The horror, the horror

    Fuseli is the central contributor to Gothic Nightmares, a show that marks a return to form for Tate Britain, because this seemingly simple gallery adventure ends up addressing a fascinatingly complex set of issues. On paper, the display celebrates a specific moment in Britain’s cultural past: the discovery at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th of a renewed national appetite for “gothic” flavours: monsters, pixies, nightmares, ghosts, haunted castles and all that. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Architecture developed a taste for pointed arches. And Fuseli began churning out the hideous outpourings of unreason for which he is notorious. If it had stopped there, we could all be having a good laugh and remembering it as an unfortunate phase we passed through. But it didn’t. The horrible truth is that it hasn’t stopped yet.

    I read somewhere that Freud had two reproductions hanging on the wall of his study in Vienna. One was The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, by Rembrandt, that gory group scene of a corpse being dissected in public. The other was The Nightmare, by Fuseli, in which a grotesque gargoyle sits on the chest of a beautiful woman as she sleeps, and stares out at us, knowingly and creepily. The Nightmare gets a wall to itself at the start of these proceedings, too. And why Freud should have selected it as one of his chosen paintings is entirely obvious. It is difficult to envisage a more comically Freudian image.

    We are in a bedroom in the dead of night. The bedroom is hung with mysterious red drapes of a sinister velvety texture that Hammer Horror fans will immediately recognise. Poking its head through these drapes, with a crude, phallic thrust, is the horse — the mare — that has brought the gargoyle to the comatose woman’s bed. Because she is wearing virginal white, and because the gargoyle is coloured an unpleasant, excretory brown, Freud would have had little difficulty coming to the considered psychoanalytic conclusion this nasty sprite has risen up from somewhere dark and soiled in the swooning blonde’s unconscious.

    But I am in the camp of those who recognise the gargoyle as Fuseli’s self-portrait. He was only 5ft 2in, and a portrait of him by James Northcote that hangs at the beginning of Gothic Nightmares shows him to have sported a set of swollen and potato-ish features any gargoyle could have worked with. There have also been suggestions that the array of little boxes on the swooning woman’s bedside table are the accoutrements of an opium junkie. However she entered the state she is in, the key fact remains that she is incapable of resistance. We are watching an 18th-century date rape.

    Fuseli showed The Nightmare at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1782. Nobody knew exactly what he was trying to say in it, and they still don’t. Despite this impenetrable air of mystery, or perhaps because of it, not only was Fuseli’s painting noticed more noisily in the show than anyone else’s, but it went on to park itself in the international art landscape more prominently than any British painting had ever done before. For Freud to have had it on his wall, for Manet and Gauguin to have paraphrased it in swooning nudes of their own, for all those cartoon versions of it to have appeared that are collected in the Tate’s show, The Nightmare must have penetrated our consciousness to an unusual depth.

    Fuseli was born in Switzerland in 1741 as Johann Heinrich Fussli. His first ambition was to be a priest, and in 1761 he was actually ordained. But some sort of quarrel with his father led to a hasty departure from Zurich and his eventual arrival in Britain, where Joshua Reynolds, no less, advised him to take up painting. So he was a fallen Swiss priest, who changed his identity, who came to painting late and who was essentially self-taught. Small wonder his pictures are so weird.

    The other main exhibitor in Gothic Nightmares, William Blake, is represented by an impeccable selection of his biblical contortions. Blake was, of course, another religious mutant in whom uncanny beliefs turned into pictorial perversions. Like Fuseli, he had his own understanding of anatomy, perspective and the rest, and among the many peculiar births we witness here — pity, particularly, the poor mother who lifts the cloth that surrounds the cot in Fuseli’s The Changeling, only to find her baby has become an ogre — is the birth of British pictorial idiosyncrasy. Nobody else, anywhere else, was doing any of this.

    Gothic Nightmares traces this development and evokes its mood with a beautifully installed show that concentrates on the paintings by Fuseli, Blake and their kind, but that stops also to have fun with appropriate special effects. A blue room at the centre of the display plunges us into an approximation of a seance, in which some of the spooky literature of the period (Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliff) comes to life in the paintings on the walls. Further along, down a dark corridor, you enter a splendid magic-lantern display of the type that sprang up specifically to cater for the new appetite for wailing ghouls and floating skeletons.

    The show tries to divide itself into helpful sections as it attempts to wade through this fierce torrent of murder, ghosts, violence, perversion and sex. There is a gallery devoted to the pumped-up muscle men who pop up in an assortment of classical stories reinterpreted with extra violence by Fuseli and his followers. What big pecs they have. What large thighs.

    Descended crudely from the action heroes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, these 18th-century British beefcakes look, as Clive James once remarked of Arnold Schwarzenegger, like condoms stuffed with walnuts.

    Another section samples the delights of 18th-century fairy painting and makes clear that the chief attraction of any fairy in any painting of the times is the thinness of the fabric she wears. Fuseli himself — the former priest, remember — treats us to a ghastly set of erotic drawings, displayed behind a tasteful white curtain put up to protect us by the Tate, in which a gang of his pumped-up heroes persuades a set of naked women on a bed to practise their fellatio.

    While all these sights are remarkable enough in themselves, what strikes me as even more remarkable is the way they arrive before us: with the force of a dam break. As this show tells it, there was something entirely unstoppable about this aesthetic switch. It is as if all the dark stuff that was inside the British psyche all along was suddenly given permission to reveal itself. Most of it wasn’t pretty, but all of it is pertinent, because what we are witnessing here is the birth of our own aesthetics.

    There isn’t a slasher movie ever made, or a rape fantasy ever had, or a tale of alien invasion ever remembered, or an episode of Harry Potter, or a Freudian reading, or a descent into schizophrenia, or a film starring Schwarzenegger, or any kind of horror pic that cannot trace its origins back to this weird moment in British aesthetics when a defrocked Swiss cleric and his pals let the rat out of the bag.