The quest for the uncanny
The fantastic becomes even more sinister when it suddenly invades a modern urban setting: in Léon Spilliaert's pictures, the void opens as easily in a seaside resort (Ostend) as it does in Fernand Khnopff's Bruges-la-Morte. It also threatens what seems the safest, most secluded place of all – the bourgeois family home.
It was The Sandman, Hoffmann's strangest tale, which prompted Sigmund Freud to describe "the uncanny" as strange and disturbing – and producing the uneasy feeling people have when suddenly confronted with something which should have stayed hidden.
In their claustrophobic interiors, death-haunted or peopled with unsightly creatures, Bonnard and Ensor also seem to be heralding the emergence of the repressed and absurd – and anticipating Kafka.
On a deeper level, their version of the fantastic gives the Symbolists – in solitude, silence and darkness – an ideal means of exploring and communicating the mysteries of existence.
Some people longed to see the irrational break through in daily life, and tried to help it do so: spiritualism, much in vogue from 1850 on, was probably a latterday version of animism and, in effect, a secularised society's cult of the dead. It also marked a pseudo-scientific attempt to capture things the naked eye could not see, but – many believed – the camera could record.
That same year, at the height of the Depression, Universal Studios started working on the first in a series of classic Hollywood horror films – Dracula, inspired by Bram Stoker, and Frankenstein, inspired by Mary Shelley. Thus, at the very time when the film industry was taking over Dark Romanticism, European intellectuals and artists were starting to explore its origins and hail it as a precursor.
The First World War and the collapse of the old order gave absurdity a whole new meaning, and the art of both the Surrealists and the Dadaists can be seen as rebelling against it. While the Dadaists set out to wipe the slate by systematically and ironically deconstructing conventional values, the Surrealists, most of whom were former Dadaists, preferred to revive older ways of subverting them.
Dark Romanticism was one of the most attractive: first, because it gleefully used exaggerated contrasts to break the old aesthetic rules; secondly, and above all, because it was probably one of the first movements to insist on the importance of letting chance, dreams and the irrational infiltrate the creative process – and allowing physical sensation and the unconscious to play a full, free and euphoric part in it.
The Surrealists went looking, with camera or wash brush, for the magic lurking in modern cities and everyday objects. Brassaï found screaming masks scratched on walls, while Bellmer (inspired by Victor Hugo's experiments with spirit drawing) conjured mute faces from ink stains. The magic power of art was omnipresent, romanticizing the universe, peopling the everyday with fantastic creatures, and investing dead objects with strange and hidden lives.
The most exciting of all imagined settings remained the Gothic castle, still suggested by the symbols of confinement – spiked railings, portcullises and ironwork – on which Klee based some of his compositions. But the forest, being real, was still the most unsettling of all prisons.
"Mixed feelings when we first entered the forest. Enchantment, and yet a sense of oppression […], outside and inside at the same time, at liberty and captive". This was how Max Ernst described his encounter with the forest, in terms which invoke the German Romantic tradition: the mythical place from which we all come is also a tomb – silent and bristling with bars.