Feature

William Blake’s World: A New Heaven Is Begun

Blake’s delicate and rarely shown watercolor prints are now on display at the Morgan Library in New York.

Morgan Library, New York Through Jan. 3, 2010

“For a show titled A New Heaven Is Begun, there’s a helluva lot of hell” on view at the Morgan’s new exhibition of William Blake watercolor prints, said Barbara Hoffman in the New York Post. “Writhing serpents, cloven feet, tortured souls” were all grist for the mill of the visionary English poet and printmaker. Though considered a radical eccentric up to his death in 1827, Blake posthumously came to be seen as a master. By the early 1900s, J.P. Morgan had snapped up many of the watercolor prints that best encapsulated the artist’s apocalyptic religious worldview, and they remain in the collection of his namesake museum. “But since they can fade with the light, they’re put on display only every other generation or so.”

Blake’s burning vision of divine justice drove him to create some of the most ­gorgeous illuminated texts ever, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. Many volumes here contain his “difficult­ to decode” prophecies about world events, but even the strangest of these is worth studying for their glorious­ imagery. Blake also produced illustrated versions of his own most famous poems—including “Songs of Innocence and Experience”—using gorgeous printing techniques that still aren’t completely understood. Finally, he ­created stunning interpretations of classic literary and religious texts. The “rock-star Satan” in his Book of Job makes evil seem ­convincingly “vivid and sexy.” His late editions­ of two John Milton poems, by contrast, show an inspiring optimism.­ “Here happiness is a strapping English rose of a ballerina named Mirth, and joy is a nude sun god wreathed in flames.”

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