The Black Stuff: Although Much about the Gothic Now Looks Silly, It Still Has the Power to Shock, Finds Simon Poe

Article excerpt

Modern Times began in the 18th century, the so-called "Age of Reason", when deep, immemorial shadows of ignorance and fear started to be driven back into the odd corners where some of them linger to this day. Perversely, however, deprived of the consolations of superstition, people soon discovered a need to torment themselves afresh with imaginary terrors, and the Gothic--dark side of the moon to the Enlightenment sun--was called into being.

Naturally, compared to the real threats that had lurked in the ancestral forests, there was something inescapably daft and self-conscious about these new anxieties. A vein of unintended hilarity--satirised by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey--runs through Gothic like the facetious legend in a stick of seaside rock. Naturally, too, we moderns are well aware that everything comes down to sex in the end (the Marquis de Sade is as central to the Enlightenment as David Hume) and, sure enough, weird sex is as characteristic a Gothic trope as the weird sisters. Today, this combination of scary, sexy and silly is as irresistible as it ever was--think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A new exhibition at Tate Britain, "Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic imagination", looks certain to be one of the crowd-pleasers of 2006.

Just because it was daft didn't mean it hadn't a serious side, though. Gothic satisfied a real need in Georgian society, providing a sort of virtual environment in which the unthinkable could be contemplated in relative safety. Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) is the central figure of the exhibition, but "Gothic Nightmares" is not a one-man show. In the popular new fashion of "Turner Whistler Monet" and "Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec", the curators have juxtaposed Fuseli's work with that of some of his great contemporaries; it appears here alongside the visionary, apocalyptic paintings of William Blake (1757-1827) and the bitter, scabrous political cartoons of James Gillray (1757-1815).

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One exciting feature of the show is a reconstruction of a "phantasmagoria". This was a sort of wild ancestor of the cinema--a souped-up slide show with sounds, smells and shadow play that was a Europe-wide sensation around 1800. Some of Fuseli's pictures borrow classical and Shakespearean motifs, but many do not, and even if they now all look like costume dramas, we should remember that when they first appeared, many showed people in contemporary dress enacting urgently contemporary themes. …