"Prophecy" By William BlakePhoto courtesy of Block Museum

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Northwestern University’s Block Museum is readying a major exhibit on the English poet and artist William Blake, who died in obscurity in 1827 at the age of 69.

Since then countless artists, radicals, critics, and connoisseurs have discovered Blake’s intense and passionate vision and radical approach to art and verse, especially in the second half of the 20th Century, said chief curator Stephen Eisenman, Professor of Art History at Northwestern. As he writes in the exhibit catalogue: “…every generation that needs a model of independence, imagination, and resistance to law and authority turns to [Blake].”

The exhibit, titled “William Blake and the Age of Aquarius,” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, which Blake helped to inspire, Prof. Eisenman said. As evidence he cites Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and Bob Dylan, all of whom quoted from Blake’s lyrics. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg claimed to hear Blake’s voice in his head, and became obsessed with his work. Visual artists such as the famous rock poster illustrators found inspiration in Blake’s frequently phantasmagoric prints. A wide range of modern artists, such as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Maurice Sendak, and Jackson Pollock appreciated and appropriated Blake’s imagery. Writers as diverse as Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Jack Kerouac admired Blake’s poetry.

“This is the first exhibition to explore Blake’s impact on 20th century popular culture, and is populated by beats, hippies, poets, rockers, and artistic voices of the counterculture,” said Prof. Eisenman. “Blake’s protests against the conventions and repressions of his own society became a model for many young Americans, particularly those disillusioned by social conformity, consumerism, racial and gender discrimination, environmental degradation, and the Vietnam War.”

The exhibit runs through March 11, 2018, and will feature a public opening celebration titled “Music, Art, and Aquarius” on Sept. 23, followed by numerous lectures and presentations that reflect Blake’s protean achievements. Featured are more than 200 paintings, drawings, photographs, films, posters, and other media from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. In addition, there are more than 45 rare Blake engravings and pages from illuminated books on loan from the Yale Center for British Art; The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia; the Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern; as well as one private collection.

“This exhibition plays to Block’s strengths, which has a history of placing art in a broad historic and cultural context by exhibiting together art, archives, popular, and material culture,” said Lisa Corrin, the Museum’s Director. “This approach exemplifies Block’s mission as a teaching museum, and the University-wide emphasis on cross-disciplinary inquiry.”

“Blake is full of contradictions, he’s difficult to teach,” said Prof. Eisenman. “He doesn’t fit into any categories. That’s one of the reasons I decided I wanted to take him up in a major exhibit.

“In art, he pioneered the technique for printing words and paintings on the same page. In literature, his poems had a profound influence on generations of writers. In society, he championed democracy and equality and rejected establishment law and morality. He is a salient figure for our time.”

The exhibit has been in the works for years. Prof. Eisenman originally approached the Block in 2010 to suggest a show on Blake and his influence on subsequent styles, such as Art Nouveau. At the suggestion of Ms. Corrin, the focus was subsequently narrowed for greater impact.

Upcoming Events

The Block Museum will offer lectures and other activities relating to the exhibit, beginning with “Music, Art, and Aquarius,” a family-friendly opening from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sept. 23. At 2 p.m. Professor Stephen Eisenman and Blake Scholar and University of Chicago Professor W.J.T Mitchell will present “Blake, Now and Then,” which will explore Blake’s role in his own time, his influence on countercultural American artists and musicians, and the ways in which he continues to resonate in contemporary life.

October events include a focus on the 1960s, from protest and liberation to civil and human rights; “Beholding William Blake at the End of Empire in the 1960s,” framing the historical parallels between Blake’s era and the 1960s.; and “The Social Vision of William Blake,” specifically how Blake’s work reveals connections between art, belief, and action (tickets required for this event, at chicagohumanities.org).

Scheduled for November are “Printing in the ‘Infernal’ Method: William Blake’s Method of Illuminated Printing” and a gallery tour.

The Block Museum asks that, if possible, people register at blockmuseum.northwestern.edu for events they plan to attend.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...