The Private Passions of Henry Fuseli

LONDON — Swiss born Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) spent most of his career in London, where he became well known for fiercely eccentric paintings of fantastical subjects. Perhaps the most famous example of his monumental, dreamlike visual sensibility is “The Nightmare” (1781). Some contemporaries dismissed the work as “shockingly mad.” The Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism, organized in conjunction with the Kunsthaus Zürich, presents an extensive collection of his drawings. The works are astounding not just for their unabashed eroticism, but for his breathtakingly assured technical skill, from finely rendered pencil drawings through to bolder, vigorous ink and wash work. His technicality alone is more than worth the admission price. Undermining the display, however, is a fundamentally muddled thesis. 

For starters, the “Modern Woman” of the title should be better defined; “Modern” as a historical delineation spans from the late Middle Ages to the mid-20th century, though in art history this narrows to the late 19th century. Yet “modern” (lower cased in the wall texts) may refer to women of Fuseli’s society, rather than a historical era, or, based on the captions’ frequent allusions to “the patriarchal society” and “[anxieties that] still speak to us today,” it may point to an interpretation of 18th-century women that is colored by our 21st-century feminist ideals. By not defining the term from the outset, curators Dr. Ketty Gottardo and Professor David Solkin can combine any of the above.

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Compounding this is a lack of clarity regarding the purpose of the drawings and their intended audiences. An introductory caption claims they provide “insight into anxieties about gender, identity and sexuality at a time of acute social instability as the effects of the first modern revolutions — in America and France — swept across Britain and the Continent.” Additional comments linking them to vague notions of male anxiety smack of outdated Freudian interpretations long since discarded by contemporary psychoanalysis (and should raise eyebrows when mentioned here); a section on women depicted from the rear — though rightly traced from academic tradition stretching back to Praxiteles — nonetheless describes them as “unknowable objects of male anxiety and desire.” Both interpretations, of societal and psychoanalytical significance, are anyway rendered moot by the initial declaration that the drawings were private. It is problematic at best to declare drawings created for personal, not public, consumption as representing a wider societal and geopolitical zeitgeist. 

Henry Fuseli, “Seated Woman (Sophia Fuseli?) in curls, reading” (c. 1796), brush and watercolor and opaque watercolor over graphite, traces of red chalk. Zürich, Kunsthaus Zürich, Collection of Prints and Drawings, 1938

A typical example may be found in the opening section focusing on Fuseli’s fascination with excessively complicated, restrictive hairstyles, mostly in portraits of his wife, that “[discipline] the hair’s potential wildness,” rendered with extraordinary detail and attention — part of the “Fetishism” of the show’s title. In “Seated Woman (Sophia Fuseli?) in Curls, Reading” (c. 1796), the caption advances: “In a patriarchal society, dressing their hair offered many women an opportunity for self-expression. Fuseli’s response stages his own fetishistic obsession in tandem with a socially-driven impulse to reassert masculine control over female sexuality.” As suggested in captions elsewhere, Sophia was instrumental in designing the elaborate, highly idiosyncratic head ware and actively engaged in a kind of dress-up that Fuseli was drawn to in his obsessive detailing of her constructions. It indicates an equanimity between the sexes, an intimate and private exchange between the couple, more than an example of a patriarchal society’s desire to oppress women.

Further examples contradict the assertion that the drawings were private. One depicts pubic hair; due to “the powerful taboo against the depiction of female bodily hair, Fuseli probably kept this drawing out of the public eye.” Were others intended for public viewing? For a drawing of Sophia with a bust of Medusa (1799) we are told that “portraitists were usually expected to flatter, but here Fuseli’s treatment of his wife is ambiguous at best.” The term “portraitist” refers to an artist commissioned by a sitter to produce a likeness for outward display; this intimate, lightly modeled watercolor certainly does not fit in this category. Elsewhere, the curators suggest that some drawings were highly worked in color so “may” have been for sale, and that some erotic pieces were given Greek inscriptions to “imply a classically-educated target audience.” Of whom? Clearly, any interpretations of the drawings’ significance in a broader social context can only be a speculative.

Henry Fuseli, “Sophia Fuseli, standing in front of a fireplace” (1791), brush and watercolor and opaque watercolor over traces of graphite. London, Victoria and Albert Museum

What viewers should instead focus on — and enjoy — is the immense delight Fuseli clearly took in depicting elaborate hair, dress, and artifice or constructed costume, combined with a keen attention to geometric shapes and surface pattern. Throughout are striking designs in which scenes of female figures, whether anonymous, his wife, or courtesans, populate the surface area in theater-like scenes. For “Sophia Fuseli, Standing in Front of a Fireplace” (1791) the caption emphasizes what it describes as a societally perverse juxtaposition of the hearth, the “moral centre of the home,” with the makeup arrangements, more commonly associated with sex workers, and the suggestion of passion in the hearth’s fire just out of sight. Yet what stands out is the composition’s sense of geometric harmony: Sophia’s dress symmetrically concertinaing outward in an inverted flat-leaf silhouette, pleasingly fitting into the hearth’s square within a square, her headgear and billowing shoulders forming mirroring horizontal figure eights. Indeed, dresses, ribbons, and hairpieces are exaggerated to resemble almost architectural structures, dish shapes, pyramids, and, yes, the occasional phallic protrusion.

This show is immensely pleasurable for the technical facility of an artist pursuing his own personal interests in an incredibly idiosyncratic style. For those familiar with his bombastic paintings the deftness of his hand is revelatory. Yes, the fetishistic aspect is at times disturbing, as any personal fantasy may be to outside eyes. Of his depiction of Paidoleteira (1821), with a Greek inscription translating as “child destroyer,” the curators note, “it is difficult to explain the motivation for depicting this and other acts of a sadomasochistic nature, except in terms that are highly personal to Fuseli.” Indeed, this is how we should view most if not all of the works on display. The show claims that such “anxieties still speak to us today”; this is true in the sense that base and private human desires are indeed timeless.

Henry Fuseli, “Sophia Fuseli seated in front of a bust of Medusa” (1799), graphite, brush, and gray and brown wash, touches of red wash, heightened with white opaque watercolor. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, The Strand, London, England) through January 8. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Ketty Gottardo and Professor David Solkin.


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