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‘Gothic Nightmares’ at the Tate

I went to Tate Britain at the weekend to see Gothic Nightmares – Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (which finished yesterday). It was mainly an exhibition of Henry Fuseli, with a few pictures by his imitators and contemporaries, including William Blake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large exhibition devoted to such a bad painter. This one, the snappily-titled Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma, from 1783, gives you the idea; contorted, rather inaccurately drawn figures, overwrought, melodramatic treatment, and obscure medieval subject matter (another of his paintings has the title Wolfram Introducing Bertrand of Navarre to the Place where he had Confined his Wife with the Skeleton of her Lover).

It’s not just that the subject matter and mood aren’t to my taste; the actual painting is clumsy. To be fair, he did do some that were both technically better and more sophisticated than that. The Shepherd’s Dream, for example. But even at the time, his reputation was based on his imagination and sensationalism rather than technical excellence, and while I can believe that the work was exciting at the time, it looks pretty tame now.

I found the most interesting thing was the context it provided for Blake’s work. The painting above may not look particularly Blake-y, but the exhibition made the connection obvious. For that matter, we know that Blake was a great admirer of Fuseli’s work. I preferred Blake’s pictures, on the whole. He wasn’t a great painter, any more than Fuseli, but he had a couple of things going for him, I think. The first is sincerity. Fuseli, you feel, relished the strange and sensational in the same way people relish a horror movie; Blake was a full-on visionary who believed in some kind of truth to his paintings and prints of angels and spirits. The fact that Blake’s work is much more stylised is also a help. Fuseli’s work is fundamentally representaional and narrative, and if the subject matter doesn’t do much for you, there isn’t much left. Blake’s work is just more visually interesting, on the whole. I was particularly struck by a couple of densely painted works in tempera I haven’t seen before. This is one of them, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan:

Make of that what you will.

The other appealing thing was the Gillray cartoons that used imagery drawn from the paintings. Gillray is always good value, of course. Check out the portrayal of Charles Fox in The Covent Garden Night Mare on this page.

Having been rather negative about the exhibition, I do think it was interesting and I’m glad I went. It shed some light on a particularly moment of British artistic history, which is a good thing for Tate Britain to be doing; I just didn’t rate most of the work very highly.

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