The Lure of the Gothic; A New Tate Britain Exhibit Demonstrates Why Grotesque Images Are Still So Effective in Portraying Our Hidden Demons

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Byline: Tara Pepper

The enlightenment that swept aside medieval Europe's dusty faith and folklore in favor of bright modernity and reason had an unintended side effect: it gave rise to Gothic art and literature, and its macabre esthetic of horror, fantasy and sadomasochistic sexuality. Those images are the subject of a new exhibit at London's Tate Britain, "Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination" (Feb. 15 to May 1). The exhibit examines the 18th-century fascination with the fantastic and supernatural through more than 140 paintings and drawings, as well as a re-creation of a "Phantasmagoria," an animated show with sound effects and ghastly images. The works, which range from sublime to simply shocking, still strike a deep chord.

Though Gothic sensibilities never really disappeared--pale, black-clad youths still emerge from dark clubs as daylight breaks--the time is ripe, says curator Martin Myrone, to "rediscover a period that deserves a much wider appreciation." Gothic novels like Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and modern works by Stephen King and Anne Rice remain wildly popular, but until now the visual arts have been largely neglected--despite the fact that they have influenced film and TV from classics like "Nosferatu" (1922) to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Recently, Gothic images and ideas have taken a firmer hold on our cultural imagination. "There's a fascination with the downside of science that Mary Shelley popularized, a consciousness that progress is not so progressive," says Audrey Niffenegger, author of "The Time Traveler's Wife," who is currently working on a ghost story set in London. "Gothic visions of death and disease and ghosts are still the ascendant ones, even in modern culture."

This new focus on Gothic roots is even revitalizing the modern arts. Rocker Marilyn Manson announced recently that he will plumb the life of Victorian author Lewis Carroll for his first feature film, "Phantasmagoria," also the title of a dark, witty poem by Carroll. Manson says Carroll's morbidly sad diaries and poetry touched him and fired his imagination. Though "Phantasmagoria" will be crammed with the classic visuals of a Gothic horror film, Manson, who has written the script and starts shooting this summer, stresses that it will conjure terrors --more psychological than bloody. "The elements of the human soul represented here are the darkest story you can tell," he says.

The Tate show highlights why we still find Gothic imagery so compelling: its ability to illuminate the psyche's darkest corners. The triumph of rationalism--what William Blake called "Newton's stony sleep"--bred a fascination with everything it had forbidden. Masterpieces like Henry Fuseli's "Titania and Bottom" (1788-9) vividly illustrated what Freud dubbed "the return of the repressed," the stifled desires that come back to haunt us in distorted form. …