William Blake's Laocoon: The Genealogy of a Form
University of Kansas
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The purpose of this dissertation is to explore the relationship between the British artist and poet William Blake and the art of Antiquity, in particular the Laocoön sculpture group in the Museo Pio-Clementino in Rome. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Blake never saw the work firsthand, but he knew of it through the writings of such prominent eighteenth-century art theorists as Winckelmann, Lessing and Fuseli, and from plaster casts in the Royal Academy collections. The recurrence of the Laocoöntic gesture in his art and illuminated poetry testifies to its powerful hold on his imagination, and my goal is to ascertain the significance of this gesture in relation to his own theories of art and, more particularly, his prophetic writings. The first two chapters discuss the sculpture in the broader context of late eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, art historiography, and Anglo-French nationalism. This includes a detailed discussion of the popular debate surrounding the semiotics of graphic and textual representation, a debate that has long been at the center of Blake studies, since his prophetic books consist of both visual and verbal elements. Further attention is given to the prominence of the sculpture in the development of neoclassical taste and the privileging of the Greek ideal in the art academies of England and France. Both countries adopted this ideal as a way to give cultural legitimacy to their respective geopolitical and economic ambitions. Blake's writings on art reveal his keen awareness and interest in these debates, culminating in his remarkable engraving of the Laocoön surrounded by a dense, disjointed textual apparatus that addresses all these concerns. Chapters three and four deal specifically with the recurrence of the Laocoöntic gesture in Blake's graphic work and illuminated poetry. I begin by explaining the rationale behind such formulaic repetitions as the foundation for an elaborate expressive code that assigns specific meanings to the gesture, and then trace these meanings in several of the illuminated prophecies, starting first with the shorter Lambeth books (America, Europe, and The Book of Urizen), and then proceeding to a chapter-length study of the Four Zoas manuscript, a work that has received less critical attention than his two other epic-length prophecies, Milton and Jerusalem. My primary point in these readings is that, in the same way the sculpture came to symbolize for Blake ideal beauty degraded by imperialism and war, in the illuminated poetry the same figure represents humanity in both its fallen and redemptive states.
- Dissertations 
- English Dissertations and Theses 
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