William Blake: Visionary

January 4, 2024

Impressions of the exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, by Hugo Larman.

Now on show at the Getty Center in Los Angeles until 14 January 2024, William Blake: Visionary brings together a wealth of Blake’s prints and paintings from Tate Britain in London with works from American collections. Roughly sixty percent of the exhibits are from the Tate and forty percent from American collections. Works on loan from the Tate include selections from the large colour prints of 1795 and illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Tempera and watercolour paintings include The Ghost of a Flea and Meditations among the Tombs. Much of the rest is drawn from three major American collections. The Getty Museum itself exhibits Blake’s large colour print Satan Exulting over Eve (which has been used to advertise the exhibition in posters and street banners in Los Angeles). Contributions from the Huntington Library in San Marino California include Illustrations of the Book of Job, as well as hand-coloured separate pages from Songs and Milton. The Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, has provided a complete copy of America, ten magnificently hand-coloured pages from Jerusalem, as well as the iconic frontispiece to Europe – the Ancient of Days. From his private collection, the American Blake scholar Robert N. Essick has loaned examples of Blake’s commercial engraving, as well as Blake’s hypnotic self-portrait (1802-04).

The essay by Mathew Hargraves, ‘America’s Blake’, in the exhibition catalogue titled William Blake: Visionary (Getty Publications, 2020), sheds light on the history of the acquisition of Blake’s work by American collectors starting in the 1870s. The essay also points out how the reception of Blake’s work in America has changed with the times and ends with the question: ‘Will Blake, the lover of complexity and contradictions, still find admirers in an American culture that is seemingly resistant to both? Or will he be redefined once again to answer the needs of the present moment?’ 

Curated by Edina Adams and Julien Brooks, with input from Robert N. Essick, the exhibition is based on the 2019 Tate Gallery show in London (delayed from its original start date of 2020 by the Covid pandemic) and is organised into six sections that reflect Blake’s life and work: The Professional Printmaker, The Painter-Illustrator; The Painter-Poet; Blake’s Contemporaries; The Visionary; and The Myth Maker. The exhibition occupies a generous amount of gallery space and has helpful interpretive signage throughout in both English and Spanish.

The Getty Center is an imposing hilltop complex of modern buildings and terraced gardens, all built from white travertine limestone. The impression is of an opulent later-day acropolis for the arts. Visitors are transported to the Center by a purpose-built electric tramway that ascends the steep hillside. The Blake exhibition is announced at the entry plaza with giant banners and the steps leading up to the exhibition pavilion have been imprinted with an image of Blake’s iconic Ancient of Days. The exhibition is entered from a high terrace commanding panoramic views across Los Angeles, from the rugged San Gabrielle Mountains in the East to the sparkling Pacific Ocean in the West. There could hardly be a greater contrast between this extravagant expanse and the small dark rooms in which Blake created his visionary art, or for that matter his one, ill-fated public exhibition in the cramped rooms above his brother’s haberdashery shop. 

On the December weekday of my visit, the exhibition was not crowded, allowing a rare opportunity to view Blake’s art at an unhurried pace. It was especially gratifying to be able to take in the art in several viewings, with breaks to explore the extensive courtyards and gardens and refresh the eye. There are no restrictions on re-entry into the exhibition. Having become used to seeing Blake’s art in various reproductive formats, it was awe-inspiring to encounter the originals again. A close look at the unforgettable and seemingly ageless painting of a Ghost of a Flea, for instance, reveals a depth of detail that cannot be appreciated in reproduction. Although no doubt worrying to an art conservation professional, the passage of over two hundred years has added a unique and mysterious patina to the work. The surface of the painting is now cracked and darkened, and yet the silver-gold alloy leaf that Blake used on parts of the painting still glitters like new against the sombre background tones.

Magnifying glasses are provided throughout the exhibition, allowing a close-up view of the exquisite details that are essential to Blake’s vision of art. Looking through the lens at the engraved Illustrations to The Book of Job, I was reminded of Blake’s insistence on the importance of ‘minute particulars’. Perhaps this idea was informed not only by the clarity of Blake’s visions but also by his use of a magnifying glass in engraving and etching at a minute scale.

The Microscope knows not of this nor the Telescope. they alter

The ratio of the Spectators Organs but leave Objects untouchd

For every Space larger than a red Globule of Mans blood.

Is visionary: and is created by the Hammer of Los

And every Space smaller than a Globule of Mans blood. opens

Into Eternity

(Milton, pl. 29 [31], ll. 17-22, E127)

Blake’s ideas of contrary states confront and challenge our perception of scale. The printed plates Songs of Innocence and of Experience measure a mere 2 ½” by 4 ½”, but open like portals into the infinite and eternal. 

he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole

Must see it in its Minute Particulars

(Jerusalem, pl. 91, ll. 20-21, E251)

William Blake: Visionary is on at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, until 14 January, 2024.

Hugo Larman was born in London and grew up in Hertfordshire. After graduating from Leeds Polytechnic, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he co-founded Larman Garro landscape architecture. Hugo’s drawings can be seen at www.hugolarmanart.com