Tag Archive: Ideal Beauty


Genius in Captivity

Reynolds' Genius in Captivity

With Sir Joshua Reynolds leading the dominant opinion on art and poetic genius, Blake faced an idea of genius in bondage. Reynolds’ idea of genius is one of definite limits, one whose purpose lies solely in the perfection of the natural world and the communication of physical experience. Art and genius are to be learned within the confines of a rigid system. While he appeals to the artist to “captivate the imagination” rather than “amuse mankind with the minute neatness of his imitations,” he also limits the artist’s imaginative space to that of the Ideal Beauty. All art should then be in pursuit of this singular ideal, not the invention of something new.

Yet with one standard of beauty, is the artist really captivating the imagination or merely entertaining? The true imagination is infinite and is not bound to recapitulate earthly experience. Reynolds’ kind of imagination instead leads only to an expanded dull round. While horizons seem to open for a moment at the initial sight of the Ideal Beauty, the constrained painter and his viewer soon settle into a new monotony of chasing the artistic status quo.

These accepted limitations thrust the artist and his audience into a willing bondage. At the time of Israel’s delivery, the nation’s captivity had grown into more than physical enslavement but a kind of mental bondage that made the people reluctant to resist their captors. Slavery had become so comfortable, that the frightening uncertainty of freedom made the Israelites long to return to captivity almost immediately after Moses led them away. In the same way, the viewer and Reynolds’ artist become complacent with a kind of art that only perfects known experience. Subjecting imagination to structure and reason suffocates what new ideas dare peak through.

It is, therefore, uncomfortable for the public to accept Blake’s assertion that art depends on the newly imagined, ideas that rise from the innate being of the artist rather than his physical surroundings. Blake spurs the individual on to a form of spiritual war against the Reynolds ideology to reclaim the eternal self of the imagination. Blake’s genius calls for action and calls for the viewer to likewise be a creator.

Like much of Blake’s work, his idea of genius began to flourish after his own lifetime, and years later he was affirmed by the unlikely figure of Albert Einstein. While Reynolds applied the principles of reason to art in order to constrain it, Einstein oppositely applied Blake’s unlimited genius to reason and to life. Genius lies in each individual’s capacity to create. Genius cannot then be contrived by following a set of rules or learned by experience but is part of the innate capacity of man. The challenge is to engage it.

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The Great Line vs. Color Debate

Promoting the superiority of line over color, Blake argues the sublime in art relies on the artist’s execution of the minute particulars in this world. Defined as the outward expression of the eternal individualities of all things, these details can only be expressed through line in the engraving process. Roberts notes Blake printed mostly monochromatic illuminated books and colored them later by hand, demonstrating the artist’s emphasis on exact line rather than perfect color. Comparing the works of Le Brun and Rubens with Rafael, Blake labels the two colorists “contemptible,” instead elevating outline by stating, “All Forms are Perfect in the Poets Mind. but these are…from Imagination” (464). Although Reynolds and Blake both laud Ideal Beauty through form, Blake asserts knowledge of such beauty is born innately in man and expressed through imagination, undermining the need for a Royal Academy of artistic learning. Criticizing the use of art by Reynolds and King George III to reshape the image of Great Britain, Blake argues “Empire follows Art,” which rationalizes his decision to use art as a vehicle to visualize his prophecies (461). Because Blake believed nations conformed to art, he imbued his works with the precise forms of what he recognized as Ideal Beauty. Describing his own style as “unbroken lines, unbroken masses, and unbroken colours,” Blake approached art as a way to find form—both on the page and in the world—and keep it.