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William Blake 1757-1827: Reflections on artworks outside their context

William Blake is an artist that does not have to be introduced to anyone even remotely aware of ‘the classic’ figures of British culture. A painter, printmaker and poet loved by the public, he influenced many artists to come. An exhibition presenting his works has recently been opened at the Tate Britain, a museum which promotes itself as home to the greatest British art collection in the world.

Illustration by Rebecca Marks

The show is arranged over five rooms, leading the viewer through the artist’s oeuvre in chronological order, which seems to be a natural and safe way of displaying one’s artworks. The captivating pastel-coloured world of William Blake has been complimented with the choice of wall paints, which bring out the tones of the chosen prints without drawing attention away from them.​

Curating an exhibition of small-scale works can be quite a challenge. As the majority of Blake's works were originally book illustrations, the curators were faced with a difficult task: how do you display an image that was meant to be seen only by a few people at the same time? What is a good way of present it to a large audience without losing the original context? On top of that, an important aspect to consider, when designing an exhibition is: how to make it appealing for both art enthusiasts and casual visitors.

The first matter has been resolved in two different ways. Firstly, information on the primary context has been emphasized in descriptions, which can be found on the walls in every room, as well as inside free booklets. Some of the works have also been placed in double-sided frames and assembled in a way that resembles opened books put in an upright position. This presentation gives the viewer an idea of how the illustrations looked like in their initial context but eliminates the aspect of exclusivity. As originally, when the prints were part of a book only a limited number of people could look at them at the same time.

Illustration by Rebecca Marks

Displaying the works in this manner changes the dynamics of an exhibition, as usually the visitors walk around the room, moving from one wall to the other. Here the route of movement is changed, which helps with keeping the viewers captivated without immensely disrupting the usual character of an exhibition.

Another aspect of engaging the visitors with the artworks is the visual ‘restoration’ of works from the exhibition held in 1809 at 28 Broad Street. Two paintings that were presented there have been digitalised and reproduced, using a projector, in a separated space representing a house. What is more, an audio recording is played, using Blake’s words to describe the works and his ambitions of becoming a large-scale painter.

This illumination could not be considered an accurate art historical source, useful to thoroughly examine the chosen paintings. The quality of reproductions is not good enough in order to study them properly. However, the point of this part of the exhibition was not to declare they can be restored perfectly and pretend they are actual oil paintings. Instead, the curators are showing how modern technology can be used to bring non-existing paintings back to life. The illumination is located in one of the last rooms of the exhibition, so it is yet another way of capturing attention of the tired visitors, and this exciting and fun use of technology might be appreciated even by those who are not usual art lovers.

Overall, the exhibition seems to offer something suitable for various groups of visitors, including enthusiastic art historians and the friends or family members who have been dragged to the museum with them.

William Blake 1757-1827 is running at the Tate Britain until 2nd February 2020

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