Page 37 - WTP VOl. IX #1
P. 37

 I’d been reading Leo Damrosch’s insightful and inspiriting Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake and was praising it to my friend Richard, also a writer. He mentioned that the Harvard Museums had a number of Blake’s water- colors and etchings and that we could request to see anything in the museum’s holdings, so we selected eight pieces from their online catalogue, some from The Divine Comedy, others from The Book of Job, along with the “Frontispiece” to America: A Prophecy, and made an appointment.
We were met by a cordial member of the curatorial staff and escorted to a viewing room, where the works were propped, unmatted, on reading stands on both sides of a table, four to a side. I had expected to view them under glass, I suppose, or arrayed in a display case, but here they were, and their vulnera- bility seemed shocking: watercolor and ink on paper, by Blake’s own hand. I felt reverent.
I ambled around the table, stopping first to view “Then a Spirit Passed Before My Face” from Blake’s il- lustrations for The Book of Job, its alternate title, “The Vision of Eliphaz” identifying its main figure.
In the painting, Eliphaz, one of Job’s neighbors, is recounting a nightmare, and as I stared at it I began to think of it as a brilliant explication of the magic of storytelling. Eliphaz is seated on the ground with Job and his wife and the other two friends, Bildad and Zophar, who have come to try to comfort Job, a mission they botch magnificently. As Eliphaz tells his story, his arm is raised toward a kind of thought balloon that takes up the top two thirds of the painting. All the others (including us, viewing the painting) follow his arm’s cue and look not at him but at the represented story he tells, which hovers over them all. He is not looking up, however, he is looking at his listeners looking up. He knows he’s got them, they are in his thrall. In the cloud of story over them, Eliphaz is in his bed, confronted by a figure terrifying enough to make his hair stand on end. (And what is more terrifying than a nightmare that takes place in your own bedroom, in which dream and waking realities share the same frame?) Excited but not wanting to disturb my friend’s view- ing across the table, I made a note to come back to this painting and talk about it with him, anxious to tell him what I thought I saw in it, the commentary on imagination, on dream, on storytelling as perfor- mance and manipulation.
The colors of the “Frontispiece for America: A Proph- ecy” seemed to have faded. The copy on display was
Accession Number: 1943.412
Then a Spirit Passed Before My Face (The Book of Job)
By William Blake
watercolor, black ink, graphite on cream laid paper
9 13/16'' x 6 3/4''
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop © President and Fellows of Harvard College
a bit murky and I didn’t spend much time with it. But when I glimpsed the painting, “Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God” or “Adam and Eve Discover the Body of Abel,” I veered, nearly without volition, from my orderly circuit of the displayed works, and sat before it. It is a small watercolor, but into it Blake has com- pressed not only a tremendous understanding of the human tragedy, but also the essence of his artistic ambitions. In the Descriptive Catalogue to his Exhi- bition of 1809, held at James Blake’s shop in Broad Street, Golden Square, London, Blake wrote that it is one of the drawings that “...the Artist wishes were in
(continued on next page)

   35   36   37   38   39