A prolific poet, printer, painter and publisher, William Blake is finally getting a place in two new Yale exhibitions.
“Illuminated Printing: William Blake and the Book Arts,” a new exhibition that opened Monday in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, traces the influence of the English artist through the historical development of book art and illuminated prints — an art form that Blake is credited with inventing. The exhibit includes works by Blake and contemporary artists he influenced, acting as a companion to an upcoming exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, which will contain several of Blake’s works. Blake pioneered the fusion of written text and images, using copper plates to print illuminated books on religious, mythological and literary themes.
“It’s like painting with words and writing with images,” Nina and Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art at the YUAG Paola D’Agostino said.
Acting Associate Director of the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library Jae Rossman said she believes that the exhibition reflects a growing attention in academia to “art books” — uniquely designed volumes that are meant to be appreciated as works of art.
Blake’s most famous books of prints, “Jerusalem” and “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” contain dozens of pages that combine written verse with images of angels, men and fantastical creatures of his own invention. Blake engraved, printed and painted all the text and images himself, backwards.
“The images have just as much meaning as the text,” D’Agostino said.
Each Blake print is smaller than a letter-sized sheet of paper, and was produced through a process known as relief etching. After painting the images on a copper plate with an acid-resistant varnish, Blake submerged the plate in an acid bath. The acid corroded all of the copper except for the areas that he had painted, leaving behind the image. Sutphin Family Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the YUAG Lisa Hodermarsky noted that while the copper plates could be reused to reproduce the designs, the watercolor paints that Blake used to embellish the original prints varied between prints and cannot be reproduced.
Using this process, Hodermarksy added, Blake produced many such works in his own home, which is one possible explanation for why they never circulated widely.
The exhibition also features the work of contemporary artists who have tried to recreate Blake’s method of relief etching, as well as other illuminated books that were produced using the same process.
In the YUAG exhibition are eight of Blake’s prints from a book titled “America a Prophecy” that was published in 1793. The prints depict scenes from the American Revolution. Blake chose this theme because he saw the American Revolution as the “harbinger for all revolutions,” Hodermarksy explained.
D’Agostino described Blake’s work as a reflection on religious themes mixed with his own mythological creations.
His unique character and the way he combined poetry, printing and publishing make Blake a model for book artists, said Kress Fellow in Art Librarianship and exhibit curator Patricia Guardiola.
“Illuminated Printing” will close on Aug. 21.
Correction: March 19
A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Patricia Guardiola.