The exhibition begins with a single piece of his artwork - the colour engraving of 'Albion Rose'. Albion is haloed with rainbows and his arms open; a welcoming gesture, a triumphant motion. This artwork has been interpreted many different ways - as many of his artworks are - some believe this figure to be a sign of rebellious youth, of creativity or even spiritual freedom. It's a vibrant way to start the exhibition; for lack of a better phrase it seems to sing 'ta-da!' as it promises that this exhibition will display all that this piece interprets; a rebellious creativity.
The exhibition includes 300 of his original artworks in watercolour, painting and prints all in chronological order. The exhibition does not offer interpretations nor meaning to his work and instead the factual story of Blake's life and his work; with all this work on display and no creative explanation to follow the exhibition is yours to immerse yourself in. To really feel and experience his works and the meaning you find in them.
Blake has always been known as the 'free spirit' of the art world and his artwork although mostly Biblical all have a touch of fantasy, mythology and dreams. The very fabrics that fills in the gaps of reality and allow for imagination and thought to take place...
There are many drawings and watercolour from Blake's time as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1779. Although he found the strict academic teaching to limit him creatively it did help develop him as an artist.
Drawing is such a fundamental part of Blake's artistic vision, many of his pieces show the definite black outlines of sketches, and in some patches are left bare with just the pencil drawing and no colour over it. Rather than a glossy finished product with Blake the most important feature is the thoughts behind it and the pencil marks left on the artwork give you a deep connection to him as he sketched out his ideas.
It is his drawing that makes the work so distinctive - the pronounced muscular bodies, strong right angle noses and flowing hair are reminiscent of Greek Mythology, everything whether it's Shakespearian or Biblical seems to live visually in it's own universe of William Blake. He seems to take stories or characters or poems and then develop them all into his own artistic version.
In 1784 Blake ran his own print publishing business and worked as a reproductive engraver, this involved cutting fine lines into a metal plate so that the image could be copied and reproduced. The second thing that makes Blake so distinctive as an artist is his experimental methods of printing. Blake invented ways of printing that allowed him to combine colour, texts and images. Which allowed him to create many books...
Blake produced many illuminated books that combined poems and imagery, in this exhibition you can see the first cover draft of 'America, A Prophecy' whilst also viewing all 18 pages of the book. As well as pages from 'Songs of Innocence' and 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.' It is some of the most interesting work in the exhibition - the pages are crammed with text and images as if scribbled from his brain with haste - the haste of a creative mind racing. To see these original pages gives one an idea of the deep perception Blake had, with his radical thoughts and creative ways of interpreting them.
Blake's art has the flavour of rebellion, of questioning everything, he is defiant in the statements his art makes, yet there is still the idea of fantasy. He creates his own depictions from inspirations, and these inspirations are mostly from the Bible.
Many of these pieces although religious have very strange interpretations... One piece shows God ensnared by flames in a carriage drawn by a horse with a mane of flames as he damns a regrettable Adam, using flames as imagery around God evokes a massive contrast in religious ideas. Another pieces shows Adam and Eve engaging in sexual activities as the devil watches closely above them. Blake has a deep connection with religion but then seems to expand these religious stories into images of political and social messages.
There are many images of violence, social injustice, slavery and struggles, as the exhibition warns some of the imagery is challenging.
There are twelve colour prints that Blake created using an experimental method of mono typing, which creates a very textured and paint heavy image that would be very hard to achieve simply by hand. He called them 'frescos' which connects with the style of medieval grand wall paintings that his work seems to be influenced by.
The twelve pieces are some of the most bold and intense of the exhibition; not just in artistic form but in subject matter and includes the famous artwork of Newton conducting mathematical calculations in the ocean. One might define the artwork of Blake by these twelve pieces, from the wall they scream Blake - the style is undeniably recognisable and there is no thought to public opinion - if the pieces are beautiful enough, or if the subject matter is too intense or if people might find it hard to understand. These pieces simply capture his unwavering talent and voice.
There are also artworks that are based entirely in Blake's fantasy - his dreams and visions. He did a series of 100 drawings of spirits that he had seen or spoken to in visions, these were historical figures, legendary characters or imagined beasts. Many of these are on display at the exhibition including 'Ghost of a Flea' in which Blake painted a hybrid of his recognisable muscular bodies but with the head of a monstrous flea.
In part of the exhibition his artwork is projected on a massive scale, metres high. This is how he said he wanted to create work - big, grand artworks to be displayed in public places.
Although many of his work is small, when looking closer it's a whole universe packed onto the page that we only glimpse. These small artworks fill the room with interpretations, meanings, ideas, inspirations and feeling - they are actually very big works indeed.
This is a swirling exhibition with the magical touch of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and the fiery etchings of The First Testament. It's an exhibition that feels loud, loud with creative genius and radical thought.
And it ends with 'Europe' Plate i: Frontispiece, 'The Ancient Days.' A masterpiece. Blake is said to have called it 'the best I have ever finished.' It is of Urizen measuring the world below, and represents the threat to freedom of thought, creativity and imagination with solid answers and knowledge.
So, always protect imagination and thought because as this exhibition shows they are so important and, for Blake, they were the cornerstones of human happiness.
William Blake is at Tate Britain until 2nd February 2020, tickets range from £17 concessions, £5 ages 12-18 and under 12 years free.