Londonist Loves... Gothic Nightmares

By sizemore Last edited 155 months ago
Londonist Loves... Gothic Nightmares

We took the time out yesterday to wander up to the Tate Britain for the opening of a new exhibition: Gothic Nightmares - Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination. It's one of the most interesting exhibits that the Tate has put together in ages and is well worth a look, but the powers that be have gone one better by organising a series of killer lectures, tours and event around the exhibition that should appeal to just about everyone. If you're looking for an antidote to all that recent Valentine's crap or just have a partner who digs the skull beneath the skin then this is real treat.

The exhibition focuses on Henry Fuseli (1741 - 1825) and it's his paintings and drawings that dominate just about every room. His work is complimented by the art of William Blake (1757 - 1827) and the satirist James Gilray (1756 - 1815). We've had a soft spot for all things Gothic ever since studying in the shadows of Horace Walpole's 'castle' at Strawberry Hill, but the array of art on show has been carefully chosen to appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in the macabre. Of course, all the children we saw loved it and a few of them even tried to reproduce their own snared intestines with bright red crayolas. Warmed our cockles it did.

The exhibit is arranged through eight rooms. The first entitled The Nightmare: Fuseli and the Art of Horror is of course home to the iconic The Nightmare (pictured above), Fuseli's infamous sexually charged image that has been influential from the moment it was revealed right up until the present day. Film makers as diverse as James Whale, David Lynch and Ken Russell have been inspired by it as have generations of satirists, eager to lampoon public figures in similar poses, haunted by more mundane imps. Some of these early 'tributes' hang in the same room. It's easy to think that you know a piece of art from seeing it reproduced so many times in books and prints, but of course the original has a much more stunning effect. The unsettling imagery of The Nightmare immediately puts you ill at ease and helps prepare you for what lies in wait in the later rooms. The first official engraved reproduction is also on display here and helps explain how the painting became so etched onto the minds of the everyday folk as well as the privileged few who got to see the original. This is also the room for you if you're interested in changelings and incubi and also offers plate 33 from the illuminated version of Blake's Jerusalem.

Read on after the jump for the rest of the rooms (especially if you're among the leagues of fans of a certain extraordinary gentleman)


The second room, Perverse Classicism, concentrates on the bodily horror that Fuseli made popular within his own circle, but also can be seen in the work of Blake and other contemporaries as the artists looked back to ancient myth and classical storytelling before pulling out the more gruesome scenes to depict. Highlights here include George Romney's (1734 - 1802) Prometheus Bound - an unusually large drawing depicting the Titan's punishment for daring to give fire to mankind. We actually preferred the starker preparatory study hung nearby, but we always were suckers for comic book aesthetics (more on that later). While that particular Titan is well represented, other art here is based on myths from the German Nibelungenlied, while the centre piece is a marble sculpture, The Falling Titan by Thomas Banks (1735 - 1805). The room is dominated by a portrait of Fuseli himself and he looks (disappointingly) perfectly normal.


Superheroes is the third room and as you'd expect is filled with depictions of superhuman stature. It's here you'll find Fuseli's Thor Battling the Midgard Serpent inspired by a sequence from the Norse Edda. It's a frankly brilliant piece of work and perhaps our favourite in the whole exhibition. It may seem preposterous to try and link such art with the more low brow comic book superheroes that we grew up with, but try telling that to the Tate. If you're lucky enough to have a ticket for the exhibition on Saturday 25th March at 3pm then you'll be guided around the rooms for an hour by none other than legendary comic book writer Alan Moore. He'll be focusing on visionary heroism, ungovernable forces and of course superheroes. It'll be interesting to see what he has to say about the central piece depicting a heroically proportioned Satan, eyes ablaze as he is repelled by Ithuriel’s spear.


The fourth room, Gothic Gloomth is laid out in a dark blue that helps recreate the atmosphere that most of these paintings would have originally been hung in. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1740 - 1812) sets the tone as a figure stands in the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Two of our favourite pieces in this room are indebted to Matthew Lewis's The Monk. The first, Agnes by Catherine Blake (1707 - 1775), shows the hard done by nun cradling the corpse of her baby after being imprisoned still pregnant among rotting bodies. Further on is Tales of Wonder! by James Gillray which shows a group of women sat around a table reading The Monk, their faces filled with disgust yet unable to put the book down. There are more doomed nuns in the room along with other forgotten prisoners including Blake's King Lear and our favourite title of the exhibition, Nightscene: A Woman and Two Children, One Apparently Dead, at Seashore. Way to go Maria Cosway!


Witches and Apparitions is pretty self explanatory as the fifth room is haunted by Macbeth's three hags, Hamlet's father and Macduff's head floating about. Shakespeare aside you also get Blake's extraordinary Hecate, but it's John Downman's (1750 - 1824) The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies that really stands out. When it was first presented to the Royal Academy in 1782 a critic remarked that it was "proof how artists sometimes lose themselves, and mistake their talents", to which we reply balderdash! The room also houses many caricatures of the more serious works. Along side this room is The Phantasmagoria. A highlight of the tour that recreates a fantasy slide show of shocking images with sound effects. Although the technology used here is a little more high-tech it's still wonderfully atmospheric.


Fairies and Fatal Women is a wonderful room. Fans of Neil Gaiman's Sandman will lose themselves in here as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream takes over while the fairy queen Mab also has a role to play. Interestingly the room is divided by a long almost translucent white curtain. A sign nearby warns that sexually explicit material lies on the other side of the vale. An interesting comment on our own views of morality and decency as no such warning was needed for the guttings and murder depicted in the previous rooms. Then again we didn't have to go and rescue our 12 year old charges from an engorged phallus or explain exactly what spoons and bowls have to do with genitals. Some of Fuseli's work is also here, but the jury is still out as to whether they were drawn for some higher purpose or were merely aids to masturbation. Either way if you want to learn the Greek for Grow large, male progenitor then this is the room for you.


Room seven plays host to Revolution, Revelation and Apocalypse - something for everyone there. Blake's more apocalyptic visions sit well here along side comments on the French Revolution, scenes from Milton, William Pitt horribly naked astride a pale horse and more 'accurate' renditions of that pale rider. Plague, pestilence and skulls a plenty make this the ideal room in which to chat up the goth girls with a couple of Alkaline Trio lines. Or you could simply try and work out what the hell Blake was on when he came up with The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan. Damn.


The Nightmare in Modern Culture brings us slap bang up to date with Blake's The Ghost of a Flea giving way to a series of clips from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, Frankenstein and Ken Russell's overblown Gothic all showing the influence of Fuseli. A great place to rest your feet and snuggle up to strangers as Greta Schröder gets her neck chewed on and Mae Clarke faints away at the sight of Karloff's monster's advances. Brilliant stuff and a great way to finish off the exhibition. That still leaves time to hit the gift shop to stock up on postcards and grab the Imp badges that seem to be proving more popular than the prints.

The exhibition runs until the first of May and it's really worth checking out the series of lectures and other events that run alongside Gothic Nightmares as some of them are free. As well as Alan Moore, Mark Kermode will be on hand to introduce Possession and there's also the chance to see Frankenstein and Nosferatu. There's a whole heap of kids and student events as well as more highbrow talks and workshops. Check out the website now as the demand is bound to be huge.

Last Updated 16 February 2006