Review of William Blake and the Age of Aquarius | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of William Blake and the Age of Aquarius

William Blake and the Age of Aquarius
by Stephen F. Eisenman, with contributions from Mark Crosby, Elizabeth Ferrell, Jacob Henry Leveton, W.J.T. Mitchell, John P. Murphy

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2017

248 pp., illus. 137 col. Trade, $45.00

ISBN: 978-0691175256

Reviewed by
Michael Mosher
February 2018

The printer William Blake (1757-1827) produced illuminated poems, a fine mix of text and image, politics and prophecy explained, in passionate and forceful figuration. It's fitting that an attractive book re-examines his work in a new context: his influence on poets and artists of the 1960s.

Blake wrote and drew and printed in a time of religious dissenters, some of them charismatic and prophetic, some too politically radical—in support of that French Revolution!—to publish. The British government clamped down on publication and speech at the end of the 18th century.

Nineteenth century English poet Swinburne called Blake precursor of a poet of Swinburne's own time, the American Walt Whitman. In the mid-20th, Allen Ginsberg felt a visionary affinity with poems from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, and appeared in Robert Frank's movie "Pull My Daisy", where Manhattan beat poets and their friends cavort in an apartment, then head into the street, here seen through a Blakean lens. Ginsberg later read Blake aloud at political protest marches that included the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Both coasts (Manhattan's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach) claim poet Ginsberg.  San Francisco State University Poetry Center director poet Robert Duncan and his partner artist Jess, creator of encrusted paintings based on antique (19th or early 20th c.) book illustrations with captions also learned from Blake.  Argument is made for the effect of Blake upon Jess' collages, including the Tricky Cad series that absurdly reassemble Dick Tracy newspaper comics; the Tricky Cad collage pictured in The Penguin Book of Comics by George Perry and Alan Aldridge, when it appeared in bookstores in 1967, had this 12-year-old laughing uproariously.

Blake's poetry had a big influence on young Michael McClure, later a friend of rock performance poet Jim Morrison, whose band the Doors looked to Blake and his "doors of perception", and Blake's impact on Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix lyrics is discussed as well. Though outside the 1960s, this reviewer thought there might be mention of Jim Jarmusch's 1995 movie "Dead Man", where in the late nineteenth century American west a dying namesake "William Blake" is shepherded by a vision-driven but mistaken Native American to ensure a  proper burial (at sea) of his favorite poet.

Blakean currents are appreciated in artists Jay DeFeo and Robert Smithson and the hand-painted poetic illuminations by Kenneth Patchen, decorations in newspaper, The Chicago Seed, photography of children by Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Blake's techniques inspired fine art printer Stanley William Hayter and his work with artists of the New York School in the 1940s, seeking freedoms both aesthetic and politically "against surveillance". Artists have manifested or illustrated Blakean sentiments using imagery from nuclear explosions and cellular microscopy, in various graphics by Bruce Conner (the explosions' filmmaker) and Wallace Berman, the oscillating color in serigraphs by Richard Anuszkiewicz and posters by Victor Moscoso. The southern California banners of Sister Mary Corita (later Corita Kent), decorating liberal Catholic churches nationally in the 1960s, might have been added.

Mark Crosby compares the children's books of Maurice Sendak, avowedly inspired by Blake, to the child, and state of childhood, in his predecessor's work about a hundred and fifty years before.  Blake's prints are compared to the posters, many advertising or celebrating rock music concerts, by artists Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin.  The underground comix drawn by the latter two might have been further explored for Blakean cognates and traces too.

While I was growing up in the high Age of Aquarius, the White Panther Party (WPP) commune was influential in Ann Arbor, MI. While writing this review, I consulted the Rainbow Reading List in Guitar Army, the writings of WPP poet-polemicist John Sinclair, to see if Blake was listed. Though Blake wasn't included in the list, Ginsberg was, and in 1971 intoned a "Prayer for John Sinclair" on a defense fund benefit 45 rpm record during his imprisonment for marijuana. From this book, I learned of the Golgonooza commune near another university town Athens, Ohio, with its Church of William Blake, decorated with his death masks on the wall, surrounded by painted angel wings.

California scholar Timothy W. Drescher published "Art & Alienation in Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" in 1971, cited in a study of Blake scholarship by Joseph F. Natoli for its dialectical progression in text and design towards destruction of the reader's alienation.  Eisenman's book might have also explored Blakean currents in a medium that grew out of 1960s grass-roots empowerment, the community mural.  In their 2016 book on the murals in Los Angeles' Estrada Courts, Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Drescher noted how the Haros' family's "The Artist", with flaming faces, was inspired by Blake's Book of Urizen. Blake's "The Ancient of Days" (God as geometer) appears in community murals in San Francisco, El Paso, London and elsewhere.

Figures with expressive anatomy: Was Blake an influence on American artist William Rimmer later in the 19th century? In any case, it's nice to have large quality reproductions of Blake's drawings like "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun" or "The Circle of the Lustful, Paolo and Francesca" from his illustrations to the Divine Comedy, and the aforementioned "The Ancient of Days", set among exploratory essays. Like the tiger in his memorable poem, William Blake in the Age of Aquarius (and, arguably, today) is burning bright.