Monday, November 5, 2012

William Blake Meets Batman

by Stephen J. Gertz

Garden of Love by Delphi Basilicato.

 In 2007, Letterpress II students at the Center for Book Arts in New York, under the direction of master printer Barbara Henry, produced Songs, a collaborative artist book in a portfolio of nine loose letterpress and hand-colored folded sheets that reimagined William Blake, excerpting twelve poems from his Songs of Innocence and Experience and illustrating them anew. The edition was limited to thirty-nine copies.

The poems included in this Songs for the modern age are: The Garden of Love; The Fly; A Dream; The Human Abstract; The Laughing Song; The Poison Tree; The Shepherd; The Tyger; The Blossom; The Sick Rose; Infant Joy;  Infant Sorrow. The compositor-printers were Delphi Basilicato, Amy Bronstein, Bonnie McLaughlin, Amber McMillan, Sarah Nicholls, Michelle Raccagni, Rosie Schaap, Louisa Swift, and Barbara Henry. Each sheet was signed by the individual printer.


William Blake's conceptual collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Experience, first appeared in 1794, a marriage of Songs of Innocence (1789), comprised of nineteen poems celebrating the human spirit when allowed to be free as in childhood, and Songs of Experience, twenty-six later poems in which he demonstrates what happens to the human spirit when the real world of adults intrudes and shackles us by rules and religious doctrines. He considered these to be the two states of the human soul. He illustrated the collection with his own engravings.

Blake's title page engraving sums it up: Adam & Eve in and out of the Garden of Eden. Blake was besotted by God and the Bible but not by the Church of Endland, nor any religion, for that matter. Influenced by the American and French revolutions, freedom of thought and imagination drove him; to him imagination was the body of God, the basis of human existence. It is unfettered creativity and imagination that bring us close to God, for that is what God is, the font of all creative endeavor. The mystic streaks through his work. He was the forefather of Romanticism.

Blake's original title-page engraving.

The conflict between spiritual freedom and imprisonment by religious dogma remains a constant. In Delphi Basilicato's contribution to Songs, a trio of superheroes, including The Dark Knight, confront a scolding priest with verses adapted from Blake's Garden of Love:

Priest: Thou Shalt Not!!! Thou Shalt Not!!! Thou Shalt Not!!!

Flash: Bloody fuckin' Christ...
           I went to the Garden of Love,
           And saw what I never had seen:
           A chapel was built in the midst
           Where I used to play on the green.

Green Lantern: And the gates of this chapel were shut,
                         And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
                          So I turn'd to the garden of love
                          That so many sweet flowers bore;

Batman: And I saw it was filled with graves,
               And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
               And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
               And binding with briars my joys and desires.

To Blake, it was the Church that corrupted the Garden, not Adam and Eve, and the Garden became a graveyard littered with broken spirits. To Dephi Basilicato, in Songs, superheroes - crusading, Christ-like angels, seraphim in capes and tights - are the only thing that stand between us and The Dark Church, saviors against those who would save our souls by crushing them.

In Basilicato's image artists are culture's superheroes, keeping repressive forces in check, the A-Team in battle against the bad guys, and Blake is Charlie, these angels' unseen, anti-Establishment chief, pointing the way toward enlightenment and resolution of the case.

BLAKE, William. Songs. New York: Center For Book Arts, 2007. No. 12 of 39 copies. Nine folio sheets, each signed by the artist. Loose, as issued, in orange paper portfolio with white paper title label to spine.

Internal images courtesy of The Kelmscott Bookshop, currently offering this item, with our thanks.

Image of binding courtesy of Center for Book Arts, with our appreciation.

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