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April 11, 2006

Christie Davies laughs at the serious paintings and takes the cartoons seriously: Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, 1770 - 1830 at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, 1770 - 1830
Tate Britain, London
15th February - 1st May 2006
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

This excellent exhibition will not give you nightmares but it will make you laugh. Even in the period 1770 - 1830 when these Gothic paintings and drawings were created, they frequently amused the critics. It is to the credit of the curators that they have hung Gillray and Rowlandson caricatures alongside the very works by Fuseli and Blake whose images they are using and mocking.

The exhibition begins appropriately with The Nightmare 1782 by Henry Fuseli. A brightly lit young woman in a loose yet figure revealing white robe lies swooned upon a couch. A scowling creature squats on her abdomen looking like a cross between the Lincoln imp and a monkey. A phantom mare peers through the curtains and neighs like Picasso, the pun on mare for stallion and "mara", imp, from which is derived "nightmare". Such a mare is also the vehicle on which incubi escaped, riding and flying out through the window after penetrating bewitched women in medieval times, leaving them shocked, exhausted and satiated as in Henry Fuseli's An Incubus leaving Two Sleeping Women 1810. Fuseli used to eat pork chops at night to power the dreams that inspired these images.

Fuseli's works are well executed and before we dismiss them as foolish anachronisms, we should remember that such beliefs are still expounded today by a psychiatrist at Harvard University. The modern version of Fuseli is a nightmare in which people have been abducted by aliens and taken off in a space ship to have eggs or sperm extracted from them by alien experimenters intent on growing human beings in a laboratory. Imps and sex have given way to little green aliens and artificial fertilisation by forced donation. Nothing new under Alpha Centuri.

Most of us dismiss such dreams as a case of "the computer has performed an illegal operation and is going to shut down". But Harvard dons seem to say that there really are aliens and that people really are kidnapped and operated on because that is what they experienced. We must not, it is implied, "privilege" science over feeling.

It is the same reasoning that lay behind Harvard's forcing the resignation of its President Lawrence Summers for saying that women but rarely truly excel at mathematics and physics. All the statistical evidence and indeed that from examining in detail the working of the brain of those autistics with "hyper-masculine" thinking indicate that this is true. I have tried and failed to explain to a female colleague, one rightly renowned for her achievements in both law and modern languages, how to back her car out of the car park. She is a far better driver than I am but she still can not understand that the car goes the way the wheels go and not where the boot is pointing. However, Harvard believes we should not "privilege" science over feeling and poor Summers had to go.

Underlying both cases is the American dogma of equality. The views of those who believe literally that they have been abducted by aliens must be true because it feels true to them and all truths are equal. Pomo! Pomo! All is pomo!

I try to be broad-minded but I tell you, guv, some of these Pomos give me the creeps. I'm not prejudiced, guvnor, but would you want to have one of them in the back of yer cab?
If any aliens are reading this and wish to breed top female mathematicians, I would suggest adding small doses of the appropriate male hormones at the right stage to the artificial womb in which the female foetus is developing. It will also reduce the chances of miscarriage, which was why it has been done by humans in the first place. It may or may not work and I take no responsibility.

But I digress. My apologies for this digression to both alien and female readers and to any members of the Harvard faculty who happen to have been sectioned. For real amusement look at Thomas Rowlandson's The Covent Garden Nightmare 1784, James Gillray's Duke William's Ghost, 1799 or M.G's Fatal Effects of Gluttony, A Lord Mayor's Day Nightmare.

Rowlandson shows a naked, effeminate, chubby-fat Charles James Fox dumped on a bed lacking both body hair and his usual stubble. The imp looks like an Australian ocker in his faded vest and the horse has a comic, knowing look. Dice and dice thrower sit on a table next to the notoriously indebted gambler's bed. It was executed just before Fox's Westminster election in 1784 and just after Fuseli's The Nightmare had been reproduced as an engraving.

Gillray shows George Prince of Wales sprawling drunk and fully clothed on a dishevelled bed surrounded by empty bottles and spilt wine. By the bed stands the deceased William Augustus Duke of York (1721-65) in military hat and sword but mainly concerned to display his enormous wine-fed white bottom to us. He holds up an hour-glass running low to indicate to Prince George the wages of dissipation. Duke William's ghost is a masterpiece made up of many different irregular coloured hummocks of cloth and sheet framed in red bed curtains thrust aside by the Duke's ghost emerging from a spinach-green cloud.

Finally M.G. shows us an uneasily sleeping City alderman. A huge turtle of the soup kind sits heavy on his chest, a lobster tweaks his nose. He is surrounded by the angry phantoms of all the birds and animals he has over-eaten; they are helpfully listed in the menu on the table beside him. The Nightmare 1782 by Fuseli was so well known and so striking that it provided an obvious reference point for all the caricaturists of London.

There follow in the exhibition a section entitled "perverse classicism" in which classical themes and images are turned to gothic ends. The perversity slightly relieves the boredom of the classicism. There is much here for the devotees of BDSM such as Maria Cosway's drawing of Saint Erasmus being disembowelled using a windlass. Henry Fuseli's Brunhilde watching Gunther suspended from the ceiling on their Wedding Night is perhaps the most bizarre of many traditional German fetish images from the Niebelungenlied. On their wedding night the dominatrix Brunhilde wrestled her husband Gunther into submission, tied up his hands and feet and hung him naked from the ceiling. I am told by German colleagues that you can still have this done to you for a mere 300 Euros by asking for Domina Brunhilde at the Niebelungenliedklub in Essen (knock thrice and give as a password the phrase "An Adler is almost a Geyer" in German). In Henry Fuseli's picture Brunhilde lies on her couch in a half-turned, buttock-pubic-region revealing position while giving him a sexy smile. The position and activity of her right hand are unclear. Her face glistens with desire and her eyes are focused on Gunther's genitalia, which are fortunately not facing in our direction. Fuseli's Siegfried and Kriemheld 1807 seems to be moving towards a similar climax.

Near it hangs William Blake's The Blasphemer 1800 in which a naked man is stoned to death by bearded men in long robes with an Old Testament look about them. It has a wonderful planned symmetry about it – the swirl of the gowns, the lined up, high held arms that all hurl together like fast bowlers, the menacing smoke. You would have to go to Saudi or Iran to see the likes of that today.

Fuseli's erotic work culminates in a curtained-off section marked "please be aware that this area contains sexually explicit material". I can not tell you anything about this section, since I was unable to get into it. I am far too polite and timid to have forced my way through the heavy crowd of tightly packed middle-class-and-aged ladies inside the enclosure with the unwanted degree of physical proximity, contact and indeed pressure that this would have led to. All I could see from a distance was that the pictures seemed to be well hung.

There are also many large historical paintings by Fuseli in the exhibition notably Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester disputing the Division of England, 1784 in which the three rebels against Henry IV quarrel over the familiar map of Shakespeare's twisting Trent. Glendower, bearded and hooded like Myrddin Wyllt, as fiercely eyebrowed as a Presbyterian parch, points to the sky that had shuddered at his birth and gestures at the map. The others might as well not be there. What wonderful things racial stereotypes are for painters like Fuseli who use them with such insight. How Fuseli's painting evokes the memory of the foul mutilation of the men of Hereford's corpses after the battle of Bryn Glas by the savage female followers of Owain Glyndŵr, whose collective brutality is still gloated over by the unrepentant harpies of Machynlleth. The lighting and posture suggest that Fuseli must have based Shakespeare's Glendower on some half-remembered paintings of a mad saint in an Italian church.

Less successful is Fuseli's The Oath on the Ruttli 1779-1780 where in 1307 the Swiss cantons swore an oath to resist Austrian tyranny. It is now in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, Fuseli's home town where it still inspires the over-emotional and excitable, zealously car-polishing, Swiss bourgeoisie, men who seven hundred years later still routinely address one another as Eidgenosse in honour of that day. Everyday in the streets around the banks of Zurich you can hear the passers by saying gnomically:

Guten Morgen, Herr Eidgenosse!

Guten Morgen, Herr Eidgenosse!

Wiefiel, Herr Eidgenosse?

Hôtel, Herr Eidgenosse?

There is a further roomful called "Gloomth" (Horace Walpole's word) which is full of Doomth, Tombth and even a little bit of Oomph in Richard Cosway's A Nun Surprising a Monk Kissing a Nun in a Church Interior, circa 1785 - 1800. You can't see much in the gloomth, though. Gillray, that master of uglification, gets it right in Tales of Wonder 1802.

It is followed by a room of "Witches and Apparitions" dominated by Fuseli's The Weird Sisters or the Three Witches (from Macbeth) 1783. Three dramatically pointing arms with Caledonian noses in parallel, tanned faces in the light, softer sleeves below. A splendid picture but once again a gift to the caricaturists. The witches were soon to reappear as Dundas, Pitt and Thurlow in James Gillray's Weird Sisters 1791 and once again in Phantasmogaria 1803. During the Napoleonic wars Gillray was once again to pursue Blake's revolutionary excesses with excesses of his own but to far better effect. Blake is a bore, Gillray a joy.

A very entertaining exhibition that ends with a consideration of how these artists influenced the makers of horror films in our own day. Here are to be seen the German films of the 1920s known as funf, poised between fear and sex. Also don't miss the delightful reconstructed 1800s phantasmagoria in which comic and horrorific images parade around a circular screen to bagpipe music, much as they would have done two hundred years ago.

Christie Davies is the author of Dewi the Dragon, Y Lolfa, 2006, a tale of the weird, the supernatural and the fantastic set in wildest Wales; its high-powered heroine Dr Mabel Wong, an internationally famous scientist, is guaranteed to make even feminists swoon in admiration.


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Is there no end to the degenerate filth that the Tate is wiling to exhibit? Fuseli's depiction of Gunther and Brunhilde from the Niebelungenlied is as horrifying as Christie Davies' cynical gibe about the sex-life of Essen coupled with Nietzsche's snide comment on Wagner's paternity. Is nothing sacred? Davies may well be right about women and their inadequacies but why use this to attack the perfectlly reasonable view that the earth is visited by aliens. That the Tate should have a special section on Fuseli's pornography is a disgrace and it is even worse to learn that it was crowded with women. Feminism has a lot to answer for.

Posted by: David Williams at April 11, 2006 09:58 PM
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Thank you, M(r/s) Professor. This material is most helpful towards my doctoral thesis "On the Propagation of Alien Myths among Earthpeople".

Posted by: C^a%?t> at April 13, 2006 09:22 AM
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. . . Harvard's forcing the resignation of its President Lawrence Summers for saying that women but rarely truly excel at mathematics and physics.

I wouldn’t contradict that Summers did get the boot for PC reasons, but I’m not sure that such a simple version of the “male and female brain” argument covers the story. I am told by a senior member of the Chemical Education Research Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry that one problem is that the system is selective for people that think in the mode of the people doing the selection (similar, I would guess, that in Qing China the examination for the Mandarinate selected as administrators those who could write properly an “Eight-Legged Essay”.) If the selectors are largely male, then selection may well be for a male mode of thinking in addition to ability in maths or physics.

In the nineteenth century women played a key role as translators and transmitters of scientific knowledge. I did not excel at physics when a young man, in part due to the fact that male physicists tend to be poor communicators. As a case in point, I only recently got turned on to the particular speciality after reading Analytical Mechanics by Louis N. Hand and Janet D. Finch, chosen at Cambridge as a textbook. I am sure the feminine touch provided by the second author is vital to this most excellent book.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 13, 2006 07:04 PM
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Amid all this marvellously fun condescension and mockery, the 18th C fools who painted these pictures had rather something more serious in mind.

As the Enlightenment peddled unbridled rationalism (a drink that SAU readers and writers appear to guzzle neat, keeping a small bowl of hubris on the side for nibbles), writers such as 'Monk' Lewis, philosophers such as Edmund Burke, and artists such as Fuseli addressed the parts of man affected by the mysterious and the numinous, parts that jejeune rationalists still attempt to deny or suppress.

On a serious level, one might flip through 'A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas On the Sublime and Beautiful' (E Burke, 1757) for a still timely explanation. Its contents, and these paintings, form an important part of the path that leads, among elsewhere, to the birth of psychology as a discipline and to modernism in art (but those are other tales).

Posted by: s masty at April 14, 2006 01:55 PM
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