William Blake’s Printed Paintings
Methods, Origins, Meanings
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021
Hardback, 238 pp., 198 colour illustrations
ISBN 978-1913107208. $50/£40
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière–Lyon 2
William Blake is a world. His work is a continent which constantly needs reexploring with the help of new theories and technologies, and this is partly what Joseph Viscomi does in a book recently published by Yale UP, William Blake’s Printed Paintings. A James G. Kenan Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Viscomi clearly acknowledges his debt toward the William Blake Archive at the University of Virginia, “a hypermedia digital database of Blake’s poetry and art based on more than 7000 high-resolution images drawn from Blake’s illuminated books, paintings, drawings, manuscripts, and engravings” [ix]. While scholars previously had to rely on photographs of variable quality and on their memory, it is now possible to access almost all of Blake’s work on a computer screen, which makes it much easier to compare pictures, to enlarge details, and to imagine stimulating confrontations. Information technology even allows researchers to reconstruct lost or destroyed works, and Joseph Viscomi makes very convincing use of “digital recreation” in order to explain step by step how Blake produced his “Printed Paintings”.
Indeed, this volume is devoted to a set of twelve pictures created in 1795 and unanimously considered Blake’s highest achievement. Twelve pictures devised as multiples, twelve “monoprints” of which twenty-nine impressions are still extant, out of thirty-three which were most probably printed: Elijah and the Fiery Chariot, Elohim Creating Adam, Satan Exulting over Eve, Christ appearing to the Apostles, Pity, Good and Evil Angels, Nebuchadnezzar, Newton, The House of Death, Hecate, Lamech and His Two Wives and Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, various speculations were formulated as to the method employed by the artist, but it is now admitted that Blake mainly reused older images, which he drew and painted on matrices, printed on paper and then “finished”, touching them up by adding washes and pen and ink outlines. He could thus repaint and reprint them as often as needed, but in practice, he only produced two or three pulls of those pictures in 1795-1796, and produced a new batch of two of them in 1806. Blake seems to be the first artist to have worked that way in the history of Western art, and it would take half a century before Degas (who had probably never heard of his British predecessor) drew and painted over his own monotypes. Joseph Viscomi sees the twelve monoprints as Blake’s first real attempt at painting: “He had been an illustrator, designer, and watercolorist, as well as an inventor, printer, print-publisher, and original printmaker, but he had not yet been a painter” .
Relying on material evidence and sensible deduction, Viscomi reconstructs the whole chronology of the twelve pictures, which had been preceded by much smaller attempts, like the print now called Small Pity. Based on the colours, thickness of paint, signatures and Blake’s sale registers, he shows how the whole set was created in 1795, even though some impressions were only finished a decade later, when they were actually sold.
In the second part of the book, devoted to the origins of the twelve monoprints, the author examines Blake’s notion of “fresco” painting, this being the word he used to sign some of the pictures. “He identified with the ‘ancients,’ but he mostly performed like a modern – or even avant-garde – printmaker and artist” , and by “fresco” he simply meant the kind of painting practised by his favourite painters as opposed to the fashionable style of Sir Joshua Reynolds; Blake may also have used the word because he employed gesso on panel for the matrices of his printed paintings. Mixing mediums, improvising, breaking with conventions, “Blake’s use of color printing has no precedents or comparable contemporary examples” . To sustain this affirmation, Joseph Viscomi focuses on the difference between Blake’s work and such commercial techniques as mezzotints and facsimiles in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, there existed at the time a market for “mechanical paintings” finished in oil colours, or “polygraphs” hand-coloured by numbers, where invention and creativity had little to do.
The last part of the volume allows Viscomi to go beyond technical and historical considerations, but in order to analyse the meaning of the monoprints, he has to take exception to many comments produced by several generations of literary and art critics. As opposed to those who have tried to find a narrative order in the twelve pictures, he asserts that there is no evidence of such a plan. Blake created monoprints as long as he could think of subjects suitable for this new technique, and he stopped using it when he ran out of ideas, and especially out of clients to buy the results. Joseph Viscomi takes strong position against what he calls forced readings, which project Blake’s posterior theories onto those works: “When Hecate and the other designs are read as autonomous paintings [that is, independently from what Blake wrote afterwards], the subject of Hecate is indeed Hecate” . The interpretations which superimpose later meanings over the 1795 monoprints and try to see them as a series “seem more a matter of exercising our creative minds than exposing Blake’s” .
What the twelve paintings do show is that Blake was adept at manipulating audiences and deceiving their expectations through graphic irony. One should in particular avoid seeing God in all the white-bearded characters, who can be Death or Elohim, “sublime in appearance but negative in meaning” . Joseph Viscomi offers a very perceptive reading of Satan Exulting over Eve, in which Satan seems all but exulting, and where Eve’s position, while reminiscent of Fuseli’s Nightmare, does not reflect any threat or corruption: “In Elohim, materiality binds the spirit; in Satan physical desire and energy liberate it” . With Hecate, “Blake is not profiling a witch or condemning teenage sex; he criticizes the mess church and state have made of desire. Blake railed against oppressive social codes and the individual’s internalization of those codes” .
To conclude, Joseph Viscomi takes up a remark made about the artist’s “bricoleur manner of composition” in Satan Exulting over Eve  to develop “the bricolage nature of his image-making processes … because he explicitly embraced execution’s role in invention” . Blake’s genius resides in the way he could constantly recycle material into new forms and new meanings, as illustrated by his twelve glorious monoprints.
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