During the past year I have become increasingly interested in photography (I post photos at TrumpVictus), this has then led to an interest in painting. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 30 years. My initial paintings are awful, no really, they’re awful. But, I absolutely love painting ! I love the process of creativity, trying to translate 3d to 2d, playing with colours, and watching my visions (partially) emerge. At the age of 13 I was advised to take Humanities, not Arts. I stupidly followed this advice, and missed out on 30 years of joyful discovery. I’m now back again in that creative space, and I’m enjoying formerly dormant aspects of myself.
In order to extend my learning I’ve been investigating some of the ‘great’ artists, and have been fascinated by William Blake (28/11/1757 – 12/08/1827). Blake is increasingly relevant in our contemporary age, yet had been rejected by popular society upon his death. His interests and talents spanned poetry, the arts, and spiritual mysticism. He was, in many ways, driven by his need for higher understanding. If the definition of an expert is a man who can, and the definition of a genius is a man who must, then Blake was a genius.
A good starting point to Blake is the song ‘Jerusalem’, it’s frequently sung in the UK, accompanying weddings, funerals and patriotic events such as Last Night of The Proms etc. Yet Blake did not write Jerusalem as a song, barely even a poem, he wrote it as the preface to his book Milton A Poem. This was one of a number of books in which Blake makes prophecies based upon his visions. As we dig we start to see the complexity of this man.
Blake had visions throughout his life, visions of Angels, discussions with prophets and engagements with a world beyond this physical reality. He rejected the established, and conventional, Church. He joined the Swedenborgian Church, a church based upon the teachings of Swedish scientist, philosopher and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. There’s something beautifully paradoxical that Jerusalem is sung so frequently in the conventional established churches of The CofE today, yet Blake himself rejected that church.
Blake was a mystic at a time when rationalist sciences were very much the cutting edge of ‘new progressive thinking’. Today Blake would probably find a home in the nexus points of new-age progressive spirituality and Positive Psychology.
During the annual Last Night of The Proms, in London’s Royal Albert Hall, the high point for the attendees is the singing of Jerusalem. Bedecked in the accoutrements of over enthusiastic patriotism they throw themselves into a self indulgent myopic nationalist fervour. I wonder how Blake would have felt about his words being used for such a purpose ? In 1803 Blake was charged with Sedition following a scuffle with a soldier, during which he is alleged to have uttered “Damn The King, and damn you”. He was later found not guilty. In the 21st century the words of a man once charged with sedition are used as the UK’s unofficial National Anthem. However, Blake was not simply an anti-monarchist, nor even anti-British, his understanding extended far beyond the simple nation state. He hated the divisions and conflict caused by nationalism, he saw the everyday concerns of this physical world as merely preparatory for a unifying, spiritual unification in the next world.
Blake also rejected the dominant artistic themes of his day, as typified by the fashionable oil and watercolours of Reynolds and Turner. Blake referred to Reynold’s style as that of “an idiot”. Blake expounded the detailed precision of earlier Renaissance and Raphaelite painters. As such, Blake’s illustrations, etchings, engravings & paintings were never really accepted as ‘good form’ in his day. He refused to kow tow to the mainstream in art, intellectual endeavour, religion and theology – a true maverick.
Blake was a progressive, ahead of his time. He pro-actively questioned the status-quo in all areas of his expression, including writing poems against slavery, analysing the effects of social revolutions in Europe and The Americas, critically analysing Christian morality, and exploring conventional thinking on love and sexuality. He did so fully in the knowledge of his further estrangement from the near dogmatic fashions of his contemporaries.
Today, in the 21st Century, increasing access to entertainment seems to make popular entertainment ever more homogenous, ever more superficial, and ever more intolerant. We can learn so much from both Blake’s approach, and his understandings. As more droll soul expiring content is piped into our minds I wonder whether we need another Blake, to help our minds come ever more awake.
For more on Blake try the wonderful Blake Society
or try The Poet and The Flea, a great blog written by a scriptwriter, and fan of Blake.