William Blake -- greatness in small packages
New York — William Blake is proof positive that greatness can come in small packages. His prints, some of them small enough to fit into the palm of the hand, are among the greatest graphic works ever produced. And his watercolors, generally a bit larger in size, include some of the most memorable images in Western art.
The problem lies in getting to see them. Because of sensitivity to light, Blake's works (especially the watercolors) are usually safely tucked away and generally not available for viewing except by scholars and specialists. Since reproductions of his watercolors fail fully to capture the nuances of his washes and colors, getting to know these works only through books or representations is very much a secondhand experience.
All the more reason then to welcome the Pierpont Morgan Library's exhibition here of its holdings of Blake watercolors, prints, illuminated books, and drawings -- especially since the show includes such lesser-known items as his "commercial" engravings after other artists' work (including a fascinating portrait engraving of Johann Caspar Lavater), early editions of books by other authors containing graphic work by Blake, and a small volume containing copies, written out in his own hand, of 10 of his finest poems.
All this, of course, in addition to the Blake masterworks, which include many of his greatest watercolors, prints, books (including early editions and proofs of "Songs of Innocence" and "America"); and sketches and drawings.
As far as I'm concerned, Blake's 21 watercolor illustrations for the "Book of Job" are among the very greatest works of visual art ever produced in England. They were made around 1805 for Thomas Butts, a civil servant who commissioned a number of works from Blake between 1799 and 1810, and were eventually translated into a set of engravings in 1826, a year before Blake's death.
Executed in a style that fused monumental linear precision (inspired by those of Michelangelo, whom Blake considered godlike) with subtle and extremely delicate color washes, these watercolors give us Blake's very personal interpretation of the significance of Job's suffering. While our understanding of the literary content of these works adds to our appreciation of them, such understanding is not crucial to their effectiveness. Blake was one of the very few great creators of all time equally adept with pictures as with words, and so these water-colors are not merely illustrations but fully realized works that stand completely on their own as art.
Of this series, "When the Morning Stars Sang Together" and "Behemoth and Leviathan" remain unique and unsurpassed, the former for its lyrical and self-contained ecstasy and joy, the latter for its wonderful grotesqueries.
I was also taken by his truly extraordinary series of colored prints, which make up "The First Book of Urizen." It was printed in 1794, and was Blake's first Prophecy in which he created a pure mythology virtually free of allusions to contemporary political or historical events. The individual images are relatively small; remarkably -- almost brutally -- compact; and have a haunting quality he seldom again achieved. Although less well known than some of his other works, "Urizen" speaks as force fully to a 20th-century sensibility as do any of the others.
Of particular interest is a single impression of No. 12 of the "Urizen" series. It was not printed in color, and bears considerable evidence, in the form of pen and watercolor corrections, that Blake was not entirely satisfied with the image as originally pulled. Thanks to the dissatisfaction, we are given a valuable clue to Blake's working habits and to the way his images evolved.
Also included are the 12 original designs for Milton's poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," various other sets of prints, and a number of individual watercolors and prints. Of the latter, I found his grotesque head of "Satan" especially interesting as an indication of what Blake might have done had he gone in another direction. His large watercolor "Fire" is also exceptional -but then that is true of almost everything else on view.
This lovely and first-rate exhibition will remain on view through Oct. 4. Mozart manuscripts
The Morgan Library is also showing "Musical Manuscripts of Mozart," which consists of 12 of that master's original manuscripts. These include the "Haffner" symphony and the opera "The Impresario"; one of only three known sketches for "The Magic Flute"; Mozart's earliest piano composition (written when he was 5!); and others.
This selection of manuscripts will also remain through Oct. 4.
And then, along an interior corridor, the Morgan Library has set up an interesting exhibition of Maurice Sendak's set and costume designs and stage models for the opera "The Magic Flute," as well as sketches and drawings for his latest book, "Outside Over There."
Welcome news, I'm sure, for Sendak fans.