Forging a style of a higher order

William Blake was original. This is not to say that his poetry and art sprang into existence without the slightest influence from other writers or artists. Plenty of words have been written analysing the different strands, old and contemporary, which he wove together to make the fabric of his vigorously held opinions and images. But it is in his frequently surprising and fresh ways of revitalizing orthodox and conventional subjects that his escape from reiteration is most evident: even more evident, possibly, than it is when he swims around in his private and rather esoteric mythology.

It is clear that he thought of the Bible as a kind of sourcebook of imaginative experience. He even declared once that Jesus and his disciples were all artists.

He identified the life of the artist with the religious life. The two series of biblical illustrations he produced at the beginning of the nineteenth century for his friend and patron, Thomas Butts, show his particular kind of wise innocence - naive one moment, sage the next - interpreting both usual and unfamiliar episodes in the light of his own inspiration. His approach to Christianity was far from orthodox. (Swedenborgianism was one system that claimed his allegiance for a period - until he realized to what degree it was a system.) And his approach to painting was just as anti-academic.

His way of drawing is compounded, above all, of an apparently contradictory affection for High Renaissance art, Raphael and Michelangelo, on one hand, and Gothic monumental sculpture on the other: only Blake could have forged links between such essentially divergent forms of art.

The heroic and elevated drama, the celestial muscularity, of the first, must have satisfied his need for a grandeur of circumstance and event in his art, while the patterned and hieratic solemnity, the stilled dignity and the modesty of the second evidently appealed to his need for an ''eternal'' abstract order. Although to Blake the imagination was noncorporeal, his art expressed itself through the movements, postures and dramatic relationships of figures. The nearest analogy today to his style might be found in modern dance, which can veer from a loose freedom to a disciplined geometry whenever necessities of expression demand.

Blake's rendering of ''The Agony in the Garden'' is very much his own. The subject had, over years of accumulated art history, built up its own conventions; the angel, for example, a remote figure on a cloud, offering Jesus a cup as he prayed. Blake's angel, on the other hand, is an almost balletic and gently compassionate figure, stretching down out of a visionary cloud to support Jesus. The artist seems to have been inspired by Luke, the only one of the gospel writers to describe ''an angel'' appearing to Jesus ''from heaven'' and strengthening him.

Blake could not believe that Jesus, in his agony, about to face betrayal and crucifixion, would be left without comforting reassurance. The artist does not mitigate the agony, but his Jesus is not abandoned or alone. Even the disciples, dozing among the trees, are nearby; they are not where convention put them - some way off.

Everywhere in this painting is Blake's intense emotion and conviction. Even the anatomy of his figures is determined by intensity. Some art historians are critical of this. Anthony Blount, for example, suggests that if Blake's forms ''had been based on a real knowledge of the human figure and of its anatomy, on a training in drawing in the best academic sense, they would have a richness and an amplitude they generally lack.'' Blake would have dismissed this with tremendous scorn.

It is true that his work is often dubious in technique and amateur in scale, but he would have surely lost his extraordinary originality and expressiveness if he had not deliberately kept himself free of ''anatomy'' and of even the best academic drawing.

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