Oil on Canvas. 127 x 102cm
Tate Britain, London
This iconic painting was centre piece of the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at Tate Britain. The exhibition explored the work of Henry Fuseli, William Blake and their contemporaries in the context of the Gothic, the taste for fantastic and supernatural themes which dominated British culture from around 1770 to 1830. The exhibition was interesting and informative about Gothic’s romantic roots and its influence on Modern Gothic; I certainly enjoyed the screening of Nosferatu.
The exhibition was well laid out, responding to the themes, giving The Nightmare its own red painted room, complete with red curtain to protect the innocent.
Sex and death are inseparable in the Gothic and the Fuseli painting has these ingredients in abundance. Unlike many of his other works at the Tate exhibition this one was well painted and utterly convincing, perhaps because the eye is drawn away from the stylised swooning femme fatale to the grimacing gremlin sat on her chest. The luxurious boudoir appears to be contemporary to Fuseli’s time, and the bottle on the table may contain laudanum, the narcotic drug of “choice” in the eighteenth century. The setting exudes a feeling of decadence. The young woman on the bed has been connected with Anna Landolt, the object of Fuseli’s unrequited passion when he was in Zurich in 1779. Her provocative costume and pose suggests a queasy mixture of pain and sensual pleasure. The creature sitting on her on her abdomen while staring at the viewer, may derive from an ancient sculpture of Bacchus, but his features have been taken as resembling Fuseli’s own and the painting has been interpreted as an expression of the painter’s sexual revenge or frustration. The horse is based on a ghostly figure in the background of Salvator Rosa’s Saul and the Witch of Endor (c.1668, Louvre) combined with the sculpture of ‘The Horse Tamers’ on the Piazza Quirinale fountain in Rome.
I have explored ideas of sleep paralysis in my own paintings, influenced by the work of Edgar Allen Poe and others, and lying on one's back, lying on one's left-hand side, a violent oppression of the breast, a loss of voluntary motion were all deemed by early medical theories to cause nightmares. However, Fuseli may have been inspired by folklore relating to the ‘Mara’, spirits who visit in the night, causing bad dreams; or classical stories about ‘incubi’, wicked imps who assault women sexually in their sleep. Although the word ‘nightmare’ derives from ‘mara’ (imp) rather than ‘mare’ (horse), Fuseli may have deliberately mixed the terms up to create a visual pun on the word.
I had gone to the exhibition hoping to find evidence for a link between the visual uncanny and the melancholic. My logic was that if the Gothic aesthetic is essentially a romantic flirtation with the dark side of death then there might be the same sense of suffocating loss that Poe evokes in his writing. Whilst many of the works touch on the link between imagination and madness, I didn’t think that they had stood the test of time in the same way. Perhaps I found it hard to get beyond the visual interpretation, whereas in the written word there is more room for projection and speculation. The Nightmare is certainly an interesting and enigmatic painting and I can appreciate why Freud had a copy on the wall of his consulting room in Vienna, but I didn’t find it melancholic.
 On the back of this canvas is an unfinished portrait of a woman, associated by a number of commentators with Anna Landolt.