Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has always been a place of surprises, despite its severe façade. Perhaps this has to do with its history, the coming together of two seventeenth-century institutions, the University Art Collection, stuffed with portraits of bewigged dons, and the sprawling cabinet of curiosities amassed by Elias Ashmole. The latter was based on the collection gathered by the Tradescants, father and son, famed gardeners and plant collectors, who put it on show at their Lambeth home as “Tradescant’s Ark,” allowing the ribs of a whale to share space with the hand of a mermaid, poisoned arrows, and agate goblets. Since the Ashmolean’s stunning extension was completed in 2009, walking up the curving staircases and circling through the galleries and across glass walkways feels like wandering through the whorls of a shell, mother of pearl, glowing with treasures. All of which has made it an absolutely fitting place for “William Blake: Apprentice and Master,” an exhibition that is at once didactic and very strange.
Entering the exhibition, with its low light and dark walls, is like opening another secret cabinet, whose curiosities defy time. This show, however, which has irritated visitors as much as entranced them, is determined to place the “timeless” genius back in his day, explaining how the development of his idiosyncratic techniques both sprang from and challenged contemporary art education and practices. A friend had declared that the opening rooms were “rather bossy.” And it’s true that I could almost feel the curator, Michael Phillips, decreeing that I must go slowly and be prepared to read a lot of labels. His opening catalog line is just as severe: “Nothing can tell us more about a work of art than the discovery of how it was made.” Hmmm. There’s clearly no point wailing “But where’s Blake?”—where’s the revolutionary spirit, the color-washed poet, the genius and madman?
... Tumbling onward, here is the manuscript, heavily corrected, of the satire An Island in the Moon(1784-87), with the drafts of three songs that would soon be included, in a revised version, in Songs of Innocence, and a sheet showing his attempts at the mirror writing he would need for his illuminated books. These are just over the horizon, and one can’t help but gasp at the poems “Holy Thursday” and “Nurses Song,” springing to pale life, the etchings printed in brown leaf and haloed with watercolor, with the children in the “Nurses Song” dancing in a circle below:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still
Applied to Blake, the word “visionary” is a term of method as well as perception.
I have one lament. The exhibition is so brave in its focus on the technical that it’s a distraction to find a recreation of Blake’s tiny London studio in the wonderfully named Hercules Buildings. Is this intended to draw people in? It seems a blunder to place this empty, clean, National Trust-like reconstruction amid prints that imply color, clutter, and mess, piles of proofs, the smell of ink and glue and paint. True, we can see how strong the 5’4” Blake must have been to work the heavy oak press, but his art demanded a different kind of strength. His great prints leave the workshop world behind, their figures soaring and stretching and circling into the stratosphere of Blake’s ecstatic, terrible, fourfold vision. In his technique, in his genius unacknowledged in his time, and in his ambition and desire, contraries unite and matter and spirit meet.
“William Blake: Apprentice and Master,” is on view at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford