"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.

Media Nightmare

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.

Fuseli’s Nightmare

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.

Another version of Fuseli’s Nightmare

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.

A Soundscape of Britain?

Princess Diana Memorial Fountain,
Hyde Park, London

A few days ago I went to the Tate Gallery in London to see A Picture of Britain. This exhibition of paintings, coinciding with a BBC television series, did not exactly get rave reviews. Critics complained that the real Britain was, for the most part, left out of the picture. The works on display mainly feature idyllic representations of what Britain could be or ought to be, according to followers of the Picturesque or romantically inclined artists. In short, plenty of nature, little naturalism. I wonder how A Soundscape of Britain would turn out, if ever there were such a showcase devoted to national noise. What would be the representative sounds of Britain?

In the US, during radio’s so-called golden age, the Columbia Workshop and the later CBS Radio Workshop offered listeners aural snapshots and panoramas of New York, London, and Paris. “A Portrait of London,” for instance, which aired over CBS on 20 July 1956, took listeners to Big Ben, the city zoo, and Buckingham Palace, with Sarah Churchill (daughter of the former Prime Minister) serving as tour guide.

A few weeks earlier (7 July 1956), the Workshop had taken tuners-in to Paris, while “The Sounds of a Nation” (18 November 1956) sonically evoked the history of the United States. Some twenty years earlier, the Columbia Workshop had presented a “Broadway Evening” (25 July 1936), a noisy report from the bustling Big Apple. Other such programs include “Crosstown Manhattan” (8 December 1938) and Norman Corwin’s “New York: A Tapestry for Radio” (14 May 1944).

While more concerned with the spoken word than with the creation of collages in sound, Corwin conducted frequent experiments in bringing faraway places home to the radio audience with travelogue series like An American in England (1942) and Passport for Adams (1943), as well as the ambitious documentary One World Flight (1947), which consisted of interviews and recorded sounds from actual locations in Italy, India, and Australia.

Corwin’s travelogues did not simply revel in sound qua spectacle; they were propagandistic or didactic in nature, designed to glean messages from or impose meaning on bits and bites of sound. As Alexander Pope once put it, the “sound must seem an echo to the sense.” How, then, could one make sense of Britain through sound? What, besides the tolling of Big Ben, or the water gurgling in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain (pictured above), or the chirping of robins, or the roaring North sea, or raindrops falling on hedgerows, might be A Soundscape of Britain?

Many years ago, visiting New York City for the first time, I walked through the streets of Manhattan to capture the sounds of the sirens, the pedestrians on the pavement, the honking of cars and the hollering of cabbies during rush hour. It gave me immense pleasure listening to these recordings back in the misery that was my home across the Atlantic. I could drown out the silence and loneliness in ways that a few pictures in my photo album could not accomplish. I have always loved wrapping myself in sound’s cape, escaping in sound . . .