Published  05/05/2006

Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination

Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination

Tate Britain, London
15 February-1 May 2006

What fascinates us in an artwork? One answer to this question is content that conveys a sense of harmony and rightness: summer landscapes bathed in sunshine; human beauty, strength and agility; stories that show compassion and virtue rewarded; all things that please, reassure and comfort us with life-affirming visions of the world. But this is not all. How else do we explain the enduring popularity of ghost stories, horror films, human monsters and The Silence of the Lambs? We have to admit to a corresponding fascination for the ugly, the destructive and the macabre, resulting in extreme cases of what Ruskin famously called 'an insane and wolf-like gloating over the garbage of death'.

During the period 1770-1830, British culture became preoccupied with a curious range of such themes. They featured frightening or horrific subjects, such as ghosts, witches, phantoms and malign manifestations of the supernatural. They also included subjects that, although not malign, were regarded as overwhelming or awesome, such as volcanoes, storms, waterfalls, and concepts such as astronomical infinity. In critical terminology, these themes became loosely grouped in a category referred to as 'the Sublime'. The Beautiful in art and nature left one with a feeling of pleasure, satisfaction and fulfilment; the Sublime, on the other hand, often evoked feelings of unease, awe, fear or revulsion; and yet one felt an 'agreeable horror' in their contemplation.

The broad area of the Sublime may be subdivided into, on the one hand, naturally occurring phenomena such as volcanoes and storms, which are awesome without human intervention; and on the other, those things that may be said to arise from human action or the human psyche: phantoms, witches, goblins, extreme evil and the destructive forces of human passion. This exhibition explores the latter phenomenon with particular reference to the work of three close contemporaries: Fuseli, Blake and Gillray.

Fuseli was one of those remarkable émigrés whom Britain has so willingly taken to its bosom, and who then went on to become a major formative influence upon British culture. He was Swiss by birth and settled in London after a period of study in Italy. He became a figure of major importance in British art and art education, becoming a member of the Royal Academy and, subsequently, Professor of Painting and Keeper. As such, and through his extensive writings on art, he exerted continuing influence on a generation of British artists as superficially remote from his own tastes as Turner and Constable.

Fuseli's painting 'The Nightmare' dominates the exhibition. A beautiful, lightly clad girl lies prostrate on a bed or couch. Her arms hang lifelessly, with her fingers resting limply on the floor. Her eyes are closed and her mouth falls open. Her golden hair cascades down behind her. Her bosom heaves beneath a scanty chemise. Perched grimly upon her stomach is a hunched semi-human gargoyle of a being, which glares at the spectator with an expression of gloating satisfaction. A sightless horse, the proverbial 'nightmare' thrusts its grotesque head between the curtains surrounding the scene, paradoxically a blind witness to this macabre event.

The image brings together many of the recurrent preoccupations of what became known as the Gothic. It evokes a threatening and anomalous being, having some human attributes, but not fully human; it juxtaposes ravishing beauty with grotesque ugliness; it takes place in the domain of night and sleep, when reason and clarity recede and we become vulnerable to the forces of darkness; it generates a sense of impending disaster.

In the art and culture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we find two powerful yet contradictory forces. On the one hand, there are the fruits of the Enlightenment, and the exercise of reason in the achievements of science, technology and philosophy, creating a vision that gave hope for the realisation of utopia. On the other hand, we find a strengthening and deepening of interest in all those human traits that militate against reason: the irrational, the nightmare, spectres, violence and the grotesque. In that age, these flights of the imagination did not appear to be susceptible to reason and logic. They did not fit into any scientific system of enquiry or understanding. It was not until a century later, with the development of psychology and the birth of psychoanalysis, that we find any empirical and scientific system attempting to cope with them.

Artists with a taste for the Gothic ransacked art, literature and history for suitable subjects. Of particular interest were obscure periods of medieval history, Shakespeare's supernatural themes, such as those in Macbeth, folklore and the Old Testament. This journey into the unknown often led to very basic themes that appeared to unify this otherwise disparate subject matter. There were dark, powerful forces at play, over which we have little control. They burst forth in acts of terrible violence and brutality. Sex played a prominent role here, as a force that was not completely subject to social or rational control and could break out with terrible destructive force upon personal lives and social arrangements.

The theme of sexuality, which features so prominently, resulted in imagery that is both powerful and explicit. These images are not 'erotic' in the sense of arousing pleasurable admiration or wonder; nor are they 'pornographic' in the modern sense of degraded erotic imagery of no intrinsic merit intended to do no more than arouse or stimulate sexual appetite. The preoccupation with sexuality is visible, albeit in a literally veiled form, in a painting like 'The Nightmare'. It is more rampant and explicit in other images, not only in the high art of Fuseli and his circle, but in the caricature images of popular prints which fed upon it, such as those of Gillray. It is not surprising that the Victorian public later came to find much of the art of this period disturbing or obscene, leading Ruskin, as Turner's executor, to destroy an unknown number of his drawings in the genre.

The theme of the breakdown of social order resulting in violence and brutality led artists back to classical and medieval themes with those ingredients. We have to remind ourselves that the artists of the period lived through one of the most threatening and turbulent periods in history. For more than two decades, Europe was thrown into the turmoil of the French Revolution, which soon spilt over into the wars and territorial ambitions of France. The old social and political orders, with all their faults, often crumbled away leaving nothing but chaos and destruction.

One question I always ask myself on visiting an exhibition is whether I would like to own or live with any of the work presented. In this case, I must confess that there was little to which I could give an unhesitating affirmative. Although much of the work is 'interesting' - a word detested by many artists - there was little to warm the cockles of an aesthete's heart. Many of the exhibits could be described as powerful, dynamic and inspired, but much was equally repellent and disturbing. Fuseli's large subject pictures draw heavily upon his time in Rome, with exaggerated reminiscences of Michelangelo and the manieri. Over-musculated figures strut and strain as they emerge from the pervasive gloom of the canvas. Blake similarly coined a fanciful and exaggerated anatomy of his own, which seems to bear very little resemblance to Gray's.

The dark forces that so preoccupied the artists of the period remain vividly with us today. Popular literature and film constantly dwell upon the supernatural, the perverted and the destructive. Sex continues to have the power to destroy lives, to bring down politicians and, indeed, governments. On the day I visited the exhibition - 10 March 2006 - the lead item on the news was the death of Profumo. His story epitomises the perennial destructive power of sexual appetite. At almost half a century after the event, the thing we remember when all else is forgotten is this inexorable force and its consequences. The newspaper placard at the exit from Pimlico station on my way to the Tate proclaimed simply, 'SEX SCANDAL MINISTER DEAD'. This is the epitaph by which he will be remembered. Perhaps a tragic and suitable theme for a Gothic artist.

Clive Ashwin

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