"I have very little of Mr. Blake's company," observed his wife, Catherine. "He is always in Paradise." On those rare occasions when the great poet and artist did leave his friends in the heavenly host, he railed at the wrongs and injustices he found in the earthly world. Not surprisingly, he gained and never lost a reputation as a colorful crank. The appraisal is not unfair -- he was indubitably an odd duck -- but the quirky figure cut by an eccentric should not be used to marginalize his role in Western culture. Blake (1757-1827) holds a central, vitally important place. It is Blake who provides the necessary rebuke to those who would grow too intellectually comfortable with the losses and divisions of modern society. He is the rude genius from the street who rattles the silver when art threatens to become ingrown or smug -- and the prophet who remembers what Western culture tries to forget.
The exhibition William Blake, which opened last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- organized by Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips in England and Elizabeth Barker in New York -- contains more than 175 pictures, including selections from all of his illuminated books and a strong collection of his watercolors. It's important to remember, in the fine galleries of the Met, the origins of this art -- a workshop. Blake was a printer, an artisan who lived through his hands, not just his eyes. Everything about Blake appears handmade and homegrown -- and that is one of his essential claims upon our attention. To a society grown increasingly abstract and industrial (and now digital), Blake insists on the physical touch of the individual. With Blake, you hold Paradise in your hands, in the form of a printed book.
His visionary cosmos is also homemade, created from a mixture of Christianity (the parts he liked) and his own dreams. Blake aspired to an ecstatic, encompassing vision that would bring together all the traditional dualities. He would not accept that heaven and hell, or mind and body, were permanently estranged. He hated those pigeonholers -- especially in theology, art, and science -- who broke the world into isolated pieces, confining the soul in "mind-forged manacles." He particularly distrusted the growing hubris of science. (I would like to read his poem about the cloning of a lamb.) In one of his greatest images, Blake depicted Isaac Newton making calculations on the ground with a compass, as if he could circumscribe the world with his small mathematical circles. The scientist appears oblivious to the rich, plangent reality around him, and his body -- locked in rational thought -- seems compressed like a spring that must someday erupt. "Improvement makes straight roads," Blake wrote in Proverbs of Hell, "but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius."
It is not only the iconography of Blake's work that conveys a dream of liberation. So do its forms, colors, and light. There is something slightly stiff in Blake's line -- which may stem from both his comparatively limited training and the printmaker's medium itself -- that is beautifully offset by the rippling and whorls of his pictures. Our eyes sense that a kind of visual fire is melting away the awkwardness of any earthbound line. Even the difficult printer's process yields liberation. The arduous drawing in reverse, the acid bath of the plate, the messy ink and the dirty cloths, culminate in a fresh-born image. Often ridiculed in his own time, Blake -- whatever personal pain he may have suffered from such condescension -- was utterly fearless and unembarrassed. He is the great model of the free artist who follows his own, unimproved road. Only in that way could he keep the divine spark alive in a scientific age.
In each of the past two weeks, New York has published flipped images of works of art accompanying my column. Mr. Blake sternly told me, from Paradise, that this must not happen again -- not even to a number cruncher like Newton. Apologies to all.