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Queer Demons and Saints at William Blake's Exhibition

"Jesus Christ! Move along people", I yell in my head whilst standing in the crowd of visitors, irritatingly crawling from painting to painting. They finally disperse and, indeed, an image of Jesus emerges in front of me. Not impressed by the humdrum theme, I make my way towards more curious piece, entitled "Newton", which is one of the most famous paintings created by the mad romantic William Blake (1757 – 1827).


His revolutionary artworks inspired generations of independent minds and this Tate Britain's show might do just the same. Being the largest Blake's exhibition in almost 20 years, it boasts over 300 original works, so I quickly prepare myself for many more watercolours, paintings and prints of saints and sinners.


Once a lunatic, today William Blake is considered a visionary genius. But why? I'd look for the answer in his courage to re-imagine the world beyond the morals and conventions perceived by the same flawed human beings. Although Blake was a student at the Royal Academy of Arts, he wasn't pleased with the idea of imitation of the classical art. Instead, he ventured to realise his personal vision of queer, ghostly creatures, which appalled or at least bewildered his contemporaries.


Those stern art connoisseurs often struggled to comprehend the subject matter of his artworks when it omitted any kind of universal clues. And this is precisely why I admire Blake’s saints and demons – for the queer, mysterious but very distinctive appearance which can’t be mistaken for anything else. Of course the artist's religious side held him close to Christian narratives and thus his personal vision involved the endless fight between the good ant the evil forces.


The Good and Evil Angels, 1795-c. 1805

In spite of being reluctant to immerse myself in the hypocritically religious (or religiously hypocritical?) world, I was sort of struck by the print “Satan Exulting over Eve” (c. 1795). You know, that scene, when curiosity threw Eve out of heaven or, comfort zone, so to speak. In Blake’s print she’s lying on the ground all naked, maybe afraid and unconscious. The serpent is winding around her pale body. Quite handsome Satan is hovering over both of them. That’s it – the innocence is dead, we’re doomed to be sinners forever, to shame ourselves for who we are, for what we desire.

But I wouldn’t go to the show just for the fellow sinners. It’s quite fascinating that Blake's illustrated collection of poems "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" (1789) is on display, too. I got to squint for a while but it paid off as my heart remembered how to dream in the joys of night. 🤩


The Great Red Dragon and the Beast of the Sea, c. 1805

Enough of the sweet verses. I continue to wander across the dimmed galleries, filled mostly with fragile prints. "He's quite ahead of his time", a visitor declares sagely. Oh, is that so? I guess this is what happens when a man dares to be himself and leads an authentic life, I think to myself and fixate my gaze on the painting of the dragon and the beast.


Blake really did have wild imagination ( 😈 !) even though some of his contemporaries thought he was simply mentally ill. The heroes and villains slightly resemble ancient gods and creatures which simply indicates the source of Blake’s inspiration. However, there’s nothing insane in the unconventional perception of the world. In fact, to paraphrase Blake, such reckless freedom of self-expression might even lead to happiness.


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"William Blake"

Open until 2 Feb 2020

Tate Britain

https://www.tate.org.uk

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© 2018 by Živilė Kasparavičiūtė