William Blake at the Tate Britain

The other day I went to the William Blake exhibition at the Tate Britain and it was brilliant. Naturally it was a bit of a problem that I went in the late afternoon on a Saturday, because I had the problem I often have with exhibitions, where it feels like I am trapped in a more cultural version of IKEA due to the crowds and the conveyor-belt nature of the layout.

However, the busyness did not ruin the exhibition as much as I had feared, perhaps because I was so struck by Blake’s work. The first couple of rooms were hot and stuffy, and it was all too obvious that I was breathing in other people’s breath, which was obnoxious. About twenty minutes in I nearly left, but I was glad I didn’t.

I had known and enjoyed Blake’s work in a half-hearted sort of way before, looking at his poems and art online. But viewing them in the flesh (on the paper?) was something else. The depth of suffering he managed to evoke in his characters is beautiful. I had not previously known that he was influenced by Fuseli – one of my favourite artists – but walking around the exhibition, I could see how that made sense.

One set of works particularly spoke to me: Blake’s small paintings that were made to accompany his First Book of Urizen. Sadly these weren’t given much prominence in the gift shop or the guidebooks, but I very much enjoyed viewing them.

Something that really struck me was Blake’s way of painting fabrics. He captured the flow of materials in a way that made them almost come to life.

But back to the suffering. This was my favourite work in the whole exhibition:

It is from his First Book of Urizen and is entitled ‘From the Caverns of his jointed spine.’ Inscribed underneath the version in the gallery were the phrases:

“Every thing is an attempt”
“To be Human.”

It pierced its way into my little goth heart, and I really want a copy of it. I bought an exhibition guide from the gift shop, so at least I have it in the form of a page in there, but at some point I’m going to have to source a print of it.

The other piece I particularly loved was apparently deemed so unimportant that it didn’t even earn a place in the exhibition guide. Luckily, I took a picture:

It’s a sketch by Blake when he was studying at the RA, based on a sculpture which was on display at the gallery. I love how he has managed to capture the darkest of sorrows in what amounts to less than half a face.

I wish I had gone earlier, because I would have been tempted to go again, and also to recommend it to everyone. But next time Blake’s works are being displayed in London, I will certainly go and see them.

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