Visionary illustrations by William Blake on loan from Skidmore College’s Special Collections, Lucy Scribner Library, are joined by a new series of Blake-inspired works by Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
William Blake (1757-1827), poet and artist, may have been our first urban avant-garde poet. In a voice that is by turns childlike, prophetic, enraged, satirical, and gentle, he created works that spoke for the marginalized and the poor. Chimney sweeps, orphans, prostitutes and cynics people his poems — and so do angels, devils, and other apparitions.
Blake engraved and printed his own works. The images, called “illuminations,” do not so much illustrate the works as provide a parallel text that invites interpretation. He produced so few copies of them, coloring each by hand, that his audience was small. To earn a living, he worked as an engraver and illustrator, producing memorable editions of both contemporary poems and classics such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno.
Blake’s poetry still speaks with a startling freshness and audacity. The illustrations to The Book of Job, on view here in an extremely rare copy printed by his own hand, take liberties with the text. They also provide a visual commentary that amounts to his own interpretation of the problem Job poses: What kind of omnipotent God would inflict such suffering on so many good people?
The answer may lie within Blake’s concept of the marriage of Heaven and Hell:
Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
Paired with these works by William Blake is a new series based on two poems Blossom and The Sick Rose from Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. In August 1981, artist, activist, and teacher, Tim Rollins (b. 1955), was recruited by George Gallego, principal of Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx, to develop a curriculum that incorporated art-making with reading and writing lessons for students who had been classified as academically or emotionally “at risk.” Together, Rollins and his students developed a collaborative strategy that combined lessons in reading and writing with the production of works of art. Their signature style was born as Rollins and K.O.S. began producing works of art on the pages of these books. Rollins and K.O.S. have produced paintings, prints, photographs, and sculpture based on literary texts such as Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and musical scores, including The Creation by Franz Joseph Haydn.