Finally, last Friday, I managed to get to see the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain. It has been running since 11th September and finishes next Sunday, so I only just made it.
Blake’s work is appreciated along Marmite lines. You either like it or not. There aren’t really half-measures. But, before getting into the nature of the exhibition itself, can I mention just how amazed I was at its sheer scale. There are scores of works of art here, from small sketches to full-blown, major pieces of imaginative and inspirational visual art, in various formats and undertaken with several different specialist techniques. The production side of things is fascinating in itself, but interested me less than the mind that conceived these images and the effect on me of their strange and characteristically flowing lines.
After an hour and a half in the heat and press of a crowded gallery, I had a feel for what was there, and spent the remainder of my time obeying, as I have been taught by an old friend (who actually knows something about art!) the rule to choose no more than six pictures, and look at those with close attention, and then ignore all the rest.
Three of those I chose included two of Naomi’s farewell to Orpah, whilst Ruth clung to her, from the second chapter of the Book of Ruth, and a fabulous picture of the soldiers casting dice for the clothes of Jesus, as he hung upon the Cross. This crucifixion picture has the soldiers in the foreground, their eyes greedy and distracted from the crucified men behind them. The crosses Blake paints from the back, so one cannot see much of the figures on them, and they are large and gaunt with foreboding, while Mary and John and the crowd of onlookers are dwarfed. It is a contrast of the power and intensity of evil, faced by the love and sorrow of those who are, nonetheless, intent on staying and facing with Christ the worst the world can produce.
Looking at the Ruth pictures, one of which is above, what catches my attention are the expressions on the three women’s faces and the drama reflected in their hands and eyes. There is so much emotion portrayed in a few brush-strokes. This is a pale water-washed picture, entitled, “Ruth the dutiful daughter-in-law”. The other painting of the same scene, but not pictured here, is larger and with much stronger colours. In it, Blake has the two younger women bowed double, Ruth’s arms are around Naomi’s waist, rather than her breast; Orpah is leaving in some agony. This picture is described as “Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return home.” Both are wonderful.
Before leaving, my eye was drawn back for a third or fourth time to the angels above Jesus lying in the sepulchre. The composition is just as I imagine Blake’s work to be; paradisiacal and beautiful. Much of it isn’t, as he portrays the horrors of humanity just as much as its light and ecstatic joy. I was glad I went.