Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Nightmare: A classic in Gothic Art

The Nightmare, by J. Henry Fuseli, 1781 Oil on Canvas

 Greetings my fellow Gothic Lovers,

As I've spent a few posts writing about Gothic Movies and TV shows, I decided it was time to mix things up a bit, and talk this time about Gothic Art.

Now, mind you, in Art History circles there isn't necessarily a recognized 'school' of Gothic art, but there are plenty of Gothic paintings to search for throughout the centuries. The Romantic period has many Gothic images in it, and once we get past the revolution in Art that the impressionists started in Paris of the 1880's, we can find many more wonderful examples of Gothic, dreamlike or nightmarish depictions.

One of the most famous of these earlier paintings is the one above, The Nightmare. It was painted by an artist slightly before the Gothic craze that hit England in the late 18th century.

What, you say, there was a Gothic craze in the 18th Century? Yes, there was. I've studied the Gothic movement for some years and as a historian I am delighted to share this news with you. Often we think our generation invented a fad, but really, there is nothing new under the sun.... just revivals. You've heard of Gothic Revival Architecture when talking about house design, everyone has.

Well, it seems that in the late eighteenth century, England experienced a Gothic Revival of sorts, in literature, architecture and in some art circles. It's found under the "Romantic" period, and is considered a backlash against the Age of Enlightenment when men were courting logic and reason and the Industrial Revolution began to pollute and tear up the pristine English countryside with factories. Romanticism was a return to the dreamy side of the mind, the illogical, and often unexplainable part of life, like falling in love or . . . having a nightmare.

 J. Henry Fuesli's The Nightmare is an example of this return to Romanticism in thought and art. His painting has rather chilling undertones. The woman lying with her body dangling over the bed is supposed to be a virgin. She's lying as if half dead, or stoned out of her mind--you pick, the interpretation is usually left up to the viewer.  The creature sitting on her chest has visited her while she is asleep, giving her a 'nightmare'. It was believed in folklore that when a virgin, or other female sleeping alone had a nightmare, that she had been visited by an incubus--or demon in the night. Some stories claim the demon had sex with her while she was unconscious.

Wow, who thought our century had the corner on the crazy market. As I have a minor in Art History, I can tell you what the horse and the incubus are supposed to mean. There all kinds of psycho-babble and nerdy interpretations have been written about this great painting, (the woman is sexually frustrated, repressed, she's courting the devil, practicing witchcraft and ecetera).  And you can nod your head, politely, and make your own assumptions and allusions.

Or just enjoy this rich, lovely Gothic painting and the creepiness it evokes in the viewer. It was shocking when first displayed in the Art Galleries in the 1780's, but it caught on, and has lasted as a disturbing painting for two centuries.

About the Artist: Henry Fuseli was born in Zurich, Switzerland as Johanne Heinrich Fuusli. He was lucky enough to be born into a family of artists, art historians and writers. Although his siblings were artists, his father slanted him for the clergy. Fuseli became a clergyman, but he had his own opinions about things, so that didn't take very well. He became an artist in later years instead. Good for us! Fuseli was a reputed to be a short man of 5'2'' but had a very 'domineering' personality. He was reputed to be a very intelligent and fiery sort of man. He also had pure white hair, which gives me the image of Doc from Back to the Future.

Fuseli spent much of his time as a painter and writer in England. He painted a lot of Shakespeare's scenes, and became known for his mystical and haunting style of painting. The Nightmare, is his most famous work. He is considered by many to be a forerunner of the Symbolist movement and the Surrealist Art movement, as most of the paintings he has done are very dreamlike and surreal at a time when most English painters stuck to historical figures, landscapes or portraits of the rich and famous. 

Sweet Dreams!

Chills to you,

Lilith Bloodrose

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