Interview with William Blake

The Art of William Blake

“Sometimes, we find a poet, a painter, or a musician who functions like a key that unlocks a part of ourselves we never knew was there…. So it was with me in the early 1960s, at the age of 16, with William Blake.” – Philip Pullman, British writer, born 1946

William Blake, you know, they call people like him eccentrics, or crazies—solitary types howling into the void. But rational? That’s not the word you’d use for Blake, not when every brushstroke and verse pulsates with this raw, fervent humanity that’s all spirit and fire. He had this thing he’d say, it went something like, “Everything is an attempt to be human.” That’s Blake through and through, dodging any neat little box you might try to stuff him into. He’s one of those classic, undefinable British artists, the kind who never really fit into one of those tidy art school categories.

And Blake? He didn’t care about fitting in or what the scene was into. Visionaries like him, they operate on another plane. They’re not about boundaries or labels. They’re about bursting out, driven by this fierce need to share what they see, regardless of whether anyone else gets it.

It can be unsettling, the way visionaries look at the world. They’re off exploring other dimensions, seeing things we can’t even begin to fathom, and all they send back are these intriguing, elusive little hints of what’s out there—like postcards from beyond, written in a code we’re scrambling to understand. And yet, somewhere in those mysterious lines, there’s something that strikes a chord, something eerily resonant.

Blake summed it up like no one else, saying, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour.” How’s that for seeing the big in the small, the eternal in the fleeting?

AI and the Echoes of William Blake

I follow the path to the Getty Center garden. Way below, the city sprawls out in a hazy panorama, but here, it’s an oasis, a sanctuary, and a refuge. The juxtaposition of the trees’ untamed beauty against the stark geometry of the museum buildings is a sight to behold. The organic shapes of the trees stood in stark contrast to the clean lines of the architecture, creating a visual symphony.

Amidst this captivating scene, my thoughts are consumed by a whirlwind of emotions—sorrow, pain, and the lingering memories of recent events in Israel. And then, amidst the tranquil setting, I spotted him—an older gentleman with a wild mane of hair, deeply engrossed in his notebook, oblivious to the world around him.

There was something strangely familiar about him, a sense of déjà vu that stirred within me. Drawing closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes—it was William Blake, the iconic poet and artist, sitting beneath the shade of a tree. Here is a man whose words had transcended generations, whose art had left an indelible mark on the fabric of history. I wish I could interview him, I thought.

Well, in today’s age of technological wonders, the ability to engage in conversation with historical figures like William Blake through AI is a marvel in itself. And so, with a heart full of anticipation and wonder, I embarked on a dialogue with this legendary figure, eager to delve into the depths of his creativity and wisdom.

Me:  Mr. Blake, I apologize for interrupting. I have just seen your exhibition at the gallery above. I want to thank you. It is truly inspiring. It made me think about so many things, first and foremost, your take on creativity.

Blake:  Ah, a kindred spirit! Creativity, my dear, is not a mere parlor trick. It’s the fiery forge of the human soul! It’s seeing past the veil of the mundane and perceiving the immortal.

Me:  Some might say imagination is a flight from reality.

Blake: Reality! What they call reality is a cage built of reason and doubt. True reality lies in the realm of the imagination, where tigers dance with angels, and fiery visions illuminate the path to truth!

Me:  But how does one tap into this realm?

Blake:  By casting off the chains of logic! Embrace the innocence of a child who sees the world anew with unclouded eyes. Let your passions ignite, let your visions take flight on the wings of inspiration!

Me:  What about technique? Doesn’t skill play a role?

Blake:  Technique is the horse, but imagination is the rider. A skilled artisan can mimic the world, but only the visionary artist can breathe life into it!

Me:  Your words are powerful, Mr. Blake. Is there anything that can impede creativity?

Blake:  The greatest foe is doubt! The moment you question the validity of your vision, its flames begin to flicker. Nurture your inner fire, for it is the source of all creation!

Navigating William Blake’s Realm of Visions

William Blake was a total original who didn’t just tap into the usual Biblical or classical sources like everyone else. He said, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” And boy, did he mean it. He whipped up his own universe in “Jerusalem,” packed with all these wild characters—some his own wild creations, others twisted versions of old classics seen through his wild, visionary glasses.

Getting what Blake was trying to say isn’t like following a simple line of poetry or a pretty picture. He used symbols, metaphors, and all this mystical mumbo jumbo to go beyond what regular words and pictures do. It’s the kind of deep stuff that doesn’t just hand itself over—you have to work for it, like finding your way through a deliciously complicated jazz solo.

I’ve bumped into people who talk like they’re channeling a bit of Blake’s spirit, all visionary and mysterious. When I do, I dive right in, listening hard, catching the rise and fall of their voices, getting swept up in the rhythm of their thoughts. It’s like tuning into a song where you don’t just hear the notes—you feel them. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s not easy, but nothing that’s worth it ever is.

Me:  Mr. Blake, this exhibition upstairs is titled “Visions,” which seems fitting for your work. What’s your take on it? Do you think it accurately captures the essence of your artistry?

Blake:  “Visions,” you say? Well, it’s certainly an apt descriptor. The realm of dreams and the unseen has long been my muse. If this exhibition manages to evoke that ethereal essence, then I suppose the title serves its purpose.

But let’s not stop there. My art is about more than just visions. It’s about challenging the status quo, igniting imaginations, and advocating for a better world. Perhaps “Visions” could be a springboard for deeper exploration into these themes.

Me:  Your perspective is intriguing, Mr. Blake. What are these visions like for you? What’s your process when inspiration strikes?

Blake:  Visions are like vivid bursts of imagery that engulf my mind. It’s as if another world unfolds behind my eyelids, teeming with symbolic figures and landscapes begging to be captured. They’re hard to put into words. Sometimes they come to me in dreams, blurring the lines between reality and reverie. Other times, they arise during deep meditation, when I’m in a heightened state of awareness.

Me:  You’ve crafted a rich mythology filled with intriguing characters. What do these figures represent in your worldview?

Blake:  Ah, my mythology—a tapestry woven with archetypes embodying the depths of human experience. Take Los, for example, the embodiment of creative fire and passion within us all. Then there’s Urizen, the personification of rationality and the shackles of materialism. And let’s not forget Orc, the rebellious spirit fighting against oppression, or Enitharmon, the beacon of feminine wisdom and inspiration. Each character serves as a lens through which to explore the eternal struggle between imagination and reason.

William Blake has long captivated the minds of scholars and enthusiasts alike, particularly when delving into the intricate relationship between creativity and mental well-being. Throughout the ages, there have been whispers and conjectures regarding Blake’s mental health, spurred by his extraordinary visions and the eccentricities noted by those around him.

Yet, as we venture into this delicate territory, we must proceed with caution, mindful of the delicate balance between brilliance and turmoil. The distinction between genius and madness is as subtle as a whisper in the wind. While traces of Blake’s inner struggles echo through the corridors of time, we must resist the urge to confine his essence within the rigid frameworks of modern psychiatric labels.

Instead, let us approach Blake’s legacy with reverence and awe, allowing ourselves to be swept away by the boundless expanses of his imagination. In the realm of William Blake, reality intertwines with fantasy, inviting us to explore the labyrinthine depths of his mind and revel in the wondrous mysteries that unfold before us.

William Blake’s Relationship with God

Me:  Mr. Blake, your perspective on God greatly intrigues me. Your statement that “He is the only God. And so am I and so are you” particularly resonates with me and earns my complete agreement. Could you please elaborate on your relationship with God as you understand it?

Blake:  Indeed, your inquiry touches upon the very essence of my spiritual and artistic explorations. My view of God is not confined by the orthodox dogmas that so often constrain our experience of the divine. Rather, I see God as an infinite and omnipresent spirit that resides within us all. This is not merely a theological statement, but a deeply personal conviction, informed by visions and spiritual insights that have been a constant throughout my life.

In my works, I often depict God not as a distant, wrathful patriarch, but as an ever-present force that embodies creativity, imagination, and human potential. To say that “He is the only God. And so am I and so are you” is to express a truth about the divine spark that exists within each of us—a truth that empowers us to create, to see the world through the eyes of our imagination, and to break free from the mental chains imposed by society and conventional religion.

My relationship with God, then, is one of deep intimacy and profound mystery. It is a relationship that is both personal and universal, allowing each individual to experience and express the divine in their own unique way. It is through our creative acts, through our imagination, that we come to know God and to participate in the divine nature. Thus, the divine is not something to be worshipped as external and supreme but to be understood as the very essence of our deepest self and our highest aspirations.

Nebuchadnezzar: A Tale of Hubris and Humility

Blake’s got this drawing, right? It’s this burly man with a wild beard and all muscle, down on all fours. His hair’s a mess, hanging all over him, and his nails? Long and fierce, like he’s halfway to turning into some kind of beast. It’s straight out of the Book of Daniel—remember that story? King Nebuchadnezzar, this guy so puffed up with his own ego, ends up losing his mind. God punishes him to live like an animal. Blake just nails it, capturing that raw, wild downfall. It’s like he’s showing us the price of too much pride, but making it art, all wild and intense.

Me: Mr. Blake, your depiction of Nebuchadnezzar is deeply haunting. What specifically drew you to this story from the Book of Daniel?

Blake: The tale of Nebuchadnezzar strikes a chord on multiple levels. At its heart, it serves as a stark warning against the perils of unchecked power. Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris, his belief that he stood above divine law, ultimately leads to his profound humiliation. This narrative is a potent reminder to all in positions of power that deviation from the path of righteousness can bring even the mightiest to ruin.

Moreover, there is a profound element of redemption in Nebuchadnezzar’s journey. Following his descent into madness, he eventually regains his sanity and recognizes the supremacy of God. This cycle of pride, punishment, and potential for redemption resonates deeply within my work. It offers a beacon of hope, affirming that even those most lost to darkness can find their way back to the light.

Satan Exulting Over Eve: Knowledge and Consequence

So there’s this scene Blake cooked up, and it’s seriously intense. Satan’s towering over Eve, all dark and menacing, like he owns the place. And Eve, she’s all tangled up with this serpent—the ultimate bad boy from Eden. They’re on this rough, textured ground that just pops in the print, and around them, there’s this ring of flames, right? But not just any flames. They’re done up in these bleeding, watercolor reds that Blake brushed on by hand after the whole pressing thing. It’s like the whole scene is alive, dancing off the paper with every shade of danger and temptation.

Me: Mr. Blake, your “Satan Exulting Over Eve” is a captivating yet unsettling piece. Can you elaborate on the scene you’ve depicted? What message do you hope viewers take away from it?

Blake: Ah, “Satan Exulting Over Eve.” It indeed captures a critical moment. Here, the serpent, emblematic of forbidden knowledge, entwines Eve while flames of temptation edge the scene. It serves as a reminder that knowledge often comes with a price. Eve’s decision irrevocably changes humanity’s path. Yet, is it solely a narrative of darkness? Perhaps the knowledge gained, despite its perils, is a necessary stride in our evolutionary saga.

William Blake’s Printing Innovation and the Marriage of Words and Images

Me:  Mr. Blake, your illuminated works are stunning. Can you tell me a bit more about your printing technique? It seems so unique in how the text and image blend so seamlessly.

Blake:  Ah, thank you! What I’ve developed is called ‘illuminated printing.’ This technique lets me create both the text and the illustrations on the same copper plate. Unlike traditional etching, where the design is sunken into the plate, I use a method called relief etching. This means I etch away the background, leaving the text and image raised. It’s akin to a woodcut but offers the detail and control of copper.

Me:  Fascinating! Did this technique come about all at once, or did it evolve over time?

Blake:  It definitely wasn’t an overnight revelation. I experimented for years, wanting to find a way to fully integrate my words and pictures. Initially, the focus was on replicating the feel of pen and brush on the metal plate. But it evolved! I found I could achieve a wider range of effects with relief etching, which led to a shift in how I approached the final product.

Me: A shift? How so?

Blake:  In the beginning, the emphasis was on creating a printed page. But as the technique matured, I realized the potential for something more akin to a painting. The colors became bolder, richer, and the hand-coloring process became more integral to the final artwork.

Me:  That’s incredible, Mr. Blake. It sounds like you’ve truly pushed the boundaries of printing. But with your work being so heavily text-driven, do you consider yourself more of a poet or a printer?

Blake:  That’s a thought-provoking question. Honestly, I don’t see a clear divide. The words and the images work together, each informing the other. The poetry sets the scene; the imagery brings it to life. They’re two sides of the same coin, both crucial for conveying the message I want to express. But, to be fully honest, while I love the technical aspects of printing, the true heart of my work lies in the words. The poems are the foundation, the driving force. The printing technique simply allows me to present them in a way that amplifies their meaning. So, in that sense, I suppose I’d lean towards being a poet who utilizes the power of the printing press.

Renaissance Revival: William Blake’s Job Illustrations

In the hot LA-like summer of 1823, when the influential painter John Linnell put his money where his aesthetics were, he tapped William Blake for a gig that was totally Blake’s scene. He wanted Blake to dive into the biblical world of Job, that guy who could give any old Hollywood screenwriter a run for his money with his epic tale of sticking with his faith through everything from sore-boiling plagues to the wife telling him he’s cursed.

Blake wasn’t new to Job’s story; he’d sketched it out before, back when everyone was wearing empire waists and breeches. But this time, he went full-on Renaissance revival, chiseling out engravings as they did in the old days, surrounding his scenes with all these elaborate borders that were littered with Bible verses and cryptic inscriptions.

Using only his engraving tools—which was super old school—Blake kept it tight and minimal, sticking to a strict menu of marks that could’ve made any minimalist proud. From 1821 to 1826, Blake was in the zone, crafting a set of 22 plates that were like visual chapters of Job’s saga. Each one was a show-stopper that would’ve looked fab in any gallery or edgy downtown loft. This series, which everyone calls “William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job,” was a total tour de force, proving once again that Blake was not just an artist but an artist’s artist.

Me:  Your Divine Comedy series explores a grand, external journey, while your Job series focuses more on an internal struggle. What about the story of Job compelled you to create a series around it?

Blake:  That’s a keen observation. The story of Job is a profound exploration of human suffering and faith. The way he grapples with immense loss and questions the divine plan resonated deeply with me. I wanted to explore these themes visually, depicting the depths of despair and the search for meaning amidst hardship. Job’s unwavering faith in the face of unimaginable trials is inspiring. His story is a testament to the human spirit’s capacity to endure. Through my series, I aimed to capture the resilience of the human soul and the possibility of finding solace even in the darkest times.

Me:  Your Book of Job engravings share some similarities with the work of the German printmaker Albrecht Dürer. Was he an inspiration for you?

Blake:  Ah, Dürer! Yes, you have a keen eye. His work, especially his engravings, was indeed a significant inspiration for my Job illustrations. I greatly admired his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to capture the drama and emotion of a scene. Beyond that, we both shared a passion for exploring the human condition through powerful imagery. His Melencolia I, for instance, resonated deeply with me. In my Job engravings, I tried to capture that same melancholic introspection, grappling with existential questions. Perhaps you see a reflection of his work in mine, albeit filtered through the lens of my artistic sensibilities.

Blake Against the Grain: Crafting a Legacy on His Own Terms

William Blake was never just another artist trying to fit into the cool kids’ club of the Royal Academy back in ’79. Nope, he was dead set on spinning his own artistic tale, far from his roots as a mere craftsman. Picture him there, young and fired up, soaking up influences from English history, the heavy classics, and the Bible, yet already itching to scribble outside the lines.

Despite tipping his hat to the artistic norms of the era, Blake was too much of a maverick to just play along for commercial smiles and professional pats on the back. He had this wild, personal twist to everything he touched, turning away from the literal to embrace a world vibrant with his own lush symbolism and intricate myths. While everyone else was gaga over oil paints—the big-ticket art medium of the day—Blake was the guy stubbornly shaking his head. He stuck to his guns with tempera, watercolor, and printmaking, sketching out his visions with those bold, dark lines that became his signature.

And when it came to patronage, Blake wasn’t about to be anyone’s puppet. He lucked out with Thomas Butts, a civil servant with a knack for spotting genius. Butts wasn’t just another rich guy looking to commission vanity pieces; he was the real deal, an arts patron who gave Blake not just money but something rarer: freedom. With Butts backing him, Blake didn’t have to water down his visions or trim his imaginative sails. He could be the full-on, uncompromising William Blake, an artist’s artist, shaping his own path and inspiring those who understood that true art isn’t about following rules—it’s about making them.

Me:  Mr. Blake, your art is remarkable, though it didn’t find much commercial success. How did you keep going despite that?

Blake:  True, mainstream success eluded me. But I was fortunate to have a supportive circle of patrons who believed in my vision. With their backing, I could keep creating without bowing to commercial pressures.

Me:  Your wife, Catherine, was a constant presence in your life. Did she influence your creativity and spirituality?

Blake:  Catherine was my muse, my rock. She stood by me through thick and thin, bolstering my confidence in my work. Her insights and encouragement fueled my creative process. We weren’t just partners in life; we collaborated artistically, with her input shaping many of my projects. Catherine was my wife, yes, but also my artistic ally.

Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy

In 1824, at the behest of John Linnell, Blake embarked on yet another artistic journey, this time inspired by the profound depths of Dante Alighieri’s timeless epic, “The Divine Comedy.” This monumental endeavor chronicled Dante’s odyssey through the treacherous realms of hell, the cleansing purgatory, and the celestial realms of heaven. With painstaking attention to detail, Blake meticulously crafted 102 preparatory watercolors, each stroke a testament to his boundless imagination and unparalleled skill. His focus, enraptured by the harrowing landscapes of hell, vividly captured Dante’s descent into the abyss, guided only by the spectral presence of the poet Virgil.

Me: Your illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy are magnificent. What inspired you to undertake such a monumental project?

Blake: Dante’s vivid portrayal of sin and its consequences struck a chord with me. He fearlessly confronts the realities of human actions, exploring unseen realms, the eternal battle between good and evil, and the transformative power of faith. I saw an opportunity not only to depict scenes from the poem but also to provoke moral contemplation in the viewer.

William Blake’s Reflections on Revolution

Blake saw London shaken by news of Britain’s defeat in the American Revolution in the 1780s and by reports of bloodshed and social upheaval during the French Revolution in the 1790s. He lived in an era of British colonial expansion and experienced the anxiety caused by Napoléon Bonaparte’s aggressive military campaigns across Europe and beyond in the early 1800s.

Opinions in Britain about the American Revolution split sharply. To the Loyalists, it was merely a rebellion. To others, like William Blake, it was a stand against tyranny, a dangerous thing to say out loud at that time. In his 1793 piece, “America: A Prophecy,” Blake mixes history with allegory. He paints the British rule as despotic, personified by Albion’s Angel and backed by the oppressive trio: law, reason, and religion, all in the form of Urizen. Against them stands Orc, the symbol of the fiery American spirit, fighting to topple the old ways and bring about a new era.

Me:  Mr. Blake, you lived through a period of great political upheaval, from the American Revolution to the French Revolution to the riots in London. Which period of unrest frightened you the most? And how did these revolutions shape your views on society and government?

Blake:  Frightened? Perhaps both revolutions, in a way. The American cause held such promise, a chance to build a new nation free from tyranny. Yet, the seeds of inequality remained. The French, for all their talk of liberty, ended up mimicking the very structures they sought to dismantle. It revealed the deep rot within the system itself.

Me:  Did you see any positive outcomes from these revolutions, despite your concerns?

Blake:  Positive outcomes, eh? A thorny question. One must sift through the ashes to find the embers, wouldn’t you say? The American rebellion, for all its flaws, did plant a seed of liberty. The notion that a people can govern themselves, that’s a powerful ideal, even if the reality falls short. Perhaps it’s a spark that will ignite a true conflagration of freedom in the years to come.

As for the French, their revolution exposed the festering wounds of inequality, like the abolition of feudal dues. It may have been a bloody spectacle, but perhaps such a drastic cleansing was necessary before a new and just order could rise from the flames.  While the initial enthusiasm resonated deeply, the descent into violence and mob mentality was chilling. It showed the dangers of unchecked passion, the ease with which a righteous cause can veer into tyranny.

A Conversation on Letting Go

Me: My friend Mark recently showed me a piece of paper he keeps in his wallet with your words on it. It reads:

“He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

This is from your poem “Eternity.” I wonder, what do you mean by “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy”?

Blake: Ah, “Eternity.” A wonderful poem, wouldn’t you say? The line you mentioned speaks to the importance of embracing the fleeting nature of joy. If you cling too tightly to a particular pleasure, you stifle it, clip its wings. True joy, like a bird in flight, thrives on freedom. It’s in the act of letting go, of savoring the moment as it passes, that you connect with a more enduring sense of joy, a state akin to “eternity’s sunrise.”

Think of it this way: If you hold onto something too possessively, you become closed off to new experiences. Joy, like life itself, is a journey. By clinging to one specific pleasure, you miss the countless others waiting to be discovered. It’s in embracing the constant flow of experience, in kissing joy as it flies by, that you find a richer, more fulfilling existence.

Me: You know, Mr. Blake, when I left the gallery, I felt a dark weight. I’m not sure if it was the intensity of your art that seemed to exude a fragrance of Melancholy or if it’s an echo of my own inner turmoil, especially having come from a war zone just a week ago. I wonder, your thoughts?

Blake: Ah, that is a profound reflection. My art indeed challenges the viewer, aiming to confront and perhaps even disturb, for it reflects not only the visions that have frequented my spirit but also the very depths of human experience—both dark and light. The darkness you felt might indeed mirror your own recent experiences, as art often serves as a mirror, revealing not only the artist’s intentions but also the inner landscape of those who view it. My works are intended to evoke, to stir, and to question, not to settle comfortably upon the eye or the heart. Whether they are dark or not may depend as much on what you bring to them as on what I placed within their creation.

Me: I will take it to heart. It was such an honor to converse with you, Mr. Blake. Thank you. I wish you a joyful afternoon of drawing.

Reading Recommendation 

William Blake vs the World, By John Higgs