William Blake 1757-1827 once wrote: "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's." It is, perhaps, a fitting credo for the artist who has been described as "one of the most gifted rebels of the Romantic era."
The artistic and poetic genius of William Blake, as well as the acumen of a modern collector of his creations, are celebrated in an exhibition opening on Wednesday, April 2, at the Yale Center for British Art.
Titled "The Human Form Divine: William Blake from the Paul Mellon Collection," the show will feature more than 300 works from the museum's collections. The works were originally assembled by Paul Mellon '29, who had a life-long interest in the artist. Mr. Mellon donated the Blake collection, as well as his extensive other holdings in British art, to the University 20 years ago to found the Yale Center for British Art.
"Apocalyptic," "revolutionary," "visionary" and "lyrical" -- all these terms have been used by critics to describe Blake's works. An engraver by profession, he published his first book of poetry in 1783. Five years later, he began to experiment with a new method of printing from etched copper plates, which he called "illuminated printing" and which he claimed had been revealed to him in a dream. In this process, text and designs were etched in acid, and the resulting plates were color-printed. For the rest of his life, Blake used this process to publish his works, most of which are written in the style of the Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic writers.
For the Yale exhibit, several of the British Art Center's 12 Illuminated Books by Blake will be exhibited in their entirety for the first time. These include two copies of the poet's pastoral "Songs of Innocence"; his prophetic "Songs of Experience," "Book of Urizen," "Book of Thel" and "America a Prophecy"; and the 100 plates that comprise the center's hand-colored copy of "Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion." Also on display will be bound copies of such works as "There is No Natural Religion," "Visions of the Daughters of Albion" and "Europe a Prophecy."
"Blake was one of the most singular of all Romantic geniuses, having equal claim to our admiration as a poet, a painter, an experimental engraver and a philosopher," says Patrick Noon, curator of prints, drawings and rare books at the British Art Center, who is curator of the retrospective exhibit. "Nowhere is this genius more evident than in his Illuminated Books, of which the Mellon collection is arguably the most spectacular in existence."
The artist's work in other media will also be represented in the exhibit. These include selections from his tempera paintings and watercolors for his series of illustrations of the Bible, which he painted between 1799 and 1809 for his patron, Thomas Butts; and a selection of 40 sheets from the watercolor illustrations for the "Poems of Thomas Gray," which reveal Blake's wit and genius at interpreting other poets' works as well as the "brilliance" of the artist's mature watercolor techniques, notes Mr. Noon. The exhibit will also include Blake's illustrations to the "Book of Job," Dante's "Divine Comedy" and "The Pastorals of Virgil."
The Blake exhibit, which will remain on view through July 6, is supported by the Connecticut Humanities Council through its Cultural Development Fund. A catalogue of the exhibit illustrated in color and published by Yale University Press will be available in the British Art Center's museum shop.
As a complement to "The Human Form Divine," the British Art Center has also organized a second exhibit of works by Blake's contemporaries, titled "The Visionary Company," which will open on Sunday, April 13. Details about that exhibit will appear in a later issue of the Yale Bulletin & Calendar.
A number of related programs are being offered in conjunction with the Blake exhibits. Michael Lankester, music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, will present a concert of musical settings of Blake's poetry at 2 p.m. on April 13 in the Yale University Art Gallery lecture hall, entrance on High Street. The event, sponsored by the Friends of British Art, is free and open to the public. Several gallery talks and other special lectures have also been scheduled to coincide with the exhibit; in addition, there will be a presentation on "Blake and Hypertext" on April 24, and a reading of Blake's poetry by Professor John Hollander on April 30. Watch this paper for further information about these upcoming events.
The Yale Center for British Art, located at 1080 Chapel St., is open to the public free of charge 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. The building is wheelchair-accessible. For more information, call 432-2800 or visit the museum's World Wide Web site at http://www.yale.edu/ycba.