William Blake’s Universe: Think art’s great oddball couldn’t possibly seem any odder? Think again

William Blake’s Universe: inimitable, phantasmagorical images
William Blake’s Universe: inimitable, phantasmagorical images - Katie Young

Eyes shut, lips sealed, William Blake looms over the start of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s new exhibition, in the form of a plaster life mask made in 1823, when he was in his sixties: a record of a dreamer experiencing wild and peculiar visions. If any other object captures quite such intensity of inspiration, I have yet to come across it.

For two centuries, since his death in 1827, Blake has reigned over British art’s pantheon of unclassifiable originals. Who else would depict the Crucifixion from behind, as he did in 1800? Coiled serpents and gigantic spiders scuttling across cobwebs; musclebound sylphs moving in sync, as if dancing the cha-cha-cha: these are among the inimitable, phantasmagorical images in the Fitz’s bookish yet stimulating show, co-curated by Blake expert David Bindman.

Its opaque argument concerns the supposed insularity of Blake, who never left England, and is often characterised as an eccentric one-off. Not so, say the curators, who, rather, hack away (à la mode) at the hoary notion of “isolated genius”, to reveal how Blake was but one star within an artistic and intellectual firmament that blazed across Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

A prelude presents images of Blake alongside portraits of various artist contemporaries, including the German Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810); unexpectedly, given that he and Blake never met, Runge is another protagonist of the exhibition, even its co-headliner. According to Bindman, their spirits were somehow simpatico – but the visual evidence suggests difference as much as convergence, so why yoke them together?

Runge’s prominence exemplifies the show’s wrong-footing approach, as it cycles through a profusion of highbrow, perplexing ideas. “Spiritual Renewal”, for instance, the third and final gallery, contains an out-of-the-blue section about the German philosopher and Christian mystic Jacob Böhme.

William Blake: 'a record of a dreamer experiencing wild and peculiar visions'
William Blake: 'a record of a dreamer experiencing wild and peculiar visions' - Katie Young

Confused? I was. At points, the exhibition seems wilfully befuddling and esoteric, as impenetrable as one of Blake’s own teeming, text-laden plates.

Isn’t that, though, in keeping with this stocking-maker’s son’s cryptic spirit? Some of his impenetrably mysterious images still resist interpretation. Why, for instance, did he depict a tiny king and queen resting on a lily’s petals?

Moreover, I respected the show’s ambition – to present a portrait not of any individual but of the age of Romanticism. Preoccupied by the French Revolution, Blake, like some of his contemporaries, believed that he was experiencing the end times. A sense of apocalypse, of upheaval and catastrophe, saturates his art, which abounds in sinister, manacled figures, and superhero-like celestial creatures wreathed in flames. The unprecedented images he forged still convey a singular poetic force.

Of course, his byzantine personal mythology appeals to fussy scholars, who, in the name of explication, smother it with footnotes; parsing its minutiae gives them something to do. But Blake’s fans respond to something bigger: the sense, in his output, of a white-hot, unconventional imagination at work; and the expression of some urgent, if undefinable, spiritual truth.

William Blake’s Universe may be an academic exhibition, fit for a university town, but, to its credit, it understands why its subject still matters. And I’ll say this for it, too: it makes Blake’s profound oddness seem, if anything, even odder.

From Friday Feb 23;