Hotchpotch of a show
Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination
Tate Britain, until 1 May
Forget for a moment the importation of ‘Gothic’, a term more usually confined to architecture or the novel, and consider the main protagonists. Blake will be familiar to most art-lovers, but what about Fuseli? Born Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741–1825), he was the son of a Swiss portrait painter, who despite artistic inclinations was put to study theology in order to train as a Zwinglian minister. He had to leave Zurich after collaborating on an injudicious political pamphlet, lived for a time in Germany, before ending up in England in 1764. At this point he wanted to be a writer, and worked as a translator. But he was ambitious, and saw a career as an artist as more suited to his gifts and temperament. In this he was encouraged by Joshua Reynolds, who advised him to go to Rome and imbibe classical civilisation at the source. While there (1770–8), he was mesmerised by Michelangelo, whom he adopted as his ultimate authority, and whose frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were to exercise a profound effect on his imagination. He returned to Zurich, fell unhappily in love and left once more for London, where he settled in 1779.
In England he quickly established a name for himself by exhibiting at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions. Fuseli took the pulse of popular taste and exploited it with such paintings as ‘Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Spear’ and ‘The Death of Dido’, enjoying a particular succès de scandale with ‘The Nightmare’ in 1782. He became friendly with Blake in 1787, married Sophia Rawlins the following year and became a member of the Academy in 1790. Establishment recognition followed. In 1799 he was elected Professor of Painting at the RA, in 1804 Keeper (retiring from his professorship). In 1810, while still Keeper, he was re-elected Professor, the first artist to hold both positions simultaneously. It begins to sound as if the Academy ought to have mounted this new exhibition to honour such a distinguished former member, not the Tate. Particularly as the Tate put on the last significant Fuseli show in 1975, which was (as I dimly remember, being then an inattentive schoolboy) a remarkable event.
Fuseli, the wilful Mannerist possessed of a fertile and haunted imagination (he helped it along by eating underdone pork chops to give himself bad dreams), makes an excellent subject for an exhibition, but I do regret the current trend for exhaustive and portmanteau shows, which mistake quantity for quality. This exhibition is a case in point: it dissipates much of its impact by including too much, by trying also to show Fuseli’s relevance to the continuing history of gothic taste, and coming up to date, in cinema particularly. The result is a hotchpotch of a show, in which Fuseli’s weaknesses are all too evident, Blake gets sidelined, and the inclusion of a substantial group of caricatures by Gillray comes as much-needed light relief.
For Fuseli, ‘the Wild Swiss’ as he was called, was strong on invention but weak on technique. His drawings tend to be more interesting than his paintings, but essentially he was an image-maker rather than an artist. He came up with potent and memorable images, which stay in the mind principally because of their psychological or emotional appeal, rather than the way they were drawn or painted. This is why, for instance, it would be grossly unfair to mount an exhibition comparing the work of Goya and Fuseli. Although the themes and subjects they explore would form a fascinating dialogue, Goya is a great painter and Fuseli is not. To show them together would simply point that up.
The Tate’s show, spread thinly over eight rooms, begins with Northcote’s portrait of Fuseli, which makes him look Romantic enough though quite sane, but immediately ventures into more extreme territory with ‘The Nightmare’ itself, and the horrifying ‘Changeling’. The imp and the pop-eyed horse in ‘The Nightmare’ verge on caricature, as does so much of Fuseli’s work, but this is unimportant, for the image undoubtedly hits a nerve, like a dentist’s drill in a rotten tooth. The quality of the painting is hardly an issue, for the huge influence of the image was as a result of it travelling the globe in the form of an engraving. In fact, more than 300 of Fuseli’s images were made into prints, and represented a substantial source of income for him. The composition was immediately annexed by satirists, such as Rowlandson and Gillray, to give contemporary spice to their political jibes.
Right from the start of the show, however, we are reminded of Fuseli’s strange and exotic strengths as a draughtsman. Look at ‘An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women’. The use of wash is powerfully evocative, whatever you might think of the figure drawing. Fuseli was always more concerned to be emotionally stirring than anatomically convincing. Despite his worship of Michelangelo, he was famously averse to the study of nature. The human body was not to be drawn for its own sake, simply used as a vehicle for expression. ‘Nature always puts me out,’ he said. He was adept instead at the dramatic, and often chose subjects that were violent or cruel. (Plenty of scope in Milton and Shakespeare, his two preferred sources.) Nor did he hesitate to distort for the sake of effect; as some wag put it, you could always tell Fuseli by the ‘sado-mannerist’ tone of his work.
Thankfully, pockets of drawings by Fuseli are interspersed with his large and theatrical but often muddy paintings. There are also comparative exhibits by Barry, Mortimer, Wright of Derby, even Richard Cosway. George Romney’s ink drawing of ’Prometheus Bound’ looks good. Again and again, a Fuseli drawing — such as ‘Brunhild Watching Gunter Suspended from the Ceiling on their Wedding Night’ — makes the kind of lasting impression the mannered canvases fail to do. The organisers have tried to juice up the exhibition with a phantasmagoria slideshow, which is a little like the ghost train at a funfair but more decorous. The section of Fuseli’s erotic drawings (coyly displayed behind a net curtain) is a nice antidote to the Fairy paintings, but the exhibition then declines into a carpeted booth showing film clips (‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein, Ken Russell’s ‘Gothic’), in which Blake’s magnificent ‘Ghost of a Flea’ is hung almost as an afterthought. Somewhere in these eight crowded rooms, the meaning of the exhibition had been irretrievably mislaid.
In welcome contrast, I’ve been looking at the beautifully produced hardback accompanying the recent exhibition ‘Füssli — The Wild Swiss’ at the Kunsthaus Zurich. (Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, it’s distributed here by Paul Holberton, priced £45.) It makes the Tate publication (£29.99 in paperback) look rather shoddy. Exhibition catalogues often masquerade as books without giving proper satisfaction. The Swiss book is an excep tion — a pleasure to handle and to read (it contains half a dozen essays on the artist), the selection and distribution of images through the text is both instructive and enjoyable. It’s perhaps a better way to approach Fuseli than the deeply flawed Tate show. ‘This country must advance two centuries in civilisation before it can appreciate him,’ Blake said of Fuseli. I doubt we’re there yet.