Born to Endless Night

Mar. 12, 2011Jun. 28, 2011
Huntington Art Gallery, Works on Paper Room

“Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame” runs concurrent with “ Three Fragments of a Lost Tale: Sculpture and Story by John Frame” on view in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery, March 12–June 27, 2011

John Frame says he was influenced heavily as a young artist by the works of Shakespeare and the illustrations and writings of William Blake; both figure deeply into the current project on display in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery at The Huntington, “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale.” Running concurrent with that exhibition is a display of a small group of The Huntington’s works by Blake, hand selected by Frame. The display, installed in the Works on Paper Room of the Huntington Art Gallery, provides a window into the world that inspires Frame in his art making process.

Frame wrote the Blake display’s label text, provided below.

Discovering Blake in my early twenties, I was drawn immediately into a world that was both charming and unsettling, and a body of work that comprised both literature—which was my primary study at the time—and visual art, where I was to find my own life’s work. Blake was a poet, a painter, an eccentric, and an unorthodox theologian. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, who confined themselves largely to portraits of the wealthy, landscapes, and decorative pieces, he grappled always with the basic questions of human life. “Prayer is the study of art. Praise is the practice of art,” he said, and, pursuing this dictum, he fashioned a world that was wholly his own and yet reached beyond himself toward God. Through imagination, he believed, you accessed the Divine; in the act of creation you realized your purpose as a human being. Blake’s insights have in many ways shaped my own approach to art making, and, no matter how frequent my journeys into his world, I have never failed to find there new wisdom, fresh beauty.

Illustrations for the “Book of Job”
In this series of beautifully composed illustrations, Blake explores the questions posed by the Book of Job. How is it that terrible things happen to people who are not only good themselves but who believe in the goodness of God? And, perhaps more perplexing, how do some of these people endure their agony and yet retain their love for the God who allowed it? Each illustration begins with a particular  episode in Job's life (the destruction of his children) and becomes a meditation on larger themes (the power of darkness upon man, who must endure tragedies not of his own making). I find these questions—and Blake's illustration of them—to be illogical and mysterious, difficult and essential.

Illustrations from “Milton’s Paradise Lost”
In these watercolors, Blake wavers, as John Milton did, between images of joy and sorrow, depictions of the paradise that we lost and the hell that we inherited. Like Milton (and perhaps like most of us), Blake seems to find the darker of these poles the more compelling. Even as he explores the darkness, however, he suggests the triumph of good over evil, of life over death. Despite the complexity of the subject matter, these paintings are possessed of a singular lyrical beauty that distinguishes them from many of Blake's other works.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the two Contrary States of the Human Soul & The Sick Rose
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake's most famous work, has always felt to me like a meditation on the ways in which our childhood experiences shape our adult selves. The poems are short and deceptively simple, but dense. “The Sick Rose” (which is one of three of Blake's written  works that I've used in my own relief carving) manages to meditate upon beauty, the dark impulses that destroy it, and sexuality, all in eight compact lines. Despite the lack of a market for his work, Blake and his wife hand-colored each edition of the book. This method resonates with me, as I've found family collaboration and commitment to hand working details to be critical in my work.

Hecate or the Night of Enitharmon’s Joy
I chose this piece simply because of the richness of the image, which looks almost Shakespearean to me. I'm drawn to the interplay between the humans and the animals. They exist side by side in a sort of cooperative stillness while each of them seems, like so many of Blake's characters, to reach within or beyond itself. In this case, the symbolism remains completely mysterious to me, and is richer because of that mystery.

Lot and His Daughters
Blake is dealing once again with a big question, this time the impulses that can drive us toward acts that are, in the eyes of society and perhaps in the eyes of God, anathema. Compelled by the urge to carry on their lineage, Lot's daughters—here portrayed with deliberate eroticism—inebriate and seduce him. Although the painting has obviously been damaged by age, I find the palette particularly beautiful. The composition is also unusual and appealing to me—the figures cluster in the extreme foreground, leaving only a small window directly into the deep background, where we see the burning cities and Lot's wife as a pillar of salt.

Laocoön
Laocoön serves as a visual manifesto for Blake, one that has always struck me with its insight and originality. He begins with Laocoön, an image based upon a classical sculpture that was the subject of much discussion in Blake’s day. The graffiti around it is not unique to him—his contemporaries used a similar technique on occasion—but he is unique in using the work to explore personal and spiritual themes, as opposed to political or social ones. His epigrams are bold, far-reaching, and occasionally bizarre. The theology they suggest is not systematic or even linear, but it is more poignant for that, and has always made a great deal of intuitive sense to me.