Sunday, February 19, 2006

An incubus in Pimlico

Gothic Nightmares, Tate Britain, London SW1

Apparently, when the Sisters of Mercy tour these days, promoters aren't allowed to use the word 'Goth' in the publicity material. It's a sign that the last great Gothic revival, in which snakebite and black replaced laudanum, is finally mouldering in its prepaid plot in Whitby graveyard. But now the gallery that we old farts still call "the real Tate" looks set to kick off a new one, with an overview of the fascination for gloom and ghouls that possessed Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The cornerstone of the exhibition is 'The Nightmare' by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), who now joins my select list of famous Swiss people*. The image, of a gurning incubus crouching over a white-clad maiden, seemed to capture some sort of Weltanschauung, as the middle classes became obsessed with the more sordid facets of the supernatural, and also deviant sexuality. Not only did Fuseli keep returning to the image in paintings and etchings, but every other artist and his dog elected to borrow the idea. James Gillray, a cartoonist who makes Martin Rowson seem about as savage as Norman Rockwell, used the concept to lay into his political foes, the Prince Regent (later George IV) and his crony Charles James Fox. Fuseli, meanwhile, was diverted into doodling pornographic cartoons for the same prince, some of which are displayed at the Tate behind a discreet gauze. (Matron! The screens!)

Of course, Fuseli wasn't the only artist responding to the Walpolian weirdness in the air. His influence is seen most readily in William Blake, who took this thread of Gothic weirdness and grafted it onto his transcendent Albion, with its nice/nasty cop God. The exhibition also takes us on to early cinematic manifestations of the genre, such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari. The direct precursor to these is the Phantasmagoria, a selection of moving projections on a black background; disembodied heads, ghost riders, sprites, playing games with perspective and peripheral vision and our minds.

What particularly comes through is the range of literary references that crop up in the pictures. Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante are all over the place, as is Spenser. But we also get the likes of Undine, the Niebelungslied, even the Gaelic myth of Oscar (nah, me neither). When there was no cultural allusion available, the deeply committed artists (mainly Blake) made up their own. Presumably, these tropes would have been immediately apparent to the gallery punters of the day, which seems to imply some sort of common "high" cultural heritage (at least for the middle classes) that's now lost. Or have hypertext links replaced a common code of aesthetic indicators? Or should I assume that all readers here know who Martin Rowson is, and what the hell Weltanschauung is when it's at home? Indeed, should I have left those links off, and linked to Milton and Shakespeare instead? When the minister for higher education says that it's no bad thing that fewer students are taking classics and history, is there any point in pretending we have anything approaching a common culture any more?

Or do we need to know the names? Look at more recent manifestations of Gothic visuals, like Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Lemony Snickett and Tim Burton. Does it help to know that Fuseli influenced these guys? Indeed, were the influences conscious at all? Or should I just tell you to go and see this exhibition because it's weird and wondrous and one more reason for being in cold, scared London?

*Voltaire, Saussure, Jung, Ursula Andress, Yul Brynner

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