Sunday, 20 September 2009





‘Gothic Nightmares’ at Tate Britain in London was an important exhibition, but not entirely for the reasons that its organizers thought. They clearly saw it as a stage in mapping an episode in British art – the rise of the Sturm und Drang, hand in hand with a new age of ‘Gothic’ sensibility in literature – that has, until now, been relatively uncharted. What they almost entirely failed to perceive was its relevance to recent, and even current, developments in British and American art.


The central figure in ‘Gothic Nightmares’ was the Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli [1741-1825], who is accompanied by his friend William Blake, the savage caricaturist James Gillray, and quite a large number of lesser lights, such as John Hamilton Mortimer and James Barry – the latter was, until recently, the only member of the Royal Academy ever to have been expelled by that professional body. British critics, predictably, have rushed to say that both Blake and Gillray are infinitely superior to Fuseli, and it is true that a few dazzling visionary watercolors by Blake, placed towards the end of the show, outshone anything else to be found in it. Other works by Blake, with more conventional subject-matter – illustrations to Shakespeare, for example, show an amateurish clumsiness, a quality not present in Fuseli, who can, on the contrary, sometimes be accused of being slick.


This is ironic, because Fuseli, like Francis Bacon after him, was an artist without a regular professional formation. His father was an amateur painter, and from childhood he copied his father’s work. His own education, at his father’s insistence, was for the Protestant priesthood – he was ordained as a minister of the Swiss Reformed Church in 1761. What took him to England was a bout of political trouble at home. He went first to Germany, then to London, where Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great portraitist and president of the Royal Academy, encouraged him to make painting his career. He then went to Rome, where he studied the work of Michelangelo, before returning to England in 1778, where he became a respected member of the artistic establishment.


The real turning point in Fuseli’s career was his painting The Nightmare, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. It is the first thing one sees as one enters the current Tate Britain show. The Nightmare is one of those works that, without necessarily qualifying as masterpieces, immediately enter the popular imagination, from the very moment when they are first shown. One can say the same thing for Francis Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and for Damien Hirst’s pickled tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde solution, The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The Nightmare provided an image that sold in large numbers as a print and which was immediately seized upon by caricaturists – just as Hirst’s shark has been in our own day.


In fact, Fuseli’s position as a direct ancestor of Bacon, rather than Hirst, though there is a relationship to him too, is “the elephant in the room” that the organizers of ‘Gothic Nightmares’ have taken pains not to mention. An Internet thesaurus defines the situation as follows: “The expression ‘elephant in the room’ refers to a situation where something major is going on, it's on everyone's mind and impossible to ignore -- like an elephant in the room. But nobody talks about the "elephant" because nobody knows what to do about it.” This defines the relationship between Bacon and Fuseli rather precisely.


If one looks carefully at the two artists one notes many points of resemblance. Both specialize in the horrific, both are stridently rhetorical – this alone provides a good start. However both the technical and he psychological parallels are much closer than this. The distorted forms in Fuseli’s Nightmare are strikingly close to some of the distortions offered by Bacon. A good comparison is Bacon’s Two Figures on a Bed with a Monkey [1973], now in the Museo Tamayo de Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City. In both artists there is a strong element of sado-masochism, though Fuseli was heterosexual and fantasized about dominant women. In addition, both painters seemed to prefer visual experience at second hand. Fuseli made extensive use of engravings after the Old Masters and particularly after the work of Michelangelo, just as Bacon used Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent VII [which he preferred not to see in the original], as well as the photographs of Edweard Muybridge, taken from the famous series showing The Human Figure in Motion, first published in 1901.


Of course the problem with this comparison is that it tends to remove Bacon from his pedestal as a unique existential genius, whose images formed on the canvas almost without his conscious volition, and makes him into a strained, rather cold, over-intellectual manufacturer of work that, like Fuseli’s Nightmare, were deliberately intended to be sensational. Which is where one also sees a resemblance to Hirst.


There is another, related aspect of Fuseli’s work that the catalogue of ‘Gothic Nightwares’ did touch on, but only tentatively. It noted the resemblance between some of Fuseli’s erotic designs and the paintings discovered by the American invaders in one of Saddam Hussein’s minor habitations in Baghdad – a ‘love-nest’, as the press called it. What the exhibition organizers apparently did not know is that the link is not direct, but goes through popular illustrators of Science Fiction, notably the work of Frank Frazetta [b.1928]. Originally an assistant to Al Capp, working on the comic-strip Li’l Abner, Frazetta found fame and fortune in the 1960s as an illustrator of fantasy epics such as Conan the Barbarian. He now has numerous imitators. One of these is an American artist called Rowena Morrill, and it was she who painted the works found in Iraq, originally as cover illustrations to soft-cover SF Fantasy novels published at the beginning of the 1980s. Fuseli’s illustrations to episodes in obscure Germanic epics – some of them incidents invented by himself – offer eerily close resemblances to some of Frazetta’s [and Morrill’s] visual inventions. Morrill’s paintings were, of course, denounced in the British press at the time of their re-appearance in Iraq. A columnist in The Guardian, for instance, saw them as sure proof of Saddam’s moral decadence. It is amusing to reflect that SF novels of the type illustrated by Morrill and Frazetta probably form quite a large part of the light reading available to members of the American forces in Iraq, and that they certainly continue to play a considerable role in American pop literature.


‘Gothic Nightmares’ fascinated not simply because it was full of unfamiliar material, but because it threw new light both of current popular culture and also on revered – perhaps over-revered – contemporary artistic reputations.


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