William Blake: The Remarkable Printing Process of the English Poet, Artist & Visionary

Few artists have antic­i­pat­ed, or pre­cip­i­tat­ed, the frag­ment­ed, hero­ical­ly indi­vid­u­al­ist, and pur­pose­ful­ly oppo­si­tion­al art of moder­ni­ty like William Blake, a man to whom the cliché ahead of his time can be applied with per­fect accu­ra­cy. Blake stren­u­ous­ly opposed the ratio­nal­ist Deism and Neo­clas­si­cal artis­tic val­ues of his con­tem­po­raries, not only in prin­ci­ple, but in near­ly every part of his artis­tic prac­tice. His pol­i­tics were cor­re­spond­ing­ly rad­i­cal: in oppo­si­tion to empire, racism, pover­ty, patri­archy, Chris­t­ian dog­ma, and the emerg­ing glob­al cap­i­tal­ism of his time.

Nowhere do we see Blake’s visu­al rad­i­cal­ism more in evi­dence, argues Julia M. Wright in a 2000 essay for the jour­nal Mosa­ic, than in his Laocoön, a work that not only seems to presage the mod­ernist col­lag­ing of text and image, from Braque to Rauschen­berg, but also looks toward hyper­text with its non­lin­ear­i­ty, frag­men­ta­tion, and inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty: “By com­bin­ing as many as four dif­fer­ent media in Laocoön — draw­ing, writ­ing, engrav­ing, and sculp­ture [in his depic­tion of the clas­si­cal orig­i­nal] — Blake puts into play their dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties, engag­ing the debate in the­o­ry as well as prac­tice.”

Through an art of visu­al pas­tiche, Blake resists the Neo­clas­si­cal idea that visu­al art and poet­ry were mutu­al­ly exclu­sive for­mal pur­suits that could not coex­ist. (View a larg­er image here to read the poems and slo­gans that sur­round the image.)

We can see the influ­ence of Blake’s rad­i­cal­ism every­where, from zine art to the Blakes repro­duced on the skin of spe­cial edi­tion Doc Martens (the artist was also an enthu­si­as­tic defend­er of the Goth­ic over the Clas­si­cal, Wright points out). An art like Blake’s demand­ed a rad­i­cal process, and he con­ceived one through his pro­fes­sion­al skills as an engraver, an art he began learn­ing at the age of twelve. “Right from his ear­li­est child­hood,” notes the British Library video at the top, “Blake was dri­ven by two extra­or­di­nary and pow­er­ful aspi­ra­tions. On the one hand as a poet, on the oth­er as a painter… so how was he going to bring these two togeth­er in a form that would enable him to pub­lish his own images in illus­tra­tion of his own poems?”

The video demon­strates “Blake’s inno­va­tion” as an engraver and print­er. The print­ing process at that point involved a num­ber of dif­fer­ent spe­cial­ized work­ers, some respon­si­ble for set­ting text, and oth­ers for sep­a­rate­ly print­ing images in blank spaces left on the pages. Blake’s process “enabled him, with the excep­tion of the paper, to be respon­si­ble for every stage in the pro­duc­tion process, from writ­ing the poems, mak­ing the draw­ings, using the stop-out var­nish to write his text, etch­ing and print­ing the impres­sions.”

He began work­ing out his meth­ods as a teenag­er, and they allowed tremen­dous cre­ative free­dom through­out his life to cre­ate per­son­al works of art like the “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books” (from which the oth­er two images here come): con­tain­ers of his com­plex mythol­o­gy and some of his most pas­sion­ate engrav­ings. You can learn even more about Blake’s DIY print­ing process in the video fur­ther up from Ash­molean Muse­um. Blake’s futur­is­tic art drew heav­i­ly from the past — from Renais­sance mas­ters like Michelan­ge­lo, for exam­ple — as a means of cre­at­ing an alter­nate art his­to­ry, one that opposed the val­ues of dom­i­na­tion and oppres­sive sys­tems of order.

His for­mal and polit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism is per­haps one rea­son Blake became one of the first artists to pop­u­late an online archive, with the launch of the Blake Archive all the way back in 1996, “con­ceived as an inter­na­tion­al [free] pub­lic resource that would pro­vide uni­fied access to major works of visu­al and lit­er­ary art that are high­ly dis­parate, wide­ly dis­persed, and more and more often severe­ly restrict­ed as a result of their val­ue, rar­i­ty, and extreme fragili­ty.” Vis­it the Blake Archive here to see high res­o­lu­tion scans of hun­dreds of Blake’s prophet­ic works, all cre­at­ed from start to fin­ish by his own hand, and learn more about his per­son­al and com­mer­cial illus­tra­tions at the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Blake’s 102 Illus­tra­tions of The Divine Com­e­dy Col­lect­ed in a Beau­ti­ful Book from Taschen

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fan­tas­ti­cal “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books”: The Images Are Sub­lime, and in High Res­o­lu­tion

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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