Wednesday, October 1, 2008

William Blake: Illustrator or Fine Artist? Are these mutually exclusive? Using my earlier definition of what makes something art, if a drawing has a purpose it would not be considered fine art. Illustrations are often used to support text. They have a job. William Blake, a poet, printer, illustrator, and intellectual from the 18th century, was often hired to create illustrations to support text. The text and illustrations together may be considered works of art. However, some historians argue his work went above and beyond the text to create a second or third message. Coincidentally, Arthur Danto, an influential art critic and philosopher, spoke at Crystal Bridges this past weekend. Drawing from the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant, he said that true art is something that shows the creative spirit of the artist. Blake meets either one of these definitions of fine art. His works were created with the purpose of supporting text, but they really go far beyond their original purpose. The creative spirit definitely shines through in his illustrations.

Blake’s title page from Songs of Innocence (Image 8-21 in Meggs, p.128) is a beautiful example of Blake’s creative spirit. This was the first time artists/printers moved beyond the illustrated first initial to illustrating whole words. During his life he fought against rationalism and the ideas of the Renaissance that were popular and began a “pre-romanticism” period that was more concerned with aesthetic value. He argued for movement back to more spiritual/religious thinking, but not so far back that it squashed creativity and imagination. His work provides very early examples of expressionism and surrealism, yet he upholds many of the elements of a classical artist.

In his illustrations for the Book of Job and Dante’s Inferno the subjects all have the classically Greek physique, but everything else is expressionistic. The values and design are not realistic, but something that he has created to reflect what the text means to him. His work was definitely different for the era and it’s not surprising that many of his contemporaries thought he was slightly insane. His work is different than anything that had been done before, but no less artistic.

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