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Museum of Fine Arts explores link between William Blake and Winslow Homer

ST. PETERSBURG

Aless likely pairing would be hard to find in an art exhibition than William Blake and Winslow Homer. Blake (1757-1827) was the eccentric British visionary whose work was poorly understood and appreciated during his life, and Homer (1836-1910) was the pragmatic American who influenced generations of artists with his masterful interpretations of nature and contemporary life.

But together they are at the Museum of Fine Arts in the gallery devoted to works on paper. Both share a common beginning as precocious talents who apprenticed with printers when young. As printmakers first, their main training was for commercial illustrations: in Blake's case books and in Homer's, almost 100 years later, the burgeoning periodicals industry.

Their prints share a gallery but are separate shows and there is no awkward didactic attempt to relate them to each other.

Blake was the greater genius, a writer as well as an artist who is now considered one of the great thinkers of the 19th century. The museum displays all of the 21 engravings (plus a title page) from Blake's Book of Job for the first time. They're based on watercolors he made earlier. It was his last completed work before his death. Though it doesn't have the fantastical, rapturous images of his most famous paintings, we can still see why people thought he was, at best, odd and at worst, crazy.

As is true with all his illustrations for existing texts, his is not a conventional take on the biblical story. It's really a launch pad for Blake's own mystical commentary on faith. He did not consider God a separate and superior being, which is perhaps why God and Job are almost identical physically in these engravings. God is also mournfully empathetic to Job's sufferings even as he is responsible for their visitation. Blake doesn't stick to his primary source, adding passages from the New Testament and a drawing of Job meeting Christ.

The figures are monumentally and classically proportioned (for the small size of the prints) with musculature associated with Renaissance masters such as Leonardo and Michelangelo. Blake does shock and awe wonderfully. Howling maelstroms and noble sacrifice are rendered with equal majesty.

Winslow Homer didn't concern himself with cosmic questions. He was interested in people, places and the forces that shaped them. This collection of 32 prints, dated from 1857 to 1877, is mostly culled from his work as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly.

Homer was essentially a visual reporter before photographers took over that role. He mostly did crowd scenes — a busy city intersection, a day in the country or a summer at the beach — that show a gift for composition and narrative even if the details are often slapdash. Harper's sent him to the front lines of the Civil War where he created compelling images of soldiers in camp and on the battlefield but also one that really stood out, The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty, in which a single Yankee perches in a tree and aims a rifle at an unknown target. He was amazingly prodigious as an illustrator and still found time to paint.

After the war, he returned to the sunny depictions of people at work or leisure for Harper's though he would insert the occasional edge. In Our Watering Places — The Empty Sleeve, for example, a well-dressed young couple is breezing around Newport in a pony cart. He has lost an arm, presumably in the war, and both appear pensive.

Homer shows a growing maturity in his later illustrations. Homeward Bound has typical subject matter, well-heeled people on the deck of a trans-Atlantic ship, but the arrangement is startling. Instead of his usual crowded field of people, the deck is half empty, creating a dramatic diagonal that parallels the ship's boom rigging.

Later prints here are mostly based on his paintings, which he longed to work on full time. Dad's Coming is a poignant portrait of a fisherman's family waiting for him on the beach with more anxiety than anticipation. Homer would spend more time in coastal areas recording the resilient people who lived there.

Sometimes Homer makes changes in translating a painting to a print. The Dinner Horn as a painting is a bucolic moment picturing a young woman on a beautiful day summoning people home. In the print, the woman's domestic duties are more in evidence. The famous Snap the Whip, though, is faithfully transferred from paint to woodcut.

I'm not sure we gain much from the reproduction prints. Even if we don't have the paintings before us, they're in our minds as vastly superior works. Homer never regarded his printmaking as art; it was a livelihood and he abandoned it as soon as he thought he could live off his painting.

He left the day job in 1875. It was, as we know, a strong move.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Review A Test of Faith: Blake's Illustrations for the Book of Job

The Art of American Life: Winslow Homer's Graphics (1857-1877)

The exhibitions are at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, through May 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is adults $16, seniors $14 and students 7 and older $10. fine-arts.org or (727) 896-2667.

Today: Chief curator Jennifer Hardin will deliver a talk on Winslow Homer at 3 p.m. Free with admission.

Museum of Fine Arts explores link between William Blake and Winslow Homer 04/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 5:00pm]
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