William Blake At The Origins Of Postmodernity
William Blake manifested his powerful talent in all his activities: poetry, philosophy, engraving, watercolor painting. To understand his enormous and incredible originality we usually follow one of two paths: we can either see it as deriving from earlier cultural achievements, or we can see him as an isolated genius. In the first case, surely we may cite Platonism, which seems to appear at regular intervals down the centuries. In the second case, we would have to acknowledge the failure of our critical tools. There is no way out, not even if we place Blake in a long list of similar personalities like Füssli and Flaxman and Goya in painting, or Goethe and Schiller in creative literature, or various post-Kantian philosophers. The same questions can be raised in all of these cases.
To address this problem, we need, from the general cultural background at the end of the eighteenth century, events to which Blake and others may be anchored. European handbooks define the period from Gutenberg to 1789 as "modern" in the proper sense of the term. For McLuhan, "modernity" is the Gutenberg Galaxy, the period of the printing press, which sends its form into every level of culture: for instance, Renaissance perspective will appear as "working" along the same patterns.
What happens at the end of the eighteenth century? According to the handbooks, 1789 marks the end of modernity and the beginning of the contemporary, post-modern, age. But the French Revolution is merely a surface event. Beneath that surface lies electromagnetism, the most revolutionary innovation of those years. At its first appearance, electromagnetism was only a bold scientific hypothesis, far from having any appreciable technological application. The conspicuous technology of the time was steam engine and other forms of thermal energy. In this way, modernity, i.e. machine culture, persisted until the moment when electromagnetism would finally surface and give birth to electronics.
Blake's manifold work follows the lines of force, the patterns of electromagnetism: both introduce into the Western culture an original set of ratios decidedly "irrational"; both depart from the established patterns of "modernity"; both will have to wait many decades before further development; both Blake and electromagnetism, at the end of the eighteenth century, enjoy only precarious status as an early form of postmodernity.
However, Blekean poetics and electromagnetism recognize the primacy of energy as characterized by unity, wholeness, and holism, while "modernity" was based on the fragmentary, atomistic nature of the point, which, when joined with other points, would produce lines, and then planes in the style of Euclidean geometry, and as reformulated by Cartesian analytical geometry. This fragmentary modern culture Blake abhors, so he substitutes for it unity, structure and Gestalt in ways that correspond to the electric field. As we know, in Blake's mythology the visual symbol of post-renaissance rationalism is Urizen, an old man with a long beard. Scholar are uncertain whether the name comes from a contemptuous "your reason" (Urizen is a god of death), or from the Greek orìzen, to limit.
Blake anticipates the bipolarity which will characterize the thought of two later (postmodern) philosophers, Bergson and Freud. "Elan vital" for the former, the Subconscious, the Pleasure principle for the latter, are the fully elaborated outcomes of the rough but powerful intuitions appearing in Blake's poems and engravings.
From old clichés, Blake summons the archetypal energy of the Epicurean natura naturans, as well as that of the Platonist condemnation of a decayed and heavy naturalism. Blake rejects unmitigatedly the detailed picture of reality so dear to modernity. Art had to offer an exact mirror of nature and to draw reproduction of it; perspective was the art of that system. The main objective, for modern, typographical man, was to measure, to define, to specify, using the mathematical trinity, height, width, and depth. But in a universe where electromagnetic waves run at the speed of light, why insist of recording distances in meters, centimeters, and so on? Such measures completely lose any value and significance. Electromagnetic reality is based on flatness, on a process which cancels the third dimension. So contemporary art discards the illusion of depth, enhancing the relevance of surface, of texture. The mingling of the two, a profound aversion to pictorial verisimilitude and the nearly total abrogation of depth, leads us to one of the main features of contemporary (postmodern) avant-garde tendencies: abstraction. Abstract art is not necessarily non-objective art. Non-objective art may follow from abstraction; however, it requires something further. "Abstract" comes from a Greek word meaning to take away. To abstract means to offer a simplified, reduced, stylized image. Precisely this flat, abstract simplicity is peculiar to shapes which appear on radar or television screens; in fact, the nature of every electronic image is conditioned by these features of abstractness and simplified shaping.
At this point we possess all the tools we need to examine Blake's particular stylistic achievements. First of all, recall Blake's worship for Michelangelo, an uncommon attitude in those years. The majority of Blake's contemporaries instead cherished Raffaello, who appeared to them to be more natural, more in tune with their sense of normality. Official Neoclassicism descends entirely from Urbinas, while the painter of the Sistine Chapel exceeded harmony and sense of measure because of his exaggerated cult of energy, of muscular evidence. But it was precisely this excess which captured and fascinated Blake. He never saw the frescoes of the great Renaissance artist; he never made the classic journey to Italy, as he always lacked the money. Had he actually seen Michelangelo's works, he might have been disappointed. Besides, Michelangelo's plastic inventions had been translated into engravings by many minor artists. This was exactly the kind of transmission he was ready to absorb, since Blake was himself an engraver. He needed to translate Michelangelo's world from three to two dimensions, to an essential flatness; the available engravings of the Renaissance master helped the English artist to achieve this effect. In short, what Blake offers us, from Michelangelo's types, is a reduced image, entirely constructed with line and surface, carefully avoiding any simulation of third dimension. Here we encounter the postmodern principle of abstraction, which indeed we also find in Flaxman's silhouettes. The lifelong friendship between the two was strong, despite the fact that Flaxman was more "official" and accepted than Blake.
In fact, it is not enough to notice the principle of reduction to surface values and of the vigorous enhancing of lines in Blake's engravings and sketches. Indeed, we observe a stronger, bolder principle of reduction of the forms, a collapsing or implosion. The process of concentration at the centre of the object is normally accompanied by an inverse process of radiance, diffusion, explosion. Every one of Blake's illustrations links these two opposites. On one hand, Blake's art is simple, of shaped forms symmetrically standing at the centre of the sheet, facing us frontally. These features, typical of any manifestation of primitivism, archaism and so on, radically contrast with the pictorial verisimilitude so cherished by "modern" art from the Renaissance onward. On the other hand, the apparent stillness of Blake's images is broken by flames, darts and arrows of energy, which thrust out from the flattened bodies. So Blake's art is static and dynamic at the same time: it marks the triumph of a formal principle linked with the opposite principle of informality. After Blake, these two poles will develop and struggle against each other throughout the course of contemporary (postmodern) art.
Even so, the two poles reject the analytical spirit of modernity, to which they oppose a synthetic approach. Sometimes they collaborate through a system of lines inspired by those with which nature rules the growth of leaves, flowers, trees. Natura naturans, unlike natura naturata, exploits every kind of curve (spiral, ellipse, parabola, hyperbole, oval). The technical term phytomorphism, from the Greek phytòn, plant, aptly describes this kind of style: i.e., forms drawn from the vegetable kingdom. We have to wait exactly one century before witnessing the diffusion of these stylistic endeavors in Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Liberty. These different labels converge substance, in terms of the formal achievements they indicate. From that moment on, the same organic principles will recur with Surrealism of the biomorphic branch (Miró) and with Informel (Abstract Expressionism in North America).
At this point we must remember that Blake's activities were all interconnected; In him, the writer was by no means distinct from the artist. When conceiving his "Song of Innocence" or his "Prophetic Books," he strongly desired to accompany and complete them with images. Words, in his view, had to be continued and integrated by visual forms, as of old, when writing consisted in grasping and visualizing ideas, before the "dangerous" phonetic alphabet arrived. For a thousand years, the same hand could still trace the signs of words as well as of figures. Our long manuscript tradition incorporated the glosses and traceries of illuminators not intrinsically different from those who had the task of writing. Perhaps the two did not belong to exactly coincident professional categories; however, there was no radical distance between them until Gutenberg. The printing press rigorously compelled people to separate words from images. Words were committed to serial reproduction, which however resulted in a sterile and impersonal reproduction. Images could maintain their vitality, but they did not take advantage of the assembly line. In fact, the process of engraving is limited to a small number and has to be considered belonging to handicraft rather than to industry.
Since typography is the main feature of modernity, the resolute anti-modern spirit tirelessly nourished by Blake finds a new confirmation in his hatred of typographical technique. Throughout his life he refused to commit his writings to establishment publishing. He chose to be his own publisher, moved to his decision by the awareness that his difficult and sophisticated books were unlikely to have a large enough public of buyers to justify a large press run. But, more importantly, he was motivated by a cultural and philosophic thought, by the profound desire to reunite the two: to write words and to sketch images. Only engraving allowed him to do so and recover the mythic wholeness which did exist before modernity. In fact our postmodern age, rooted in electronics and personal computers, enables us to practice the two simultaneously.
Not only did Blake want to merge writing and sketching, he also expected that this interior linkage be placed under the shield of organicism and its laws. So the images and decorative elements which flourish in his plates carefully respect biomorphism and phytomorphism. They are constituted of fluent curves, as if words had roots in the ground, hung like fruit from the branches of flexuous trees, and wove their nests in the foliage.
Blake's philosophy was translated into imagery. So the kingdom of energy is normally committed to the figure of a radiant young man who represents Jesus Christ, God the Son, full of Love towards all his creatures, ready to forgive their sins and to spare them Hell. Hell, in Blake's vision, is not for punishing sinners. He is well aware that it is scandalous to preach the nobility and efficiency of energy, uncontrolled impulses and physical exuberance, but these attributes he assigns to Hell. Heaven, its opposite, will consequently present values of self control, of mortuary renunciation, of respectful submission to established authority.
Let us examine one of the best known representations of Christ, Glad Days a colored engraving with some touches of gouache. Following the original Blakean mythology, the image of Christ as a young man is also designated with the names of Orc and Los (anagrams of the Latin words Cor and Sol, i.e., the earthly and the heavenly principles of energy).
In Glad Days the shape of a young man occupies the central axis of the plate, the trunk placed along the vertical, enhanced also by the left leg. The right leg describes an equally "normal" and classic line, the diagonal which bisects a right angle, linking the opposite borders of a surface, and thus impeding any penetration into depth. In other words, the diagonal is particularly practiced by artists who want to downplay any illusion of a third dimensional since it strengthens the unity of bidimensional space. In turn, the arms of the central figure define the other main dimension, width. The features of the young man are traced summarily, confirming a search for abstraction, for reduced and collapsed forms. Every protagonist of that same cultural milieu followed a similar orientation. What is normally defined as Neoclassicism favored synthetic forms, contrasting the agility and mobility of previous Western styles, from the Renaissance to the Baroque. David and Canova and Flaxman did not offer us anything substantially different from such reduced and stylized images. Goya, too, must be associated with this group.
This engraving is precious as it allows us to verify that, notwithstanding such an extreme reduction of the human figure to virtual silhouette, the effect of the picture is not one of stillness. From that fragile, delicate shape many cosmic rays are ready to explode. In astronomical terms, they correspond precisely to the amount of energy which was spared in the process of collapsing which led to the sketching of such a reduced image. The concentration of mass, body, flesh is balanced by a radiation of beams which, with their nearly invisible lines of force, determine a "field." Something similar occurs concerning the texture of the surface. The cartoon of the young man is nearly devoid of detail, in a conceptual poverty that celebrates the primacy of design. This is also one of the major tenets of Neoclassical taste: to reject highly colored "Venetian" and Baroque painting for a Florentine worship of lines. Blake much preferred the presence and relevance of the shapes by encircling them with other spaces made of formlessly distributed colors. For example, the left inferior border of our plate displays a very painterly mass of color; sometimes Blake also used chance, applying those thick layers of tint from another sheet, following a technique called monotype. He preferred to call it "fresco," as it was like taking off the first layer of color from a wall. One may consider such a device an anticipation of "frottage" which will be exploited by Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Surely it is a significant case of coincidence of opposites: an elementary formalism relying on abstract geometric shape is made to coexist with a rich informality open to random effects.
Now let us turn the perspective around and consider the kingdom of the Father, for instance by examining "God judges Adam," a red engraving and watercolor. Here is the same abstraction principle we encountered before, but not the warm, delicate sense of living flesh. Instead, we find a cold sense of old age. The image of God the Father is reached by winter, which makes it icy, frozen, lifeless. The same fate befalls Adam the Son: he does not dare, on this occasion, to separate his responsibility from his Father's domination. In Freudian terms, this man is totally under the laws of the Ego, even more of the Superego, removing his impulsion, limiting his energies. Heaven prevails over Hell, but it is a sterile victory, leading the entire world to death. This is also the pitiful consequence of a full submission to "modern" reason. However, the physical principle of collapsing, the fact that every concentration of mass brings an outburst of energy, finds here too an unavoidable application. So, the cold image of God the Father, because of his compactness and reduction, may scatter a purple cloud of flames around itself. The two principles face each other, ready to convert reciprocally, as in fact electric current needs both poles, positive and negative. In more general terms, mass and energy are complementary principles, when the former reduces itself the latter increases, and vice versa. The pitiful figure of the son, completely submitted to his Father and thus condemned to a hibernation, is further reinforced by his leaning on a horse. This animal, in Blake's system of symbols, represents submission, fidelity, lack of personality; it finds its exact opposite in the violence and exuberance of the tiger. However, here again the contrasting principle of energy about to burst into flames makes its appearance, since the horse's tail has already been reached by the flames, perhaps announcing the transformation of the quiet animal into its burning opposite, the vehement tiger.
God the Father fully dominates his creature Adam in another well-known plate, executed with the same technique. Here the image of the poor young man does not exhibit any autonomy, since the heavy body of the Father crushes him, binds him with the coils of a snake. However, here again we may detect the point where the system is subverting its inner logic, and is developing the opposite principle of energy. The snake is the symbol of temptation which will lead mankind to an open rebellion against God. The image of the snake fittingly introduces a note of biomorphism, of spiral patterns, very much like the form of electricity and its laws. Particularly, consider that group composed of a human body and the spiral from a snake as the prefiguration of an electromagnet. In this way, God the Father could be seen as trying to reanimate his dead son, as breathing life into him, or as transmitting an electromagnetic life. Meanwhile the heavy image of God continues exploding its rays into cosmic space.
In fact, we have to confirm that Blake had a strong intuition of the main physical law which was to rule our contemporary or postmodern age, established by Einstein at the beginning of the century: the complete complementarity of mass and energy, one withdrawing when the other develops. Just as snow and ice are threatened by warm weather, we find some plates where God the Father is like an iceberg in the process of melting, sliding into an ocean too warm for it. Sometimes the massive figure of God as an Old man is reduced to only a head, where the last resistance desperately survives, even if the white beard is already caught by the cosmic wind which forces it into a kind of whirlpool. The plate Our Lord answers to Job, for instance, remarkably anticipates a process which will concern so many aspects of recent art: dematerialization.
During the modern age, matter and energy were two different substances with no possibility of interchange. Dualism was constitutive, extreme, permanent. In our postmodern age the two are but precarious, temporary aspects of the same reality. Our cosmic reality is made only of electricity, stretched by the bipolar tension of two principles, hell and heaven, the subconscious and reason, informality and formalism, eternally fighting against each other.