Tuesday, April 20, 2010
After months of studying, my Oral Exam in my PhD program will take place in 2 days from now. I posted earlier this year a description of what the exam format will be like. Needless to say, I am a bit anxious about the experience of the exam, considering how important this is in my program of study, but I want to take on this challenge. In that spirit, over the past few weeks I've been changing my profile picture on Facebook with details from various paintings looking for one that symbolizes my intent with regard to this exam. I've settled on the work you see here, Thor Battering by Midgard Serpent (1790) by Henry Fuseli, but I've temporarily retitled it bklynbiblio battering the oral examination. I finally had an opportunity to see this painting last summer at the Royal Academy and I still admire it greatly. It's a tour de force of 18th-century history painting in that it demonstrates Fuseli's talents through his use of foreshortening, perspective, and dramatic lighting to draw the viewer's attention to the powerful subject.
Fuseli was an ingenious artist (and not just because he painted dark, sexually-charged works like The Nightmare). Swiss-born, he went to Italy for his artistic training and was influenced by ancient sculpture, but seemed to find his greatest affinity with the spirit of terribilità associated with Michelangelo, as you can see in the exaggerated musculature of the nude Thor in this painting. The art historian William Vaughan has argued convincingly in German Romantic Painting that Fuseli was associated with Sturm-und-Drang, a literary movement affiliated with German writers such as Goethe that focused on emotions over rational thought. It is seen by many as one of the roots of Romanticism. Vaughan calls Fuseli's work expressive classicism, which I find an excellent way of demonstrating how he produced art that evokes both Classicism and Romanticism. Fuseli made his way to London and with his successful history/mythological paintings was elected a full member of the Royal Academy; this painting was his diploma work. He later became the Professor of Painting at the school. Here is more about the painting from the Royal Academy's website: "This mythological subject comes from the Icelandic sagas of the Edda, which were known in England from P. H. Mallet’s book Northern Antiquities (1770). Fuseli depicts the fable in which Thor rows out in a boat with the giant Hymir, shown cowering somewhat cowardly in the stern. Using an ox’s head as bait, Thor manages to fish up the Serpent of Midgard. In the top left is shown the elderly figure of the god Odin. Fuseli’s heroic figure wrestling with the evil serpent is given great grandeur and drama as it emerges from the inky background. Parallels have been drawn between this epic struggle and contemporary events in France. Fuseli was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution and Thor’s battle with the serpent could be seen to mirror the French people’s struggle against the ancien régime."