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

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Damsels and demons

Eugène DelacroixMephistopheles in the air, illustration for Faust© Droits réservés
Contrast was a central principle of the Romantic aesthetic. Milton had idealized his Satan, but Delacroix, Feuchère and Hugo gleefully turned their Mephistos into hairy, grimacing grotesques, far closer in feeling to stock medieval images of the devil. The lovelier the virtuous victim, the more hideous the fiends who torment her. 

The young beauty in the Ballade de Lénore, the gentle Ophelia in Hamlet and the tenderhearted Marguerite in Faust – madness, death and damnation lie in wait for all of them.

 

 

 

André Breton's reading of Gothic novels left him with vivid memories of that contrast: "These were books you could take up, open at random, and always find an elusive scent of dark forests and high, vaulted chambers. Their heroines were crudely drawn, but impeccably lovely. You could visualise them instantly […], as they succumbed to the pale and icy apparitions which stalked them through gloomy dungeons. This was literature both ultranovelistic and hyper-sophisticated, and nothing could surpass its thrilling impact." 

 

These innocent, defenceless young women are persecuted for their ideals, but the horror their undeserved sufferings inspire also carries a distinct erotic charge – and artists were quick to exploit it in both directions. Their pictures and Breton's words evoke memories of reading horror stories and Sade's novels beneath the bedclothes: when the young captive suffers, Virtue and Nature – the Enlightenment's twin deities – are violated with her.

 

 

Barbarism – one artist's response

Francisco José de Goya y LucientesFlying Witches© Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid
"I have no fear of witches, hobgoblins, apparitions, swaggering giants, knaves, varlets, or indeed any other beings – except human beings." An enthusiastic champion of Enlightenment values, Goya was also on close terms with the progressive nobility, but his doubts and disillusionment increased as the French Revolution was succeeded by the Terror, and Europe was torn apart by warring armies.

The deceptively clear distinction between enlightenment and obscurantism was now supplanted by the vision of a new, grey, frightening and uncertain world, in which no sharp line could be drawn between good and evil, reality and fantasy, reason and absurdity, the beliefs of the past and the revolutionary fervour of the present.

But instead of living in the past or doing nothing, Goya swapped his court painter's brush for the etcher's unsparing needle. Black in all its shades was the keynote of the many series of engravings he now produced on freely chosen themes, with only the Inquisition's censors to contend with.

 

The Caprices, a series produced at the end of the 18th century, reflects his amazement and exasperation at the imaginative wealth of Spanish popular culture, steeped in the superstition, fanaticism and ignorance promoted by the Jesuits.
Ten years later, the atrocities which marked the war against Napoleon inspired The Disasters of War – a cry of outrage and horror at the barbaric excesses of the "Grande Nation" and the terrifying emptiness of a world with no God or morality.

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