Block Museum Explores William Blake’s Influence on the Age of Aquarius

A who’s who of great artists and writers of the 20th century was influenced by one who died in semi-obscurity nearly 200 years ago.

William Blake was a visionary artist of the Romantic Age. An exhibition at the Block Museum looks at his impact on the Aquarian Age. Chicago Tonight got an early look at “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius.”

TRANSCRIPT

Phil Ponce: Printmaker, painter and poet, the Englishman William Blake was a luminous artist who combined his disciplines into a singular vision.

Whether depicting the horrors of Dante’s journey into hell, Job’s trials in the Old Testament, or illustrating his own original verse, Blake made memorable images that have endured.

A show at the Block Museum of Art on the campus of Northwestern University looks at the long reach of his influence.

  • Charles Seliger, “Sip Sop,” from Illustrations to the songs from “William Blake’s Island in the Moon,” 1945, White ink on black ink on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Michael Rosenfeld.

    Charles Seliger, “Sip Sop,” from Illustrations to the songs from “William Blake’s Island in the Moon,” 1945, White ink on black ink on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Michael Rosenfeld.

  • 2.	Victor Moscoso, The Doors, The Miller Blues Band, Daily Flash, June 1–4, 1967, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries. © 1967, 1984, 1994 Rhino Entertainment Company. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

    2. Victor Moscoso, The Doors, The Miller Blues Band, Daily Flash, June 1–4, 1967, Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Libraries. © 1967, 1984, 1994 Rhino Entertainment Company. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

  • Sam Francis, Damn Braces, 1960, color lithograph. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Sam Francis Foundation, California. © 2016 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographer: John R. Glembin

    Sam Francis, Damn Braces, 1960, color lithograph. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Sam Francis Foundation, California. © 2016 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographer: John R. Glembin

  • Jess, Untitled (Gift for Jerome and Diane Rothenberg), 1959, two-sided collage, mounted on board. Collection of Frances Beatty and Allen Adler © Jess Collins Trust, used by permission.

    Jess, Untitled (Gift for Jerome and Diane Rothenberg), 1959, two-sided collage, mounted on board. Collection of Frances Beatty and Allen Adler © Jess Collins Trust, used by permission.

  • Helen Adam, from In the Land of the Harpy, collage 10, 1964, collage. Estate of Helen Adam © the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, used with permission.

    Helen Adam, from In the Land of the Harpy, collage 10, 1964, collage. Estate of Helen Adam © the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, used with permission.

  • William Blake, 1757–1827, British, America. A Prophecy, Plate 9, "In Thunders Ends the Voice....", 1793, Color-printed relief etching in blue with pen and black ink and watercolor, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

    William Blake, 1757–1827, British, America. A Prophecy, Plate 9, "In Thunders Ends the Voice....", 1793, Color-printed relief etching in blue with pen and black ink and watercolor, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

  • William Blake, “Ancient of Days,” frontispiece for Europe a prophecy, 1794, relief etching. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan

    William Blake, “Ancient of Days,” frontispiece for Europe a prophecy, 1794, relief etching. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan

  • William Blake, The Number of the Beast is 666, c. 1805, pen and ink and watercolor. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan

    William Blake, The Number of the Beast is 666, c. 1805, pen and ink and watercolor. The Rosenbach, Philadelphia. Photographer: Jonathan Donovan

  • Clyfford Still, 1946 PH-69, 1946, oil on canvas. © 2017 City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

    Clyfford Still, 1946 PH-69, 1946, oil on canvas. © 2017 City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

  • John Stephan, Painting for cover of The Tiger’s Eye, issues #5-8, c. 1948, oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, courtesy of John J. Stephan.

    John Stephan, Painting for cover of The Tiger’s Eye, issues #5-8, c. 1948, oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, courtesy of John J. Stephan.

  • William Blake, 1757–1827, British, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 2, Innocence Title Page (Bentley 3), 1789, Relief etching printed in green with pen and ink and watercolor, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

    William Blake, 1757–1827, British, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 2, Innocence Title Page (Bentley 3), 1789, Relief etching printed in green with pen and ink and watercolor, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

  • William Blake, “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, plate 4, 1789, relief etching printed in green with pen and black ink and watercolor. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

    William Blake, “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, plate 4, 1789, relief etching printed in green with pen and black ink and watercolor. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

  • William Blake, "The Tyger," from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, plate 42, 1794, color-printed relief etching with watercolor on cream wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

    William Blake, "The Tyger," from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, plate 42, 1794, color-printed relief etching with watercolor on cream wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

  • 3.	Richard Anuszkiewicz, “Inward Eye #2,” from the portfolio Inward Eye, 1970, serigraph. Courtesy of Swope Art Museum © Richard Anuszkiewicz/Licensed by VAGA, New York/NY VAGA

    3. Richard Anuszkiewicz, “Inward Eye #2,” from the portfolio Inward Eye, 1970, serigraph. Courtesy of Swope Art Museum © Richard Anuszkiewicz/Licensed by VAGA, New York/NY VAGA

Stephen Eisneman, curator, professor of art history: He’s one of the most well-known and respected poets and artists of the 18th and early 19th centuries, but when I taught him I found him really hard, and I finally realized why that was. It’s that he rejected all the kinds of rules that other artists followed during those years, so whereas other artists felt you had to represent an individual as a single solitary heroic subject standing against the world, Blake would show the figure as integrated into a wider world, closer to nature, animals, other people. He felt that human beings were incorrectly bound by the five senses—you need to break out of those sensory boundaries into a wider visionary world, and that meant his art was much more difficult, much more open- ended, and more difficult to put into a box and to control.

Ponce: His work made an impression on later ground-breaking artists who were also difficult to peg – the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, guitarist Jimi Hendrix and the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

Even the graphic artists of Chicago’s countercultural press.

The exhibition completes seven years of scholarship on the subject at the university.

Lisa Corrin, director at Block Museum of Art, Northwestern: We had no idea the number of artists for whom Blake was central to their thinking. Blake the poet, Blake the political revolutionary, Blake the artist who was one of the first to put poetry and text together.

He was really a very central figure—and not just to famous artists like Clyfford Still or Robert Smithson, but also to Jim Morrison and the Doors. So his influence permeated not only high art but also popular culture.

Ponce: Blake was a visionary artist, who actually claimed to have had visions.

Eisneman: From an early age, Blake claimed he saw angels and that angels dictated to him the lines of poetry and the images on his paintings. We don’t know how literally he meant that. In a letter to one of his patrons he writes that great sentences, paragraphs, whole pages were dictated to him, but he adds “but it still isn’t easy.”

Ponce: One image on display is a watercolor of nightmarish power called “The Number of the Beast is 666.” It was part of his effort to illustrate the Book of Revelation.

Eisneman: Blake was interested in the Bible, but he read the Bible, if you will, against the grain. He didn’t like the Bible as law, in fact he rejected law of all kinds so he rejected, for example, the Ten Commandments—not that he wanted people to kill or to steal, but that if you had to set down a law it wasn’t really within the heart. You had to create feeling and love among people but not by drilling it into them. So while he celebrated Jesus Christ, he did so not believing that Christ was the son of god, but that he represented the kind of broad love and generosity that all people should aspire to.

Ponce: Blake died in 1827 having had only one exhibition in his lifetime. American poet Walt Whitman was an early champion of his work. In the 21st century, Blake’s prominence continues to grow.

Eisneman: I think we’re kind of in a good moment where Blake needs to be revived, we need examples of cultural figures who could stand up and resist the authority and power of their times. And we need cultural models of people like Blake who celebrated people regardless of their religion, their race, their color, their national origin. He, one of his lines of poetry he says that “whether you be Christian, Turk”—he meant Muslim—or Jew “if you have peace, love and pity in your heart, then you are someone to be loved.”

Corrin: It’s a whole new way of thinking about the ‘60s and it’s a whole new way of thinking about Blake and it’s rare that you see an exhibition where the past and present come together in such a dynamic way and change the way we think about both.

More on this story

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius” is on view at the Block Museum of Art through March 11, 2018.


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