Henry Fuseli’s paintings fire up the soul. What is special about this eighteenth-century artist is that he never painted from “nature” but rather he chose to cast his eye inwards and look for inspiration in the fiery depths of his soul. The themes of his art were myth, literature and gothic tales. The scenes depicted in his work are full of expression, the characters always in rapture, seized by extreme psychological states. The art can be described as sublime, lofty and ecstatic, as if the beholder was standing face to face with purely archetypal content, which has momentarily sprung up from the eternal substratum of the material reality. It is reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous, meaning “”arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring.” To quote Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, the characters in Fuseli’s paintings stand trembling “face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum.”
In the introduction to a brochure accompanying the exhibition of his art in Kunstmuseum Basel, Eva Rufeli wrote:
“Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) is in many respects an artist of transitions and transgressions. Geographically speaking, his biography links his Swiss origins with his adopted country, England; art-historically speaking he stands on the threshold between Classicism and Romanticism; and, finally his oeuvre develops from a close dialogue between literature and visual art. The renown of the artist, who polarized opinion during his lifetime and acquired the nickname of ‘the wild Swiss’ in London, was founded on the scandal-provoking picture The Nightmare…, which triggered both horror and fascination in the public when it was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1782.”
This world of dreams, which is the matrix of myth and symbol, was precisely where Fuseli felt at home. It is not easy to say which paintings that I saw at the exhibition affected me most. He wrote once, “Prostrate yourself before the genius of Homer!” and it is hard to ignore his wonderful rendering of ancient themes. Here the white goddess Leukothea offers the shipwrecked Odysseus her veil. You can read more about this myth in one of my previous posts devoted to The Odyssey.
In another Homer-inspired painting, Achilles sees the soul of his dead friend in a dream. When he reaches to embrace him, the apparition turns into smoke.
Fuseli was dubbed “Shakespeare of the canvas” by his contemporaries, perhaps because he was a huge admirer of Shakespeare and an avid theatre goer. The most striking to me were his artistic illustrations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. Puck, the diminutive sprite loves to lead wayfarers astray in the nocturnal forest. Here he is depicted in sheer delight over the mischief he has managed.
In another one, Titania, bewitched by a love charm, tenderly caresses the ass-headed Bottom.
And from Macbeth nothing surpasses the famous Three Witches.
In one of his aphorisms, Fuseli stated that “reality teems with disappointment for him whose sources of enjoyment spring in the elysium of fancy.” But I believe Carl Jung might have redeemed his fears by saying in The Red Book that he “learned in the Mysterium: to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits the inner world, since they are real because they are effectual.” Jung complained about “a scientific phobia against fantasy.” The inner world is not less effectual or less real that the outer one. What is more, the so-called physical reality was dreamed into existence from “the elysium of fancy” referred by Jung as the collective unconscious. In Fuseli’s “Creation of Eve” the divine apparition at the top of the painting is in fact the birthing force behind this miracle of creation.