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On the Cusp of Sanity
One of the advantages artists enjoy today, is a more or less equal acceptance, at least in the art world, of all painting styles. There are, in the larger cities, commercial galleries featuring every conceivable style and type of art work, often under one roof, but if not, at least within easy walking distance from one another. Artists and buyers alike have come to take this equality for granted, but in fact, it's much less than a hundred years old. Although there have been a few avant-garde galleries for perhaps more than a hundred years, they were a few-and-far-between minority until well into our own era. In 1757, in London, there was born an artist, today considered one of England's greatest creative minds. He could have benefited immensely from our current blessings regarding the equality of the arts. He was born in poverty, the son of a lower-middle class hosier (sock maker), grew up in poverty, lived and worked just short of the penury all his life, and died in 1827, unrecognised, his body buried in a common grave. During his lifetime, a book of poems, Songs of Innocence, one of several which he wrote himself, illustrated, engraved, printed, hand coloured in watercolour (with the help of his wife), bound, and sold himself, could have been bought for a few shillings. Today, it would sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Today, he has something approaching a cult following amongst English literati. His name was William Blake.

Blake, as one of my high school students once noted after studying him, was "one strange dude." He meant it as a compliment. At the age of ten young William tried to convince his father that a bevy of angels spoke to him from a tree in the back yard. Though formally schooled only to the extent of learning to read and write, he was intimately familiar with the Bible, Milton, Dante, Greek, and Latin literature. He spoke often with devils, demons, angels, and miscellaneous spirits of other denominations, a fact he alternately complained of and boasted about all his life. Scholars today refer to him as living on the "cusp of sanity." This they equate with his genius--their way of saying Blake was "one strange dude." At the age of 14, Blake showed an early propensity for painting so his father apprenticed him to an engraver where for seven years he learned the skills that would serve him well in demonstrating both this artistic and literary genius. He tried studying at the Royal Academy of Art but had such a run-in with its dictatorial headmaster, Sir Joshua Reynolds, he quit in disgust (Blake, not Reynolds). But it was there he met another artist, John Flaxman, who bankrolled him in setting up a small print shop at 27 Broad Street in London. The shop was a flop financially, but it gave the twenty-five-year-old artist the tools he needed to guarantee that his prose, poems, and pictures, would not forever remain in manuscript form in the bottom of some attic trunk.

The shop, such as it was, also gave him the security to marry Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a gardener. He taught her to read and write, and in return, she gave his life the stability and manual labour every artist needs to produce important work. Perhaps his most recognised work of art, The Ancient of Days, depicts the nude figure of God, white hair and beard blowing in the wind, kneeling down from a solar orb, measuring out the earth with a compass. Like most of his work, it's an engraved print, watercoloured, a mere seven by nine inches, but it quite neatly sums up Blake's feelings about organised religion. He felt confined by it. He was a radical, philosophising, libertine, bound by his knowledge of God and forever struggling to escape those bonds. Add to this his psychic tendencies and artistic sensitivities, both his writings and his illustrative etchings placed him on the outer limits of social acceptability of his time. He was even arrested for sedition at one point. Though he gained an acquittal, his expressions of fear and hate of established political and ecclesiastic powers of the time are plainly visibly in his words and his art. In fact, in viewing his life's work, we might safely say this "strange dude" was the world's very first Expressionist artist. I meant that as a compliment.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 March 2000

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