Monday, 1 November 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 5 - 'Songs Of Innocence & Experience' by William Blake

Some people would look to The Bible, The Koran, or similar religious texts at those times when they need to contemplate serious matters… for me Songs Of Innocence And Experience (1794) is that book. It is also a book you can turn to for light reading and entertainment – a five-year-old can appreciate the beauty and majesty of the words as well as the illustrations. It is accessible and contains The Tyger, one of the Nation’s best known and well-loved poems.

If this was a Top Ten of artists, William Blake could well be number one, vying with Miro and Beuys… and this piece works as art on many levels. I love books, so this was a way of getting a book into my Top Ten Pieces Of Art, and Songs brings together many of Blake’s important themes and concepts and is a visual piece, a series, narrative imagery and poetry… Songs Of Innocence was originally published in 1789, with Songs Of Experience following in 1793. These two books were then brought together in a single edition as intended in 1794.

William Blake was one of Britain’s most innovative and important creatives, he was a pre-Romantic visionary whose ideas were a primary influence upon the movement. He put forward the fact that rational reasoning is flawed and a balance between intellect and imagination, with the bias leaning toward imagination, is the key to becoming a fulfilled human being. He pointed out that the scientific facts of a generation are generally disproved by the following generation. For example, one period knows the world is flat because they can see that it is, the next works out that it is actually a ball that the sun and the moon and the stars move around, the stars being set in a series of crystal spheres, then someone works out that the sun is actually the centre of the universe… and so on, and then we turn from the macrocosm to the microcosm and we eventually discover the atom, which is thought to be the smallest possible particle of material, until Einstein and Oppenheimer work out that it can be split… So now imagine going back in time and explaining quantum physics to a mediaeval person who believes the world is flat - they would not have a clue and would probably try to burn you at the stake - but go back to any time in human history and talk about dreams, love and emotions, and they would know exactly what you were talking about. Blake thought that these components of the human make-up were what defined us, set us aside and gave us clues as to our place and purpose in the universe.

Songs Of Innocence And Experience is a beautiful little book that was intended to be read and re-read and the meanings considered. In this respect it is a Modern work. We are expected to consider each poem in conjunction with its imagery and in relation to the other poems in the twinned volumes. Each poem form Innocence is ‘answered’ and counterpointed by a poem from Experience and somewhere between the two lays (or lies) a truth. Most of the poems are written in simple language that has a similar feel to nursery rhymes, yet the meanings are complex and changeable, depending on the reader’s experiences and at what point they are at in their personal journey of life.

Visually, the book is a feast with Blake’s distinctive style that foreshadows Expressionism and graphic novels. He was one of the first to successfully combine word and image as a cohesive design, in fact he devised his own method of acid etching to facilitate this. Blake claimed that his dead brother visited him in a dream and explained the innovative process by which writing and drawing can be done on copper engraving sheets using a ‘gum’ that resists the acid, so that the acid eats away the blank areas, creating what we now know as 'relief etching'.

Blake produced the book on a small, ‘pocket edition’ scale, intending the reader to carry it about and re-read in different situations and surroundings. He also purposefully made some of the tiny writing difficult to discern, due to its colour or background. This was to enable the meaning to be revealed in a designed sequence, and also so that some of the information needed some effort to unlock its reward. I think of it in much the same way as modern song-writing, where the chorus may be clear and obvious, but there are often lyrics that take a few listens to decipher and interpret, lending the song a more lasting appeal and revealing parts of the ‘story’ in a sequence. In deed, these poems are 'Songs' and have that ability to accrue meanings, memories, moods... and to become mental anchors for psychological states...

More about Blake's work can be found on-line at this extensive William Blake Archive

,,,and I also discuss Blake in Evolution of Western Art

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