Mad House: Blake’s Visual Art

by Ken L. Walker

Blake's "Satan"

Madmen have always made history a much better place for one to dwell.  Set aside notions of Don Draper and his cheery patriarchy-sneezing ad-goons.  Replace those with thoughts of paradises put in closets, fiery repression, monkeys, oxen and women being dragged by their hair.  It is certainly all right to question why something crazy matters beyond its usual spectacular impressions (See: the schizophrenic smelling up the morning commute, and the handicapped woman crying in the park at lunchtime).  But, more than that, an additional question must be framed and posed: why do human beings so often pay attention too late?  (See: the invention of the word “posthumous.”)

The lunacy of one dead man’s mind is (posthumously) on display, damn near inside-out, for a short time in New York City.  Poets, Writers, Engravers, Bookbinders, and hellmongerers have nearly a month (it began on September 11, 2009) left to see the Morgan Museum and Library’s exhibit William Blake’s World: A New Heaven is Begun.

The exhibit includes a multiplicity of watercolours, etchings, sketches, hand drawings, handmade journals, first-edition illuminations as well as the twelve illuminated drawing designs Blake undertook for John Milton’s work.  One can gain privilege, or at least envy, in studying the incomparable largeness of Blake’s “house of the Imagination”; moreover, Blake’s sheer work ethic produced his own envy for the dumbed and blinded, which was a view carried a long way from his youth as a haberdasher’s son.  Blake once said, “That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot . . . is not worth my care.”

Something now as cliché as the “rose” becomes one teensy object inside a mind of a trillion objects.  Appraise this microcosmic excerpt from Blake‘s “The Sick Rose”:

[. . . ]
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

To ask any directional question of this poem, to ask anything remotely ordinary would lead a reader off the sort-of transcendental path Blake is positioning.  The poem develops a mind, not necessarily of its own, but one that continues to purport related objects.  In its case, during the Renaissance, emblem books were produced where representations of beetles (or worms) feeding on dung were killed by the complexities of the scent of a rose.  So the mind of the poem, as it unfurls, goes from a worm, to a flying worm, to a flying worm at night, to a worm flying at night in a thunderstorm and then readers can begin to recognize that the storm, the  night, and the worm are all Sex — at least, within the mind.

But, it is not a mind. It is an Imagination.  Blake was not a mere symbolic poet; he cannot be paraphrased.  Everything existent in the single world he created is not a crank or a cog to be subterfuged inside a larger machine; each detail can be highlighted by decoding his overall symbolic system. 

For a dinky, bush-league illustrator (now seen as revolutionary in the arts) who had his first one-man show at age 50 in a hosiery shop, these pieces feel created by numerous people, by unknown prostitutes and radically-driven politicos. A certain anti-ecclesiastical lexicon is set up from first-step into the exhibit room.  The engraving “Satan” (never properly published) depicts a buck-toothed, strong-jawed devil whose eyes are rolling back in his head as he looks up, only the irises showing.  Many of the watercolours and sketches in the show underscore the direction of where one may be looking. Up or down begin to gather magnitude.  In fact, rarely does Satan look down.  Seldom does a heavenly deity look up.  Angels look straight into a viewer’s plane of outward vision.

Blake's "Behemoth and Leviathan"

Animals are certainly tinted as symbolic in an almost normative-identity sense. But pay closer attention to, say, the piece “Behemoth and Leviathan,” where it can be discerned that the two creatures are one and the same.  The subtlety of even a circle becomes a symbol within a symbol where again all singular symbols rotate as one deflated cipher of citizens in the overall state of Imagination.  In fact, many animals carry with them some sort of imbued fortitude, not necessarily (but in many instances) a moral fiber — an owl and a fox hang on a wire, a monkey “persuades” a cat “to pull the chestnuts out of the fire,” and a dog nips hard at a man’s coat tail as the man chases a piglet.  Always orange or red fire.  Then, always baby blue.

Many artists are afraid to utilize text in a visual piece.  Of course, though, Blake did not feel this way; in fact, he viciously characterized oil painters as “demons” or “art-mongrels”  and printed almost everything the Morgan exhibits on his own press, at his house.  But outside all Blake’s accomplishments, or lack thereof (at least non-posthumously), there is a prophetic christening exclamation happening in the far background.  And that is that the human race began to wither.  One must replace regularized notions of the long-day-scotch-on-the-rocks with something Nietzschean, yet nearly a half century older.  One must attend the wedding of Heaven and Hell in order to figure out what will happen when it becomes time for the groom to kiss the bride.  Who will play the role of the other?  Most importantly, listen to the local madman.  He may be doing something magnificent; he may be trying to cease the withering.