Delving into the rich traditions of gothic literature, sentimental fiction and old folk tales, Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, 1782, appears from another world. But not so, says Miriam Al Jamil, who recognises in the painting an awareness of human psychology foreshadowing that found in modern psycho-analysis, dream theory and psychiatry.
A reported unexpected consequence of isolation during lockdown has been an increase in the number of vivid dreams which many people are experiencing and remembering. These normally occur in deep REM sleep and we seldom retain more than the vague sensation of anxiety or confusion on waking. Maybe now our remembered dreams are the result of more disturbed sleep and reflect a new longing to impose some sort of order at a time when we feel most helpless and vulnerable.
Fuseli’s The Nightmare is a pre-Freudian image of dreaming which has meant different things as I have revisited it over many years. At first it was a disturbing evocation of sexuality with all its implied danger, the appeal but also fear of surrender to its unknown power. Then I explored the symbolic embodiment of that power in the menacing incubus and horse. Not a naturalistic horse but one that evokes the centaur of ancient Greek revels or the commedia dell’arte antecedent to the comic pantomime horse, both in equal measure animal and human and in existential dependence on each other. The blank white eyes are as ominous as the beady confrontational stare of the incubus which appears to have descended from the lofty towers of a fog-wreathed Notre Dame to plant its cold stone crouch on to tender yielding flesh. More recently, I have encountered the painting in exhibitions and in the course of art historical research. The context of Fuseli’s bizarre and erotic fetishistic drawings (see those of his wife’s towering hairdos), his glowering self-portrait sketches, his dramatic mythological and Shakespearian subjects and the contemporary fashionable painting style together explain much that is strange in this painting. Yet it still defies an easy account.
The young woman is stretched unnaturally across a bed. Its richly coloured covers have been thrown off and drape down the side, their shape exaggerating the long curve of her thigh, while the corner of the mattress is compressed by the weight of her dislocated torso in its downward arc and echoes the rounded forms of her breasts. The woman is abandoned in the sense that she is alone and exposed, but also abandoned to the implied sensuality of her reverie. Maybe she has invoked the presence of her ‘familiars’ and they will witness the denouement of the dream. Her pose and flowing dress certainly have something in common with the languid girls in attitudes of distress, despair and surprise who were the invariable editor’s choice for printed frontispieces and illustrations in popular sentimental novels during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The naivety, virtue and courage of all these statuesque females was no safeguard against the vice and corruption of the world and no guarantee against sorrow. The terror of Gothic castles and incarceration in dungeons and convent cells awaited many heroines, but by the conclusion of these tales the reader could usually rely on a triumphant delivery from adversity and a frisson of intoxicating romance to counter the dread and gloom.
Fuseli’s painting draws on a tradition of Gothic horror fiction and a much older folk tradition of goblins and witches, but foreshadows a deeper understanding of the psychology of human sexuality and psychosomatic disorders. If it has some meaning, it is somehow related to a young woman’s experience, her dreams, and the visualising of the subconscious. Has she evoked the ‘demons’ or is she oppressed by them? What else lurks behind the curtain and will she awake? For all of us now beset by new troubles and adjusting to unanticipated changes, Fuseli’s nightmare resonates afresh.
About Miriam Al Jamil
Miriam’s research and academic interests centre on the art history, literature, history and material culture of the eighteenth century. She began doctoral research in 2016 on classical sculpture; she chairs the Burney Society UK, and is also on the committees of the Johnson Society of London and the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837. Miriam is Fine Arts editor for BSECS Criticks reviews. Her chapter on Zoffany’s painting of Charles Townley and his sculpture has recently been published in Antiquity and Enlightenment Culture: New Approaches and Perspectives. Follow Miriam on Twitter @MiriamJamil
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.