Review: Joseph Viscomi – William Blake’s Printed Paintings

1795 was an incredible year of innovation for William Blake, not least for the series that has become known as the large colour prints. Joseph Viscomi traces the genesis of this remarkable series.

Joseph Viscomi is very well known as a scholar who transformed Blake studies not once but twice: first through his publication of Blake and the Idea of the Book, which drew attention to the minute particulars of Blake's process as a printmaker in terms of creating editions of his works, and secondly through his work on the Blake Archive, which for the first time made those multiple variants of the illuminated books (as well as Blake's other works) available to a wider public. Now he is seeking to change our understanding of Blake once again with his latest publication, this time drawing attention to the hugely popular colour prints that Blake worked on in the 1790s and returned to in the early nineteenth century. Anthony Blunt, Martin Butlin and many other art historians have noted that these images, which include famous examples such as Newton and Pity, are among Blake's strongest works as well as his most famous, and in William Blake's Printed Paintings Viscomi seeks to bring us to a fuller understanding of these outstanding contributions to British art.

Part of this understanding comes from his very precise - and somewhat unusual - use of the term "printed paintings" in contrast to the more usual "large colour prints" (throughout this review I shall continue to use the term "colour prints" for familiarity). By doing so, Viscomi draws attention to Blake's method of composition - a hybrid of printmaking and painterly techniques. Anyone familiar with Viscomi's work will not be surprised to find in the opening section of his book a very useful discussion of the differences between monotype (pigment applied to a matrix which can then be completely washed clean) and monoprint (where the matrix is more permanent - allowing reprints many years later as Blake did with these pictures). Viscomi notes that Blake developed the technique over a period of time from his work on relief etchings and etchings in colours: the process was not entirely original to him, having been used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by a very limited number of experimenters, but it was largely abandoned because the results were too irregular and so in effect Blake did discover it anew. For Blake, it was precisely this irregularity that was the appeal of this method, enabling him to make original works the likes of which the world had not seen before and which it would not really see again until the monotypes of Degas and the paintings in decalcomania by Max Ernst. It is this willingness to experiment, this radical engagement with the material form of producing art, that is truly amazing about the large colour prints.

Viscomi is meticulous in detailing Blake's methods of production for the colour prints, not only in terms of assessing the contributions of earlier commentators from Tatham onwards (and correcting various errors), but also in noting the conditions for colour printing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Among other things, this allows him to make sound observations on elements such as the dating of the prints which, since Butlin noted that they were on paper watermarked from 1804 could not have been produced in 1795 (the date provided by Blake). By drawing comparisons to other works by the artist- such as the copy of Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion - which was printed several decades after the date on the front - Viscomi is able to offer excellent insight into Blake's concept of his works as dating from their original conception rather than the actual moment of execution, which is abundantly evident from the early illuminated books such as Songs of Innocence and Experience, dated by Blake as 1794 even when he was producing copies in the 1820s.

The detailed explanation of Blake's techniques is fascinating and incredibly well-researched, but for me this was less astonishing than when Viscomi steps back, as it were, to compare Blake's inventiveness compared to his contemporaries. Colour printing was entering a stage of experimentation at the end of the eighteenth century, in most cases a variant of one-pull processes whereby the printer would paint different coloured pigments onto a single plate (multi-pull processes at this time inevitably resulted in registration errors). Viscomi also goes into considerable detail regarding the techniques used by Joseph Booth to form his "polygraph" reproductions of oil paintings, as well as the techniques devised by Matthew Boulton with the engravers Francis and John Eginton to similarly produce "mechanical paintings". The outputs of this kind of work, while incredibly important to the history of print media into the nineteenth century, are - in the end - lacklustre compared to the process which gave us NewtonNebuchadnezzar and Pity. In all such other instances, artists were concerned to faithfully produce some kind of facsimile of an original artwork, rather than experiment with printmaking itself as a process whereby original art could be produced of an entirely new calibre. In every other instance, printing was deployed as a mechanical rather than creative process. As such, Viscomi is right when he notes that an understanding of contemporary processes reveals "the radical natureof Blake's monoprints and his ideas about copies and originals. These examinations and contrasts [with his contemporaries] help to illuminate Blake's true genius as a graphic artist." (p.93)

When turning to the question of interpreting the prints, Viscomi begins with a conundrum: if, as nearly every interpreter of these images has argued, the series demonstrate an underlying plan, why is it that every interpretation is so radically different? Starting with the simple question of what order the prints should be hung in an ideal imaginary exhibition, he points out that no two scholars agree on the order of the images - which makes any definitive interpretation of a mythic narrative difficult to argue. At this point, the text is very reminiscent of Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in this Class? in which different critics are shown to be completely at odds when answering the apparently simple question in "The Tyger": "Did he who made the lamb make thee?" By demonstrating the difficulties of using the large colour prints as illustrations of Blake's mythology, Viscomi makes the liberating observation that we should not rush constantly to underpin Blake's designs by thinking of them as relating to his texts: as a visual thinker, Blake was not always working to a plan but, in the words of David Bindman, simply providing "a selection of powerful images" (cited p.113). Once we stop trying to relate the large colour prints back to the Lambeth Prophecies, we can more easily appreciate them for what they are, illustrating scenes from the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton or Blake's private myth as he so desired.

This leads us to the third part of William Blake's Printed Paintings, which is to consider interpretations of the designs themselves. As would be expected, close attention to the material details of the objects can offer insights - and also complications, most noticeably with the first design considered by Viscomi, the monoprint known as Elijah and the Fiery Chariot until Martin Butlin removed the original mount of one of the impressions and discovered that Blake had written "God Speaking to Adam" in pencil. This in turn led Butlin to interpret the scene as a reference to God as Urizen. As Viscomi observes, if we read the prints in the light of the Lambeth books this seems relatively unproblematic - but if we are attempting to decipher it in relation to the Bible then it raises a huge number of concerns, not least the age of Adam (always presented as a younger man in Blake's other visual representations). It is more likely that the inscription is a revision of Blake's original conception: the fiery chariot appearing to Elijah has a firm biblical antecedent but also corresponds to Blake's other comments on the prophet who, according to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is an angel transformed by flames and fire to become one of the devil's party.

For me, Viscomi's most challenging reading, of the monoprint Hecate, is a perfect illustration how the accretions of scholarship and commentary can accumulate into error for the most dedicated aficionados of Blake. As is typical of Viscomi's approach, he presents essential information clearly about the putative order of the print's composition and sales, and notes the first description of the work by Rossetti, in which it is described as depicting Hecate. Subsequent commentators, including Robertson, Keynes and Blunt, saw Hecate, until Jean Hagstrum identified the male and female figures with their faces hidden as Los and Enitharmon, leading to generations of erroneous readings of this monoprint as The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (including on the part of this reviewer, why this reviewer found the reading both challenging and illuminating). This demonstrates the lures for interpreters of Blake who seek to read all of his art in the light of the prophetic books and his own personal mythology, and Viscomi counters this with substantial evidence as to how Blake could and would have known of the figure of Hecate - most notably through her appearance in Macbeth where she appears in Acts III and IV. Viscomi's reading is not merely a correction of an unfortunate error that has become commonplace in Blake studies, but also demonstrates his significance as an artist: "Hecate seen in the light of popular culture's idea of witches instead of Blake's descrptions of Enitharmon reveals how original and startling Blake is as a painter" (p.193) in that he openly demonstrates the erotic allure of witches rather than their more typical late eighteenth-century associations with age and deformity.

William Blake's Printed Paintings: Methods, Origins, Meanings is an important intervention in the study of Blake as an artist. I had expected to be presented with extremely carefully researched invesgtigations into Blake's techniques, but the pleasant surprise of this book is twofold. Firstly, it establishes the importance of the artist as a truly innovative and experimental figure, developing a creative process of printmaking which revels in moving beyond the craft as a form of endlessly reproducing an original and, instead, making the monoprint itself the moment of creation. Secondly, there is an admonition to those such as myself who write about Blake regularly - to pay more attention to him as a visual creator who does not automatically refer his images back to the text of his mythological system. As such, for all that lovers of Blake have seen the prints of Newton and others so many times before, this is a book that will make them view those works with fresh eyes.

Joseph Viscomi, William Blake's Printed Paintings Methods, Origins, Meanings, Yale University Press/Paul Mellon Centre, 2021. 256pp, 180 colour + b&w illustrations. RRP: £40.  

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