About one-hundred miles north of Atlanta, a colorful, otherworldly folk art environment stands in Summerville, Georgia. Self-taught artist Howard Finster (1916-2001) began work on his Paradise Garden in 1961, using materials such as glass, concrete, and discarded objects to create six sacred buildings. Today, the site remains as a monument to Finster’s prolific life, religious fervor, and distinctive artworks.
Finster believed himself in communication with the divine and drew inspiration from his visions. Recurrent in Finster’s oeuvre are images of biblical characters, Christian mythology, and apocalyptic monsters alongside more recent cultural touchstones, such as American politicians and capitalist consumer goods. Much of Finster’s artwork formally intertwines visual iconography with written text–often prophetic–to create hybrid objects.
Though the term has different resonances in different contexts, Finster shares the title “visionary artist” with William Blake. In spite of a distance spanning centuries, Finster and Blake have more than their visionary status in common. The two artists populate their works with both sacred and profane figures; they move freely between text and image in their large quantities of work; perhaps most notably, both bring remarkably imaginative and idiosyncratic perspectives to their art.
Howard Finster, Heaven and Hell #6000.233, 1987. Mixed media on wood. High Museum of Art.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Object 1 Copy A, Printed 1790. Relief and white-line etching with hand tinting in water colors. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
My exploration of the resonances between Finster and Blake builds upon Norman Girardot’s Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World. In this text, Girardot traces “Finster’s affinities with Blake’s artistic explorations of visionary worlds,” and foregrounds that “the comparison of Finster and Blake as astronauts of visionary experience will surface throughout [the] book.” Blake’s work acts as a framing device for Girardot’s analysis of Finster, clarifying the 20th-century self-taught artist’s practice via comparison.
Both, Girardot finds, are “communicating with spirits” as “exuberantly busy [men] on a celestial mission,” equipped with a shared “penchant for evoking something surprisingly mysterious and interestingly provocative.” He identifies the artists’ shared motivations: “For visionaries like Blake and Finster, extraordinary visionary experience of other celestial and remarkable worlds becomes a regular and often intense aspect of life, accompanied by a pressing need to communicate those visions to others.” The echoes of Blake in Finster’s work prompt Girardot’s characterization of the latter as “a backwoods Blakean visionary cartoonist.”
I expand on Girardot’s analysis by providing images for direct formal comparison. Though Blake and Finster utilize visibly different technical methods in their art-making, I focus on similarities in my selections. In hellish scenes, figures churn and contort. Monstrous beasts look on as writhing serpents coil around unfortunate sinners. Blake and Finster conjure whirling, dark, atmospheric landscapes full of torment and apocalyptic damnation.
Left column, top to bottom:
Howard Finster, Vision of a Great Gulf on Planet Hell, 1980. Enamel on plywood with painted frame. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
William Blake, “Vanni Fucci Making Figs Against God,” Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1824-27. Pen and ink and water colors over pencil. National Gallery of Victoria.
Howard Finster, Sneakers (#2000.224), 1982. Tractor enamel on board. Collection of John Denton.
William Blake, “The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca Da Rimini,” Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1824-27. Pen and ink and water colors over pencil. Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.
William Blake, “The Old Dragon,” Illustrations to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, The Butts Set, c. 1815. Pen and water color. Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery.
Howard Finster, A Feeling of Darkness, 1982. Tractor enamel on wood. Photograph Jim Prinz. Courtesy of the Arient Family Collection.
Equally compelling are the two artists’ depictions of paradisiacal dreamscapes. Radiating light beams, winged seraphs, heavenly beings, cosmic bodies, and anthropomorphized entities fill these abundant compositions.
Left column, top to bottom:
Howard Finster, Biblical Narrative Painting, 1978. Oil on masonite. Smithsonian American Art.
William Blake, “Jacob’s Dream,” Water Color Drawings Illustrating the Bible, c. 1805. British Museum.
Howard Finster, Jacob’s Ladder, #2,281, 1982. Enamel and glitter on board with oval decorated plywood attachment.
William Blake, “Job Confessing His Presumption to God Who Answers from the Whirlwind,” Water Color Drawings Illustrating the Bible. c. 1803-05. National Gallery of Scotland.
William Blake, “The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns Before the Divine Throne,” Water Color Drawings Illustrating the Bible. c. 1803-05. Tate Collection.
Howard Finster, Emages of Visions of Other Worlds Beyond, 1983. Arient Family Collection.
The artists’ most striking formal parallels appear when comparing their depictions of angels. These androgynous, sacred figures appear with curvilinear, swooping bodies. Oftentimes, Blake and Finster elongate angels’ bodies, covering them with lengthy, draped, monochromatic tunics. Other times, cherubs appear with childlike, truncated, nude bodies.
A case study of these angels exemplifies how both artists produce series of the same pictorial form in variant colors and editions. One might encounter the same shape of Finster angel wearing bright pink, vibrant blue, or rainbow garments. The basic iconic form lends itself to replication, while color remains dynamic and subject to change depending on Finster’s vision. Likewise, Blake’s illustrations of “The Angel” in Songs of Innocence and Experience employ a wide array of color combinations to animate the same printed linear composition.
Left column, top to bottom:
William Blake, “The Angel,” Songs of Innocence and of Experience Copy L, 1795. Yale Center for British Art.
Howard Finster, The Angel of the Lord, #10,000, 1987-1989. High Museum of Art.
William Blake, Europe a Prophecy Copy A, Object 5, 1795. Yale Center for British Art.
Howard Finster, Baby’s Angel, c. 1990. Private collection of Frederica Mathewes-Green.
William Blake, Night IX, page 101, Illustrations to Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” Copy 1, c. 1795-97. British Museum.
Howard Finster, New Year’s Baby Angel, c. 1990.
William Blake, Night IV, page 19, Illustrations to Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts” Copy 1, c. 1795-97. British Museum.
Howard Finster, Finster’s Angels, n.d. The Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art.
William Blake, “The Angel,” Songs of Innocence and of Experience Copy AA, 1926. Fitzwilliam Museum.
Howard Finster, Matthew Arient’s Angel #6927, 1987. Tractor enamel on wood. Collection of Matthew J. Arient.
Howard Finster, Angel #34,000.938, 1994. Private collection.
This post is part of a series examining Blake’s influence in twentieth-century American art. The first post is available here.
Girardot, Norman. Envisioning Howard Finster: The Religion and Art of a Stranger from Another World. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.