Sunday, 3 May 2009

Johann Heinrich Fuseli

Nightmare, 1781
Oil on Canvas 127 x 102cm

Tate Britain, London
April 2006

This iconic painting was centre piece of the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at Tate Britain. The exhibition explored the work of Henry Fuseli, William Blake and their contemporaries in the context of the Gothic, the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. The exhibition was interesting and informative about Gothic’s romantic roots and its influence on Modern Gothic; I certainly enjoyed the screening of Nosferatu.

The exhibition was well laid out, responding to the themes, giving The Nightmare its own red painted room, complete with red curtain to protect the innocent.

Sex and death are inseparable in the Gothic and the Fuseli painting has these ingredients in abundance. Unlike many of his other works at the Tate exhibition this one was well painted and utterly convincing, perhaps because the eye is drawn away from the stylised swooning femme fatale to the grimacing gremlin sat on her chest. The luxurious boudoir appears to be contemporary to Fuseli’s time, and the bottle on the table may contain laudanum, the narcotic drug of “choice” in the eighteenth century. The setting exudes a feeling of decadence. The young woman on the bed has been connected with Anna Landolt[1], the object of Fuseli’s unrequited passion when he was in Zurich in 1779. Her provocative costume and pose suggests a queasy mixture of pain and sensual pleasure. The creature sitting on her on her abdomen while staring at the viewer, may derive from an ancient sculpture of Bacchus, but his features have been taken as resembling Fuseli’s own and the painting has been interpreted as an expression of the painter’s sexual revenge or frustration. The horse is based on a ghostly figure in the background of Salvator Rosa’s Saul and the Witch of Endor (c.1668, Louvre) combined with the sculpture of ‘The Horse Tamers’ on the Piazza Quirinale fountain in Rome.

I have explored ideas of sleep paralysis in my own paintings, influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe and others, and lying on one's back, lying on one's left-hand side, a violent oppression of the breast, a loss of voluntary motion were all deemed by early medical theories to cause nightmares. However, Fuseli may have been inspired by folklore relating to the ‘Mara’, spirits who visit in the night, causing bad dreams; or classical stories about ‘incubi’, wicked imps who assault women sexually in their sleep. Although the word ‘nightmare’ derives from ‘mara’ (imp) rather than ‘mare’ (horse), Fuseli may have deliberately mixed the terms up to create a visual pun on the word.

I had gone to the exhibition hoping to find evidence for a link between the visual uncanny and the melancholic. My logic was that if the Gothic aesthetic is essentially a romantic flirtation with the dark side of death then there might be the same sense of suffocating loss that Poe evokes in his writing. Whilst many of the works touch on the link between imagination and madness, I didn’t think that they had stood the test of time in the same way. Perhaps I found it hard to get beyond the visual interpretation, whereas in the written word there is more room for projection and speculation. The Nightmare is certainly an interesting and enigmatic painting and I can appreciate why Freud had a copy on the wall of his consulting room in Vienna, but I didn’t find it melancholic.

[1] On the back of this canvas is an unfinished portrait of a woman, associated by a number of commentators with Anna Landolt.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Mr. Blackdog is very active today - so I thought "Let's look at his painting-blog!"- and siehe da!- a new analysis of the "wild Swiss" in England J.H. Füssli (please, not "Fuseli", 'Fusel' is cheap alcohol!)- a painter who does fascinate me since some time, probably because of the modernity (1782!) of his subjects and his detailled-dark painting style! But first I have to say that the Tate exhibition must have been genious- a red painted room/ a curtain- there are some connotations in my mind, enhancing a pschycological...interpretation of this image!
    Your analysis is excellent, very detailled, precise, and rich of interesting informations about biography, 18th century, influences, reception... in this way evoking a line of different aspects and perspectives- also a sign of the high quality and scandalon- perception of this painting forever!
    I learnt some new 'things'- never before I thought of the English context, the Gothic aesthetic! 'Mara'-spirits are more known in the Buddhistic thinking, the German-Swiss folklore is full of dark-/nightmare-devil-imaginations like the depictured one! I myself heard as child often the tale of the black "Nachtgrab" who might have looked like Füssli's figure while capturing bad children during the night - terribly frighthening education- methods! I also remember some dark-dressed up pupils who were fans of modern Gothic circles, and they were mostly fascinated by Goethe's Faust/Mephisto and other satanic images and customs mentioned in literature.
    A real fascinating painting- stuff for a longer conversation dealing with different aspects!

  2. Oh, my excuses, Henry Fuseli is the English name of the original Swiss name Johann Heinrich Füssli as I didn't know before! We have to learn every day!

  3. Henry Fuseli to William Blake about his journey in Wallis/Switzerland; Füssli might have get known many tales about nightmares and other ghosts from childhood on.
    "...We were refreshed when the night welcomed us with the Deepest of dark blues and the moon, like an enormous disc gleaming faintly in the centre of the remote valley, bestowed its light on us. In Im Feld we were able to stay with genuine peasantfolk, who were most hospitable. The English eat Roastbeef, Plumpudding, and drink Oporto and Claret. The Binnen people eat Bratchäs, which they heat by a fire, and air-dried beef, and drink their spiced brandy.
    The walls were covered with Crucifixes and horrible carved masks. I was fascinated by the unfamiliar sounds of the local dialect and felt it was not surprising that a great variety of Ghosts are living here. In fact, a farmer's wife, seated at her spinning wheel, pipe in mouth, insistently pointed out to us that down by the Lengenbach mine there was sometimes Dreadful soul dancing and spirits were known to congregate."

  4. Interesting replies too ;o) There were a few illustrations from Siegfried in the exhibition, but I believe this has some influences from his time in England. He later did some paintings based on Shakespeare plays so maybe it is all mixed in together. I like your quoatation from Füssli to Blake - suggests a very "visual" eye!