The Angel of the Odd. Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst

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William BlakeThe Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun© Droits réservés
This exhibition, which borrows its title from one of Poe's Tales, provides a first overview

of the various ways in which Dark Romanticism found expression in European visual art from the 18th to the 20th century. Today's entertainment industry draws heavily on this dark realm, with its ghosts, vampires, castles and sorcerers, which have now become clichés of "dark fantasy". We should not forget, however, that this all forms part of a more complex heritage, dating back, paradoxically, to the Age of the Enlightenment – a tradition of sensual, disturbing and cruel imagery, expressed without restraint in ways whih our exhibition documents.

Dark Romanticism is not a style, but an aesthetic trend in western art, inspired by the fears and anxieties of turbulent times, and embodying an imaginative response to them. It first appeared in the revolutionary turmoil of the late 18th century, and was later revived, first by some of the late 19th-century Symbolists and again, after the First World War, by the Surrealists.
Ostensibly promising escape to a dark and irrational world, this "evil" art consistently rejected ideology, defied conventional morality and challenged the oppressive power of two religions – Church and Progress.

Our exhibition focuses on three stages in the story of Dark Romanticism: its emergece (1770-1850), its liberating transformation by the Symbolists (1860-1900) and its rediscovery by the Surrealists (1920-1940).
It includes clipsfrom films acclaimed for transmitting that tradition with superlative fidelity and inventiveness – and making it part of our culture today.

The Gothic novel: freedom, fear and pleasure

Johann Heinrich FüssliThe Nightmare© Bridgeman Art Library
"No, but I'm afraid of them", Madame Du Deffand famously replied when her friend Horace Walpole asked if she believed in ghosts. Walpole was himself the author of"No, but I'm afraid of them", Madame Du Deffand famously replied when her friend Horace Walpole asked if she believed in ghosts. Walpole was himself the author of The Castle of Otranto (1764)– the first Gothic novel, which writers throughout Europe, from Shelley to Sade, were soon imitating. But how did their dark visions surface in the Age of Enlightenment ?

The Gothic novel's plot is always simple. A young and innocent hero, or frequently heroine, ventures into a dark and Gothic building, and suffers hideous moral and physical torments at the hands of a repellent, but strangely fascinating villain – satanic monk, bloodthirsty noble or vengeful ghost.
Lost in the heart of an impenetrable forest, the castle or abbey where the action takes place symbolises the despotism of a bygone age – and is the imaginary setting where fear and pleasure both await the reader. A labyrinth outside time and the community, it allows him or her to taste the sublime, vertiginous euphoria of absolute freedom. These tales of violence and nightmare violate moral taboos, and blur the conventional distinctions between natural and unnatural.

 

Opening forbidden doors, readers also peer into themselves, exploring the unfathomable abyss of their own obsessions, fears and secret desires. More than night itself, it is the ever-present threat of the void, and the lure of absolute freedom and unbridled eroticism, which make these stories so indelibly dark.

The Gothic novel is the most intriguing feature of a century when everything was in flux – when people were both dissolute and superstitious, revolutionary and nostalgic, free-thinking and frightened by their own audacity. This exhibition includes very few illustrations of scenes from Gothic novels, which the great 18th and 19th century artists thought beneath their notice. Nonetheless, they, too, were trying to create a new and similar kind of beauty – even though they found their inspiration elsewhere.

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