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William Blake vs. Jan Konůpek: A Comparison of Designs in The Book of Thel
This paper reports on a research concerning William Blake's designs in The Book of Thel and those made by Jan Konůpek. This topic is discussed in a way of a detailed description of both series of designs, focusing on motifs from the story they represent, on the used artistic techniques and methods, and on the final impression they may have on the reader. This paper then reports on the results gained by this research and gives a full comparison of the two versions, as far as the fulfillment of their purpose is concerned.
William Blake's texts and designs are, as being highlighted very often, two inseparable parts of a one complex unit. He made them (and also meant them) to cooperate with each other from the very first time to create a full and rich impression in a reader's mind: consisting of a text which is pleasant to the ear and an image which is pleasant to the eye, and - what is important - which corresponds with the text. The question is, whether is it possible to create new designs and in the same time not to affect that fragile harmony Blake managed to establish between the two mediums. A Czech artist Jan Konůpek  made this attempt in the 1940s and the aim of this article is to find out and explore how successful or unsuccessful he was in fulfilling Blake's daring plan.
There has not been any detailed research focusing on this particular topic yet, except for my diploma thesis , which, among other things, introduced the first attempt to look into this matter. The results I drew from my research will be presented in the following pages with a special emphasis on the impression I gained from both series of designs. The fact that Blake's and Konůpek's designs are completely different as they depict different situations of Thel's story makes the research more difficult. The reason could, of course, be Konůpek's aim to avoid comparing his designs with Blake's designs in the future, and thus keeping his hands clean. But a more probable reason, in my opinion, would be that Konůpek could have just been interested in some other parts of the story and have found some of the motifs from it more suitable for depicting.
2. The story
Before we start discussing The Book of Thel and its designs, it would probably be useful to give the reader an idea about the story itself, so he or she could follow (see the attachement at the end of the article). What point is important to highlight is that there is not a full explanation of what truly happened in the story. The Book of ThelI> could refer to a fantastic character or (and highly possibly) it could be a metaphor.
In the centre of the story there is a young girl called Thel who lives in the "Vales of Har". She is unhappy because she is afraid of her future and also curious about where do people go when they die. So she sets journey from the valley to find out. On her way she progressively meets Lily-of-the-Valley, Cloud, a worm and Clod of Clay. All of them she asks the same question when finally Clod takes her to the underground to see the life after death. Thel is scared and escapes back to the safe valley where she came from.
This summary follows a very simplified version of the story. If we wanted to check it from a different point of view, we might have said that Thel was not living in a safe valley, but in a mother's womb and her journey was just a soul's trip to the real world simply to see what is there. After reassuring herself that the world was cruel (visiting the underground of the dead) she returned to the safe place. Another possible explanation of what happened is that the two states of Thel are Innocence (before the journey) and Experience (after the journey), as we know that Blake made various works on this topic (explanation represented by Bindman ).
According to traditional interpretations, Thel is a pastoral elegy and what I have discovered is that from the beginning the poem it really does resemble a pastoral elegy. The text opens quite positively, as the daughters of Mne Seraphim tend "sunny flocks" (1:1) and resemble shepherdesses of some sort. Thel᾽s departure from them ten corresponds with a pastoral elegy, in which the shepherd abandons his flock and goes off by himself. But Thel also has elements of folklore and romance, or even of a fairy tale. Good examples could be represented by those speaking inferior creatures in the text ̶ the Lily, Cloud and Clod of Clay all speak and the worm weeps. These creatures also belong to some kind of society, each of them to his or her own, which is a typical feature of English fairy tales. The Cloud rests on an "airy throne"(3:24), the Clod is wearing "a crown that none can take away" (5:4) and Thel herself is called the "queen of the vales"(2:13) and she sits on a "pearly throne" (2:12), (these interpretations are supported by Nancy Bogan ).
The last (but also the most down-to-earth) explanation can be found in John Milton's story called Comus which is very similar to Thel's story. The main difference lies in the fact that Blake took this story and rewrote it in biological terms, as Comus was written in moral ones (stated by Damon ).
3. Blake's designs
At first, let me introduce the original designs made by Blake. The Book of Thel consists of eight plates, including six designs. There are fifteen known copies (and some fragments) of Thel, most of which were printed about 1789 ̶ 1790. All of them were etched in relief  and watercoloured by hand . The copies thus differ from each other and none of them has the same colouring which gives each copy a special tone (in my research I focused on copies B and J).
The design on the title page represents Thel in her innocent state.
The design corresponds with Thel᾽s Motto on the opposite page, as the soaring eagles and the floating human beings represent the imaginative aspect of human existence, which is the Wisdom in the motto. The sensual aspect is represented by the Cloud, "fair eyed dew" and flowers. In this stage, Thel has not decided yet what her role is going to be, so she is standing apart from these two aspects.
When two copies are compared (B and J), their colouring is very different. In my opinion, in copy J, the ground on which Thel is standing looks like a river bank (in yellow and brown colours) and the river itself (or a spring) can be seen behind her (in various kinds of blue). In B, there is not any land and it looks like Thel is standing in the water. Or it seems to me that the perspective was changed a bit. In J, we are looking on the scene a bit more from above, able to see the river in its length and shape. In B, we are standing quite lower (on the edge of a cliff?), only able to see a distant blue colour, which may be water. I would also suggest that the time in B and J is not the same. In B, the sky is very light blue with pink shades, reminding me of a sunset. In J, the sky is very light and without any touches of a setting sun, so it is probably midday. Both versions, I would say, give different impressions to the reader. J looks more fresh, dynamic or vivid, B suggests that the text would be more romantic and more calm.
As far as other copies are concerned, none of them are alike. The colouring varies from copy to copy, creating a different background, adding or leaving out the shades of the figures. Blake was used to using three main colours on one design and then blending them. Copy J consists of blue, yellow-green and crimson, while B of blue, pink and a little green.
Another plate with a design is plate 4
I would say that it is a pity not to see the underground into which Thel was not afraid to look accompanied by the Clod. Blake decided not to depict this scene and etched a giant serpent at the end of the text in plate 6 instead of it.
4. Jan Konůpek and his designs for The Book of Thel
During his life, Konůpek was under the influence of various artistic styles. In his early age, he read Czech literature of symbolism and decadence. While studying at university, he was influenced by his teacher Max Pirner, concentrated on graphic design, typography and illustration and his work resulted from ornamental secession. After establishing Sursum, he produced graphics resembling current wave of cubism and expressionism. After becoming a professor, he found new inspiration in modern art and started using some means of expression of abstraction and surrealism. In this time he discovered William Blake and his illuminated books and decided to illustrate one of them.
For whole his life, Konůpek was fascinated by depths of the unconscious and the heights of the supersensory, by the extremes of human psyche, by the domain of dark passions, impulses and instincts and by eroticism and death. Description and depiction of wanderings of the human soul was another Konůpek᾽s scope. His women resemble or are designed to look like an abstract spirituality floating somewhere between the two worlds.
Some of the facts mentioned above are in agreement with Blake. It is mainly the glaring similarity in both men᾽s education as engravers and graphic artists and their admiration of similar topics. Konůpek probably found a soul mate in Blake, who would (with a high probability) agree with him in some points (if not in all, at least in some of them). Konůpek found the connection between himself and Blake in illustrating Thel, a work containing his favourite topic of a wandering soul, in which sense he probably understood it.
Konůpek drew only two designs for The Book of Thel. The first one
The second design
5. The comparison
When we compare Konůpek᾽s illustrations with those of Blake, some striking differences can be seen on the first sight. Firstly, Konůpek decided not to depict the same scenes as Blake and chose other situations from the text. Konůpek᾽s scene with the Cloud takes place a bit earlier than Blake᾽s one, as the Cloud is still there, talking to Thel and the Worm is not there yet. On the other hand, Konůpek let Thel to raise her arm according to Blake᾽s Thel, so both scenes are not far from each other, as Thel in Konůpek᾽s design is probably also saying her goodbye to the Cloud. If not, she could also be greeting the Cloud and in that case, Thel in Blake᾽s design could be greeting the Worm and not saying goodbye to the Cloud.
Secondly, Konůpek᾽s and Blake᾽s Clouds look like two different characters. Blake᾽s Cloud is a young trouble-free man, flying happily in the air. Konůpek᾽s Cloud is much more distinguished and respectable. He has his duties and being very busy, only slacks up his chariot to say what he has to Thel and very quickly continues on his way.
Thirdly, and what I find really interesting, Thel herself looks very different when all Blake᾽s and Konůpek᾽s designs are compared. Blake᾽s Thel is a beautiful frailty esence, looking very femininely with her airy dress and long curly hair. She is also very young, full of life and represents her innocent state very clearly. In the comparison, Konůpek᾽s Thel is very tall, stiff, rawboned and even ill-looking creature, having no signs of being a woman at all (no hips and no breasts), with her head, chin and neck tightly covered with a cloth, almost like having some kind of unpleasant illness. Her hands are wrinkled and her cheekbones are sharp and visible.
And finally, the atmosphere in Blake᾽s designs is, in my opinion, much more positive and lite than in those of Konůpek. Especially when we take copy B to compare. Stormy copy J approximates to Konůpek᾽s windy atmosphere a bit more, but it still does not reach a similar feeling from it. While looking at Konůpek᾽s designs, I feel breathless and desperate. Something really negative is going on here, even the nature has adapted to it, having bare branches and keeping itself stuck to the ground. Like if the wind was blowing so strongly all the time. Blake᾽s designs make me feel more comfortable and relaxed and let me just watch Thel᾽s story without being nervous.
It looks like Blake᾽s Thel is innocence itself, while Konůpek᾽s Thel has already realized something. But this interpretation would not make sense, if we understood the poem like this, because Thel escapes from experience and before that she is still innocent. In my opinion, Konůpek did not understand The Book of Thel as a path from innocence to experience, but as a path from life to death and the fear of it. If I am right and Konůpek᾽s Thel is really ill (and she knows she is maybe going to die), then it would make sense to depict her like that.
We cannot work with Konůpek᾽s serious illness in his last years, because in 1935, when The Book of Thel with is illustrations was published, he was not ill yet. But we can work with the year 1935 itself, because the oppressive situation before WWII in Europe has already crept into people᾽s lives and Konůpek could take Thel᾽s journey to the underground as metaphor to express everybody᾽s fear of fascism or of war itself. Or he could draw Thel᾽s bony body as a symbol of broken ideals.
Blake᾽s Thel and Konůpek᾽s Thel are, in fact, distinctive in one important thing ̶ they are not designed to represent the same. As we know, Blake had an unusual personality which was shaped by many various influences from various times and countries and his understanding of the divine and of God was not typical in his time. In the 18th century, people were taught that God is great and powerful, that he sits on a throne above the sky and sees everybody and everything, rules over people᾽s souls and creates their faiths. In other words, they believed that God is a distant untouchable entity, incomparable with an ordinary man and, except for prayers, completely unreachable.
But Blake, being also confident about Greek attitude towards this matter, saw God not from a point of a fearful creature, but raised himself up, next to God᾽s throne on a divine level and also sometimes invited God down here to the earth to accompany him in his life. So, Blake᾽s and God᾽s lives are interconnected differently, they are treated equally, almost like they were strolling on earth᾽s surface side by side (like in Ancient Greece). Blake᾽s Thel is then a composition of a human part and a divine part in one body and here on earth, maybe that is why the atmosphere is clearer here.
Konůpek, living in the 20th century, and also believing in God, did not have the same point of view. His God reminds that from Blake᾽s period more ̶ a distant overruling entity, having nothing in common with humans. That is why he understood and designed Thel like this. Konůpek᾽s Thel is only one incomplete half, longing for the other one and looking towards it in the sky. That is why the atmosphere here is so desperate, Thel is not ill physically, but it is her soul, which needs to be healed and completed.
So, it does not have to mean that gloomy looking atmosphere always suggests something negative to happen. When taken metaphorically, if there is a storm coming, we never know what it will bring. What we know is that something is going to be changed for sure, but whether it is going to be negative or positive, that is a question.
The only thing about Thel I can consider to be similar in Blake᾽s and in Konůpek᾽s designs is the time in both. Neither Blake᾽s designs, not Konůpek᾽s take place in a real world and in real time. The poem itself firstly tells us about the Vale of Har, which is an abstract place (and we are not sure where it is) and then everything takes place somewhere out of it. It seems that in this point both artists decided to build a mythical space without time we could count and without place we could step on. If I wanted to complete this idea, I could even say that the story takes place somewhere on a distant planet, where everything is turned upside down and where time runs backwards or does not go at all.
Konůpek, in his illustrations to Thel, definitely chose a path different from that of Blake's and it is only upon the reader whether he or she considers Konůpek᾽s illustrations to go with the text or not. In my opinion, his illustrations are not completely wrong and Konůpek surely understood some of Blake᾽s principles and tried to suit his designs to them. But illustrating The Book of Thel was only one of many of his commissions and he simply could not have studied Blake so deeply before.
It is important to say that ideas, which I presented in this article, are only speculations and I do not have any proofs for them. The fact is that there is only one text and two completely different illustrations of it, each expressing something else and creating very different views to the text. So, in my opinion, Konůpek᾽s contribution is quite obvious: he provides the reader another possible interpretation of The Book of Thel, maybe he even creates one, because Blake surely did not mean it to be interpreted like that. He establishes a new point of view to Blake's poetry, a bit darker one, and I really appreciate that he also shows us what might have happened in the story by choosing parts which Blake did not choose. The last part of the text, where Thel visits the underground is still a mystery and maybe for Konůpek it was a kind of a riddle too. And thank to his imagination we had the opportunity to look behind the curtain of time and for a little while see, what might have been a sort of Thel's destiny.
Konůpek, as an artist, also undoubtedly proves that Blake᾽s poetry belongs among that of Shakespeare or of other authors whose works seem to bear up against time and are periodically being re-discovered and admired for their topicality.
To conclude, I find Konůpek᾽s illustrations a good-quality attempt to deal with Blakean vague philosophy and principles and it is a pity that he did not illustrate more of Illuminated books (as far as I know). And I hope to find some other artists in the future who would take some of Illuminated Books and try to do the same.
7. Full version of The Book of Thel
Thel's Motto Does the Eagle know what is in the pit, Or wilt thou go ask the Mole? Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod, Or Love in a golden bowl?
The Book of Thel
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks,
'O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Like a reflection in a glass, like shadows in the water,
The Lilly of the Valley, breathing in the humble grass,
And I am very small and love to dwell in lowly vales;
To flourish in eternal vales". Then why should Thel complain?
Thel answer'd: 'O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley,
Thy wine doth purify the golden honey; thy perfume,
'Queen of the vales,' the Lilly answer'd, 'ask the tender cloud,
Descend, O little cloud, & hover before the eyes of Thel.'
the Cloud descended, and the Lilly bow'd her modest head,
'O little cloud,' the virgin said, 'I charge thee to tell to me
The Cloud then shew'd his golden head, & his bright form emerg'd,
Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel:
'O virgin, know'st thou not? Our steeds drink of the golden springs
The weeping virgin trembling kneels before the riding sun,
'Dost thou, O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee;
And all shall say, "Without a use this shining woman liv'd,
The Cloud reclin'd upon his airy throne and answer'd thus:
'Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies,
The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lilly's leaf,
Then Thel astonish'd view'd the Worm upon its dewy bed:
The Clod of Clay heard the Worm's voice, & rais'd her pitying head;
'O beauty of the vales of Har, we live not for ourselves.
And I have given thee a crown that none can take away."
The daughter of beauty wip'd her pitying tears with her white veil,
'Queen of the vales,' the matron Clay answer'd, 'I heard thy sighs,
The eternal gates' terrific porter lifted the northern bar.
A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.
She wander'd in the land of clouds thro' valleys dark, list'ning
'Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?
Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?
The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek
Jan Konůpek was born in 1883 in Mladá Boleslav. Between the years 1903 ̶ 1908 he studied architecture and painting in Prague and specialized in graphic art, especially in copper etching. In 1910 he, with other artists (such as Jan Zrzavý, František Kobliha or Josef Váchal), established so called Sursum Artists Association and holded his first exhibitions. He holded another one in 1911 and in the same year he established a graphic magazine called Veraikon. In 1917 his most successful graphic cycle appeared, called Hamlet. In 1923 he started working in a state school of graphic art in Prague and stayed there until 1949 when he became seriously ill. He died in 1950 in Nové město nad Metují.
William Blake's Illuminated Books
The full text of the story can be found in app. 1
In his book called The Illuminated Books of William Blake
In her book called William Blake: The Book of Thel ̶ A Fascimile and a Critical Text
In his book called A Blake Dictionary – The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake
Relief etching is a reversal of the traditional etching method: An artist takes the same metal plate, but he does not really engrave into the surface, but draws (with pens and brushes) on the plate using a acid-resistant medium. So, the artist does not create a trench in the plate, but he creates a relief on its surface. Then the plate is dipped into acid and then cleaned. The surface is damaged by the acid, but the reliefs remains visible, they stand in relief and they are ready to be inked and then printed on paper. The final product is more precise and elaborate than ordinary printed etching was.
Blake used outlines to see where to use a colour and they were not obscured by it. The paint was distributed over the print by a camel brush with a technique called limning (very similar to washing). The paint itself consisted of finely ground pigments mixed in water with a fixative. By using this technique, Blake managed to break the rigid uniformity imposed on almost all commercial book illustrations caused by mechanical means of their production.
see app. 1
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. New York: Alfred & Knopf, 1996.
Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. Prague: Paseka, 2000. Translation: Sylva Ficová
Bentley, G. E. Jr. The Stranger from Paradise – A Biography of William Blake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003
Blake, William. The Complete Illuminated Books. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002
Blake, William. William Blake 1757 – 1827. Prague: Správa Pražského hradu, 2000.
Blake, William. Kniha Thel. Přerov: Knihtiskárna Františka Bartoše, 1935
Bogan, Nancy. William Blake: The Book of Thel ̶ A Fascimile and a Critical Text. Providence: Brown University Press, 1971
Bouček, V. Grafik jan Konůpek. Kutná Hora: Východočeská tiskárna, spol. s r. o., 2003
Damon, S. Foster. A Blake Dictionary – The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., inc., 1971.
Erdman, D. The Illuminated Blake ̶ William Blake᾽s Complete Illuminated Books with a Plate- by-Plate Commentary. New York: Dover Publications, inc., 1974
Essick, R. N. William Blake: Printmaker. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry – A Study of William Blake. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Gilchrist, A. Life of William Blake. England: 1880
Hagstrum, Jean H. William Blake. Poet and Paiter. An introduction to the illuminated verse. University of Chicago, 1964
Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake᾽s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Yale University Press, 1978
Larvová, H. Jan Konůpek: Poutník k nekonečnu. Praha: Trico, 1998
Smith, J. T. Nollekens and his times: comprehending a life of that celebrated sculptor; and memoirs of several contemporary artists, from the time of Roubiliac, Hogarth, and Reynolds, to that of Fuseli, Flaxman, And Blake. London: Henry Colburn, 1829
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