“Illuminated Printing: William Blake and the Book Arts” was intended to complement the YUAG’s “The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760–1860,” but can stand on its own as well. Although better known for his poetry, Blake was also talented in the visual arts, and this exhibit — located in the lower level of the Robert B. Haas Family Library — brings some of those artistic abilities to light, demonstrating the influence Blake had on printmaking through his innovative combination of text and illustration on a single copper printing plate.
“Illuminated Printing” is a modest but interesting exhibit, and like the books it contains, it succeeds by synthesizing words and images. I found as much value in the informational signs as in the prints themselves (though the prints were beautiful). Blake claimed that his dead brother’s ghost came to him in a dream and revealed the new printing technique, which Blake called “Illuminated Printing.” The new method was a combination of two existing techniques, relief printing and intaglio printing: Printers put ink on a raised surface in the former, and into engravings or etchings in the latter. What made Blake’s prints unique was his combination of the two techniques on the same plate, allowing him to utilize the precision of intaglio printing and the ease of relief printing. And because Blake hand-painted each plate every time it went through the press, every print is slightly different.
As pleasing and unique as each of these prints may be, the exhibit contains precious few of them. “Illuminated Printing” consists of 16 glass cases along a wall underneath a staircase, each case contains a few books and prints and an accompanying informational sign. There is one original print by Blake, which he made for a friend, along with several reproductions of his most popular book cover designs, like “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” The original print contains his friend’s name surrounded by small decorations, and is thought to be one of Blake’s last works. The facsimiles of Blake’s covers, on the other hand, generally show the book’s title surrounded by colorful, almost swirling images.
Lovely as these images were, I soon realized that the display focused much more intensely on Blake’s artistic techniques and legacy than on his own artistic achievements. The vast majority of the works, like Dan Carr’s handcrafted books “Gift of Leaves,” displayed are not Blake’s own, but rather, the creations of people inspired by him. Many of the cases also contain dense treatises dealing with Blake’s importance in book art and book history. Still another case offers examples of different printing processes from past centuries, with step-by-step explanations of the various techniques. In keeping with that historical perspective, an old printing press, similar to the one Blake himself would have used, is on display. Though I found it strange that an exhibit claiming to be about William Blake didn’t contain much of his work, it was also interesting to see tangible evidence of his impact on later artists and bookmakers.
Going into the exhibit, I hadn’t considered bookmaking to be its own art form, but I am now convinced that it is. The careful combination of words and images (and, in some cases, the painstaking process of hand-binding each book) is so beautiful, intricate and well-planned that denying the artistic worth of the task is impossible. It’s difficult, in today’s world of laser and 3D printing, to understand the intimate connection between the human printmaker, the letterpress and the final product. The exhibit does a wonderful job of illuminating it.
The more time I spent wandering through the exhibit, the more I enjoyed it, and I would expect others to have a similar experience. There aren’t any flashy colors or huge paintings to capture a passerby’s attention. Rather, the exciting aspects of the display (much like the display itself) take some effort to find. Those willing to slow down, read the provided information, and examine the prints, will find it an informative and enjoyable experience. Luckily, the small size of the exhibit makes a thorough examination of all the materials possible. Even viewers who pour over all the assorted visual aids, book displays and informational signs wouldn’t need to allot much more than half an hour for the exhibit. Yet even in that short time, they can expect to learn quite a bit about William Blake, his printing process, and its legacy.