Truly a prophet with a goal: light and glory depicted
William Blake was probably Michelangelo's greatest disciple, even though the two lived almost three centuries apart. Bot men saw art as grand, noble, and inspired. Both believed that the divine was mirrored in the human body. But while Micheangelo found creative fulfillment in huge frescoes and sculptures, Blake found his in watercolors and prints not much larger than his hand.
Blake drew as freely from Michelangelo as Michelangelo drew from life, because he saw the Italian as the most divinely inspired of artists, the one whose vision of the ideal could never be surpassed. respecting him as he did, and being both painter and poet and thus as much in need of a visual vocabulary of forms as a verbal vocabulary of words, Blake accepted the pictorial ideals and forms of Michelangelo as readily as he accepted the alphabet and grammar of the English language.
But unlike Michelangelo, who encapsulated and represented the power and glory of Roman Catholic Christianity, Blake could only give form to his private creative universe, and represented no one but himself. Where Michelangelo thundered with the voice of the church and tradition, and warned of sin, the devil, and damnation, Blake spoke gently of life and truth, and thundered only against the mediocre and the banal.
Blake saw himself as a lonely prophet in a society that had sold its birthright of greatness for the easy, the obvious, and the everyday. He loathed the common denominator and despised any denial of individual uniqueness. He believed in human equality, but at its highest -- not its lowest level. He saw reality as what could be rather than what need be, and art as life's inspired means to man's deeper realization of self.
Blake saw man as doomed to emptiness or worse as long as he did not perceive the profound truths of life which had, he insisted, the force of law. To face and to love truth was, in his eyes, as essential to man's self-realization as the sun's rays are to a plant's survival. To be in harmony with life was to be blessed with serenity and joy, to deny it was to die.
Small wonder then that Blake found the biblical story of Job so much to his liking that he based two series of watercolors and a set of engravings on it. This story of a rich, successful, and beloved man from whom God suddenly took everything had complex meanings to Blake, who saw Job's sufferings as the direct result of his not having been fully in tune with life's laws. By concentrating on the rituals of religion rather than on its substance, Job had missed contact with the divine rhythms and had brought down upon himself the despair and suffering of the alienated and the demned. In making this crucial change in interpretation, Blake made God's act one of warning rather than of caprice, and brought the moral of the tale more in line with his own point of view.
"The Morning Stars Sang Together" is one of the loveliest of these watercolor illustrations. In it we see the Father with outstretched arms describing the Creation to Job, his wife, and friends, while above Him the morning stars shine and the four sons of God cry out in joy. All is vibrant exultation. Even the sun god, pushing back the darkness, and the moon goddess, riding the dragons of the night, add to this sense of wonderment and affirmation.
Although listed as a watercolor, this work is actually a delicately tinted drawing. Except for some bright yellow behind the sun god's head and touches of coral red for the dragons, the colors serve only to suggest atmosphere and to add the merest indication of volume to the forms. Throughout this and every one of Blake's paintings and prints, it is line that clarifies his subjects, articulates his pictorial structure, and carries the main burden of his ideas.
Right from the start, Blake had grasped Michelangelo's basic principle that creative energy could best be utilized by compressing and containing it within clearly defined forms. As a result, drawing for him meant packaging energy as well as defining the outer edges of objects in space. Every Blake painting or print is a tiny bomb kept from exploding by the steel-like toughness of his line , the compactness of its forms, and the classical rigidity of its composition.
Blake managed to compress the power and the force of a race of giants into images only a few inches high. A great deal of that was learned from Michelanglo. But that was no more the substance of his art than was his ability to compress a universe into a few lines of poetry.
Blake's genius lay in his ability to marshal all his technical and formal resources toward a clearly conceived and articulated goal. His greatness lay in giving pictorial actuality to a vision of a world in which man, coming to grips with his balance of the mortal and the immortal, finally comes into his own.