Tate Britain Linbury Galleries
15 February – 1 May 2006
Gothic Nightmares explores the work of Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) and William Blake (1757–1827) in the context of the ‘Gothic’ – the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. Featuring over 140 works by these artists and their contemporaries, the exhibition creates a vivid image of a period of cultural turmoil and daring artistic invention.
One of the central exhibits is Henry Fuseli’s famous The Nightmare 1781 (Detroit Institute of Arts). Ever since it was first exhibited to the public in 1782, this picture has been an icon of horror. Showing a woman supine in her boudoir, oppressed by a foul imp while a ferocious-looking horse glares on, the painting draws on folklore and popular culture, medicine, concepts of imagination, and classical art to create a new kind of highly-charged horror image. This is the most extensive display of Fuseli’s art seen in Britain since 1975, and includes many works not exhibited in this country before. The exhibition features the very best examples of his paintings and drawings, including The Weird Sisters (Kunsthaus, Zurich), the two magnificent canvases showing Titania and Bottom from The Midsummer Night’s Dream (Kunstmuseum, Winterthur and Tate) and Macbeth and the Armed Head (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington), as well as his rarely-seen erotic designs.
A selection of works by Fuseli’s contemporaries and followers, dealing with themes of fantasy, horror and perverse sexuality, complement his work. This includes over twenty-five exceptional watercolours and paintings by the visionary artist William Blake, among which are The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, The House of Death c.1795; his vampire-like Ghost of a Flea, The Whirlwind: Ezekial’s Vision c.1803–5; The Witch of Endor Raising the Spirit of Samuel 1783 and Death on a Pale Horse c.1800.
The exhibition is further enriched with works on Gothic and fantastic themes by, among others, Joseph Wright of Derby, George Romney, James Barry, Maria Cosway, John Flaxman and Theodore von Holst, and features a large group of caricatures by James Gillray, whose satirical works incorporate some of the most inventive cosmic and fantastic imagery of the era. A special section of the exhibition presents a recreation of a ‘Phantasmagoria’ show – a kind of animated slide-show with sound effects and shocking images – giving visitors to the exhibition a chance to experience at first hand the same chills and thrills as their forebears in the 1800s.
As a literary phenomenon, the Gothic has had an enduring influence. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and the novels of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, William Beckford and Ann Radcliffe are still widely-read. Modern ‘Gothic’ novelists including Angela Carter, Patrick McGrath and Toni Morrison are highly regarded, and the Gothic continues to influence film and TV – from classics like Nosferatu (1922) through to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2002) – and visual artists like Glenn Brown and the Chapman brothers. This exhibition is the first to explore the roots of this phenomenon in the visual arts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
The exhibition is curated by Tate Britain Curator Dr. Martin Myrone and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring essays by the consultant curator, Professor Sir Christopher Frayling on The Nightmare and the heritage of horror, and Professor Marina Warner on Fuseli’s fairies.