RA Magazine Winter 2012
Issue Number: 117
International Preview: The art of darkness
The shadowy side of the the Romantic movement in Europe rises up in Frankfurt, while Evelyn de Morgan echoes their sentiments in leafy Surrey. By Simon Wilson
Of all the ‘isms’ of art history Romanticism is the biggest and baggiest, eluding neat definitions. Yet as long ago as 1930 an Italian academic called Mario Praz published a startling study that defined the Romantic movement as never before, in terms of what he saw as its central theme, summarised in the title of the Italian edition of his book, which translates simply as Flesh, Death and the Devil in Romantic Literature. When an English version appeared in 1933 it was more elliptically titled The Romantic Agony. Even so it was much reviled by moralists, who were shocked by the detailed evidence Praz produced of the intensity and scope of the obsession of Romantic writers with the erotic, the morbid and the diabolic. As to why, a brief answer is that Romanticism was the cultural manifestation of the revolt against the oppression of Church, state and aristocracy, which reached a climax, but not an end, in the French Revolution. Romantic artists chose particularly to revolt on the fronts of religion and sexuality.
Edvard Munch, 'Vampire', 1916-18. Collection Würth/Photo Archiv Würth/©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2012. Praz’s book appeared in German as Die Schwarze Romantik, or Dark Romanticism, and this is the source for the title of a major exhibition in Frankfurt that aims to present the visual counterpoint to Praz’s literary compendium. It is a bold and imaginative idea and the organisers have seen that this peculiarly disturbed and pessimistic vision of the world remains as sadly relevant as ever. Indeed, this is not an exhibition for the fainthearted. The opening section is devoted to Goya, focusing relentlessly on his paintings and etchings of the horrors of war, and of torture, execution, witchcraft and cannibalism. Goya is one of the undisputed great artists of the western tradition but I find his work of this kind almost impossible to look at, not only for the subject matter, but for the utterly unsparing way it is depicted. Of course, this is one of the reasons we admire him now.
Relief, of a sort, is at hand and from surprisingly close to home – that is the RA. The second section of the show is dominated by a large group of works by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), an artist whose presence here as a keynote artist is amply justified, but may seem surprising to Friends who know him as a pillar of the Academy in its 18th-19th-century heyday. But the point about Fuseli here is that his often disturbing subject matter is embodied in scenes from myth and history and wrapped in the aesthetic charm of his seductively sensuous and often fabulously elegant style. This aestheticisation of the darkness of human life continues throughout the show, so that we are lured lovingly into our contemplation of unpleasant realities.
As the exhibition unfurls we meet many fascinating figures of northern European art who, often famous in their time, were completely eclipsed by the rise of modernism, but who are once again being looked at with the interest they deserve. The German Romantic trio of Arnold Böcklin, Max Klinger and Franz von Stuck gives way to the crazed late Romantic phases of Symbolism and Decadence.
Evelyn de Morgan, 'Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea', c.1890-1910. © The De Morgan Foundation. The exhibition moves into the twentieth century to follow the current of Romantic darkness into its first modern blooming in Munch, as seen in Vampire, followed by Surrealism. Here the most compelling contributions are by Dalí and Magritte. The organisers have found a truly terrifying early Magritte that I have never seen before, The Murderous Sky, of 1927, in which four identical black birds, their breasts blasted open and bloody, plummet on their backs from the sky. Dalí’s unforgettable Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second before Awakening (1944) is more familiar, but in this context emerges as an entirely original envisioning of phallic assault
on the female.
If I have a criticism of this fascinating show it is that, having quite rightly pinpointed Fuseli, and with him incidentally, Blake and John Martin, as early keynote figures, it ignores later British contributions by artists such as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and G.F. Watts. It could also well have included the highly individual painter Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919). Her work is certainly full of darkness, but as an ardent Spiritualist she saw the darkness as combated by light. She also had a striking vision of the female nude as both sensuous and strong; these aspects come together in the vibrant nymphs lighting the night in her Moonbeams Dipping into the Sea. With her husband, the ceramicist William de Morgan, she is now the subject of an exhibition at the revitalised and refurbished Watts Gallery at Compton near Guildford.
It is now more than ever worth a visit and especially so to see the work of an artist whose husband’s fame as the great Pre-Raphaelite potter has often caused her to be eclipsed. Yet when the art-historical chips are down she is the more interesting of the two and this is becoming more apparent as the curious currents of the Romantic and Symbolist movements are increasingly revealed in museum exhibitions.
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