him from giving into despair during difficult times.  The pair never had any children and it's believed that Catherine was infertile.  But that did allow Blake to become very prolific, producing volumes of work.  He even created his own artistic process - relief etching, which allowed him to print text and images together.  The exact method he used to create with this process is not known, but he certainly left plenty of examples behind.  Some of Blake's most famous volumes of work include Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem, but that's hardly all that he produced.  He also worked using intaglio engraving.  He encountered a bit of scandal in 1803 when he fought with a solider who accused him of slandering the King.  He was brought to trial on charges of treason, but they were dropped when they proved to be laking nearly any merit.  The offending soldier later found his way into Blake's art in a rather unflattering manner.  Blake worked faithfully for the rest of his life on his art, even wrapped up in it on the very day of his death.  On his deathbed in 1827, he sketched a portrait of his wife, who grieved beside him, sang hymns, and swore he would always be with her.  One witness claimed that it his death was more like that of an angel than a man.  His wife held that she spoke with him often before she passed herself about four years later.  On that day, she was almost joyful and called out to her husband that she would be with him soon.  They were buried together at Bunhill Fields, but the exact location of their grave has been lost over the years.

While Blake enjoyed very little success during his own life, his work has gone on to inspire and captivate future generations.  Even when patrons bought Blake's art, they most often did so to support him, not because they felt it had great artistic merit.  But Blake had a unique perspective on traditional religion, illustrating iconic Biblical tales as well as creating his own divine characters, and his world, which is unlike any other, has intrigued many more creative minds.  Nearly all of his life, he claimed to see visions of God that inspired him creatively.  Some have even called him mad, but claimed to find his insanity more interesting than other writer's sanity.  Perhaps what ostracized Blake from his own world but endeared him to the future is that he was a truly man ahead of his time.  He was eager to challenge traditional religious conventions, the government's restriction of sexuality, and the institution of slavery, as well as other established, but questionable, practices of his time.  And while that may have made him unpopular in his day, it endeared him to audiences who grew to share his views with time.  Blake is now regarded as one of the most important figures of the Romantic Age, but given his truly individualistic approach to life and art, it's difficult to really tie him down to any artistic movement.  He was unusual enough to ensure that there will never be another William Blake, but I imagine many more artists will be compelled to incorporate parts of his creations into their own work.

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