Friday, October 31, 2008

The Nightmare

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would post something Gothic. The image you see here (courtesy of ArtMagick) is The Nightmare (1781) by the British artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Fuseli was born in Switzerland, received his training like most artists in Rome, but was inspired by the Germanic Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement of the 1770s. After settling permanently in England, he had a successful career and eventually became Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy. He is considered to be an early Romantic, since so much of his art shows the darker, mysterious side of life, often depicting scenes of the occult and fantasy. However, his forms are quite classical in their design and are an example of "expressive classicism," according to art historian William Vaughan in his book German Romantic Painting. This painting shows a woman in the throes of a nightmare, with a demon sitting on her chest and a demon-like horse sticking his head through the curtains. It's been said that the horse represents the nightmare (get it? the horse is a mare of the night?), but in fact Fuseli denied that was his intent. There is obviously more going on in this picture than just a nightmare. The woman is lying on a bed, and the physical contortion of her body suggests post-coital exhaustion. The demon, an incubus, is not actually on her chest, but on her abdomen, and his rump (and netherparts) are conveniently located just near her own pudenda. The horse, with his flaring nose, forces his head through the parted folds of red curtains, another sexual symbol in case you didn't catch the incubus association. So depending on your take the painting can either be a nightmare because of the demons or symbolize the naughtiness of sexual intercourse. In either case, it's certainly a powerful image. And in that vein, Happy Halloween!

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