In The Brooklyn Rail, Thomas Micchelli reports that William Blake could be the patron saint of our DIY era. “Compared to the dash and polish of Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, the trendsetters of his time, Blake’s artwork is plodding and archaic. His figure drawings, at first glance, seem like clumsily muscle-bound imitations of Michelangelo, rounded and patterned so artificially that they could pass for doorknob designs. His color was often tonal and sometimes bloodless. And his illuminated books, as he called them, turn their back on printing technology since Gutenberg, using a single copper plate for both text and image. He had one retrospective in his lifetime, which was mounted in his family’s hosiery shop and panned by the one critic who wrote about it. Like Cézanne, he was discovered in the latter part of his life by a group of younger artists, but while Cézanne’s admirers became Fauves and Cubists, an epoch-defining avant-garde, Blake’s followers branded themselves the Ancients, rejected all modern trends in art (for a while, at least) and quickly fell into obscurity.
“He was the paragon of DIY, seizing control of the means of production to promulgate his paeans to political revolution and Anglican apostasy. He was interdisciplinary to the core, not recognizing (or, more likely, not noticing) categories or credentials. His art was the sum of his passions, wresting perfection from impurity and inconsistency through the ferocity of his convictions. Resisting the masterpiece syndrome, his most important works are small scale and serial—incremental rather than overwhelming in their effect. His anticipation of the ever-burgeoning art of the graphic novel is too obvious to discuss. And his achievement remains well outside any arc, pantheon, or canon. He wrote his own narrative, and illustrated it as well.”
“William Blake’s World: A New Heaven Is Begun,” curated by Charles Ryskamp, Anna Lou Ashby, and Cara Denison. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY. Through January 3, 2010.