It’s nearly Halloween so I thought I’d share some terrifying works from Art History in the lead up to 31st!
Today we have Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ from 1781.
This is a dark, titillating, and shocking painting that has become an icon of horror. It’s inspired a number of filmmakers and is most famously quoted in Ken Russell’s 1986 film, ‘Gothic’.
Fuseli was a Swiss-born, British based painter who here presents a woman, draped dramatically across a bed. Her listless body is bathed in this wonderful, glaring white light. Her arms are thrown back and her mouth is open – she’s in a dreamlike state. She’s vulnerable and unguarded.
Sitting prominently atop her chest, staring out at the viewer, is an incubus. The title ‘Nightmare’, somewhat surprisingly for 21st century viewers, does not refer to the wild-eyed horse creeping around the curtain. Instead, it references this impish creature, a ‘mare’ derived from the word ‘mara’.
A Dictionary of the English Language, from 1755, defined a ‘mara’ as ‘a spirit that, in heathen mythology, was related to torment or to suffocate sleepers. A morbid oppression in the night resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.’
The horse in the background, which didn’t appear in the original drawings, is instead thought to be the mara’s mount.
There is, without a doubt, a deeply erotic element to this painting. This was one reason why Fuseli’s work shocked contemporaries when it was exhibited. According to folklore, the incubus could do a lot more than put pressure on the breasts of its victims. It was sometimes said to have sexual intercourse with women while they slept…
On the back of the painting, is an unfinished portrait, thought to show the woman Fuseli was infatuated by. Her name was Anna Landholdt, and she didn’t reciprocate Fuseli’s feelings. One interpretation is that this work conveys Fuseli’s sexual frustrations. The girl could be Anna, and the imp, Fuseli.
We will never know for certain Fuseli’s intentions behind this work. What we do know, is that this was an innovative painting, boldly created without a single reference to a historical or literary source. It is a work that combines seduction and terror – two elements still prevalent in horror literature and films today.