Friday, September 21, 2012

The Nightmare

This week's final childhood favorite is perhaps the clearest in my memory: Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare (1781).  I first saw it on a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts in elementary school.  I recall that we started off with a guided tour of the huge auto industry murals in the foyer by Diego Rivera, before being released into the rest of the museum in a long chain reminiscent of the art museum scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986).  I wasn't able to linger in front of it as long as I would have liked that day, but when I returned to the Motor City in high school, I spent quite a fair bit of time staring it down in my frequent trips to the Institute. A large work, it retains much of its power to intimidate and still writhes with a seductive sexual energy.

Henry Fuseli (née Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825) was a Swiss born artist who did the majority of his professional work in England.  Fuseli's father was a painter who chose his older brother to follow the trade, while Henry was expected to join the clergy (He was ordained in 1761). Largely self-taught, Fuseli fled Switzerland after a political dispute for England where he met the British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds who encouraged him to develop his craft. The greater part of Fuseli's works were often dark visions inspired by literary passages, particularly from Shakespeare.  The Nightmare, one of his few works without literary precedent, startled and frightened viewers on it's initial debut, but has become a popularly reproduced composition for artistic and satirical works, was often used as an illustration in early psychoanalytical discourse, and was considered one of the precursors to the Symbolist movement.

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