Gothic V Gothick: Gilda Williams on the Embarrassing, Campy Cousin of the Uncanny

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I COUNTED FIVE GOTHIC-THEMED GROUP EXHIBITIONS HAUNTING LONDON OVER THE PAST YEAR, 'THE GOTHIC' EVIDENTLY VYING FOR A PLACE WITHIN ART DISCOURSE AS THE DARK SIBLING OF ASSOCIATED TERMS SUCH AS 'THE UNCANNY' AND 'THE ABJECT'. These exhibitions gather artworks whose 'Gothic' content is signalled in familiar motifs (skulls, tombstones, shrouds); loose connections with the genre's 19th-century novelists, particularly Edgar Allan Poe; and evocations of death, magic and nostalgia in imagery heavy with shadow, Goth subcultural references and, well, the colour black.

Never having benefited from the illuminating theories of a Sigmund Freud or Julia Kristeva, Gothic is mired in such vaguery, its persistent theatricality and trashy, spooky literalness seem to doom the Gothic as the uncanny's embarrassing, campy cousin. This embarrassment has accompanied Gothic since its modern origins, at least since 1818, when Mary Shelley went to great lengths in her preface to Frankenstein to distance her work from the vogue for vapid ghosts stories and 'mere spectres and enchantment'. No, she asserted; her Modern Prometheus was worthy of the attention of Dr Darwin himself. Likewise, in his architectural treatise The Gothic Revival, 1928, Kenneth Clark spends most of his introduction woefully apologising for drawing our attention to a style of such candid distaste. Yet despite its hokiness, Gothic is strangely seductive. My love for Gothic has to do with this perpetual contradiction: its ability to straddle antithetical levels and moments of culture. It is credited as the first modern literary genre to speak of such weighty issues as child abuse, domestic violence, the imprisoning effects on women of patriarchy and the demonisation of the Other. Yet the Gothic also harbours such low-brow phenomena as the slasher film, heavy metal, a style of decor I associate with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and 'feminine fantasy fiction'. No wonder no one seems to know what Gothic actually is.


Some 15 years ago--before 'the Gothic' was everywhere, from special issues of Vogue to basement exhibition spaces in Shoreditch--while working for an art publisher, I found myself late for a deadline calling for proposals. In a panic I hastily came up with a half-baked idea for a cross-historical art history book titled Gothic Art, and tossed together contemporary artworks by Damien Hirst, Jake & Dinos Chapman and Douglas Gordon with paintings by Francis Bacon, Francisco Goya and Edvard Munch, garnished with a Cindy Sherman dismembered doll, Jeff Wall's Vampire's Picnic, 1991, and Zoe Leonard's Wax Anatomical Model, 1990. This mess was greeted enthusiastically. The publisher loved it, and my hastily contrived Gothic Art seemed miraculously to hold water as a coherent strain of art history--until someone abruptly asked, 'so, what exactly is Gothic?' Nobody (including me) knew. Was it something to do with darkness, the supernatural, death, perhaps the otherworldly? Does it refer solely to the literary form invented in the mid-18th century--and, if so, when does it end? In 1818 with Frankenstein, or 1847 with Jane Eyre, or 1936 with Rebecca? Is Stephen King Gothic? And what about Goth subculture, Gothic glamour, horror films? And what is Gothic visual art--medieval cathedral sculptures and illuminated manuscripts? Or is it Henri Fuseli's Gothic posterchild, The Nightmare, 1782? Is Gothic Romantic? Are New Romantics Goths? Are Goths Gothic? Is romance dead? The editorial meeting sputtered on directionlessly, ending with instructions for me to go away and find out exactly what Gothic is.

This task, it turns out, is borderline impossible, and history is of no help. Once taken as signifying all things anticlassical, the term was a misnomer from the start. The 'Goths' (actually Visigoths and Ostrogoths) became, for fearful citizens of the dark ages, a shorthand in naming the many marauding northern tribes credited with the decline and end of the Roman Empire, including the Huns, the Slavs, the Anglo-Saxons and more. …