William Blake at the Petit Palais

Although he’s put forward as the “visionary genius of English Romanticism”, Blake evades isms. His work is like nothing else produced at the time. The strong sense of design and stylization of the human form simultaneously recall the flat decorative nature of Medieval manuscripts, and project forward to early comic-book superheroes: all sinewy forms and bulging muscles.

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William Blake, Europe: A Propecy, Frontispiece, 1794, Courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum

Two stipple engravings at the start of the exhibition, after Antoine Watteau, show Blake’s capabilities as a draughtsman and put his work into its historical context. These engravings, of typically Watteau-esque Rococo subjects, were produced in 1784 shortly after Blake’s year at the Royal Academy under Sir Joshua Reynolds. They are nothing like the rest of the work on show but provide a good point of comparison. Instead of the 18th century academic rural idyll, Blake’s subjects are full of portent and mystery. They don’t reflect the enlightened period but inspire feelings of powerlessness and dread, not unlike religious imagery of the middle ages. Many of the prints, drawings and watercolours were inspired by literary sources (Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare…), or illustrate Blake’s own poetry and mythological interpretations.

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William Blake, after Robert Blake, The Approach of Doom, relief etching, 1788, courtesy of the British Museum

Blake rejected fashionable engraving techniques, preferring to experiment with relief etching and printing in colour rather than following the craze for mezzotint. The strong lines and stripped down appearance of Blake’s compositions are as much a result of his technique as they are of his stylistic vision.

The exhibition finishes with three pieces that offer modern interpretations of Blake’s influence: a lithograph of Bacon’s Study after the life mask of William Blake (1953), a clip from Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Jean Cortot’s Hommage à William Blake. This seems an appropriate end to an exhibition of an artist who had little recognition in his lifetime but whose lasting influence is undeniable.

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Francis Bacon, Study after the life mask of William Blake, 1953

William Blake (1757 – 1827), le génie visionnaire du romantisme anglais is on at the Petit Palais until 28/06/09.

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