"This . . . is London": Fuseli’s Nightmare Revisited

Sometimes it takes questionable taste in art to make us realize how unpalatable or insipid our ready-meal answers to life’s challenges can be. In the bourgeois mediocrity of German suburbia, where I was obliged to wade through the quagmire of adolescence, an installation by performance artist Santiago Sierra is currently creating no inconsiderable controversy by daring to turn a synagogue into a gas chamber. I suspect that quite a few of Sierra’s detractors who think such confrontations of violent history with artistic violence reprehensible will be less disturbed to learn that, some forty years after the end of World War II, the building had been a symbol of Germany’s inability to deal with its horrible past: obscured from public view and unknown to schoolboys like myself, who passed it daily, it had been permitted to deteriorate to such a state of dereliction that it was only deemed fit to serve as a barn or pigsty.

Iconoclasm, barbarism, and unreason—these were also pre- occupations of 18th-century Gothic art, samples of which are now on display at the Tate Britain. Unfortunately, “Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination” suggests nothing more forcefully than that visual representations of horror are often less than horrifying; less horrifying, that is, than the terrors of which a fertile imagination can conceive and a methodic mind rent from humanity can implement without scruple. Instead, the shock-and-schlock artistry of Fuseli and his followers comes across as juvenile rather than rejuvenating, as cheap rather than free-spirited, as exhausted rather than inspired. Gothic images are often too crude and obvious to stir the emotions, not unlike the gag-reflex testing effects achieved by today’s horror movies. Aiming at our throats, these lesser Romantics often extract mere giggles and at times guffaws.

Not surprisingly, Fuseli’s (in)famous “Nightmare” painting was frequently mocked, especially in its day, when it served as a template for political caricatures such as the one attempted by me here, one in which liberty is being haunted by images of the Middle East (the camel in our bedrooms) and the ineptitude or rampant ambitions of a certain world leader.

How infinitely more stimulating, I thought, while wandering through the exhibition—which does some violence of its own by pairing sublime Blake with silly Fuseli, or by confronting the pre-cinematic Phantasmagoria with French-revolutionary Romanticism—is the suggestive terror of the airwaves, compared to the horror of the image, whether still or moving.

Of course, I am resorting to another caricature of my own to support—and thus undermine—my point: that the imagination, stifled or silenced by clamorous images, suffered its greatest defeat with the deposition of short-reigning radio by the matter-over-mind medium of television.

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