The Angel of the Bizarre

Frankfurter Goethe-Haus/Freies Deutsches Hochstift
Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, 1790–1791

“Dark Romanticism: From Goya to Max Ernst,” a survey first conceived and mounted by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, has been retitled “The Angel of the Odd” by the curators of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it runs until June 9. Ambitious and forceful, the exhibition plunges you in a giddying aesthetic abyss. There are a great many bats in the images on display, and it is perhaps batwise that the whole enterprise is best approached. Winding your way through the cave- system of galleries, with their soot-and-stormcloud decor and their isolated spotlights, you bounce your feelings off the walls and listen for the echoes they return: there’s no clean linear diagram to help you locate yourself. To admit that the logic of the exhibition is hard to articulate is in fact to pay it a compliment. Rather than a rationally organized thesis on the art of the irrational between 1780 and 1950, you get something less paradoxical and more primal, a dark ride powered on instinct. It feels as though the curators’ eyes and feelings have led the way, with their historical justifications coming along after.

What, then, stayed with me, as I emerged blinking from my long—perhaps a little too long—meander through the gloom? I remember, in succession: a dazzling portal, abutting a stone arch stretched over a chasm; plains of lava beneath titanic palaces and a lightning-struck night sky; devils, incubi, and witches, cackling and lunging. Cannibals hacking at human flesh, and a fair young woman stone-cold on her deathbed. Ghost-riders; mutants; fluttering bats and owls. Owls perched by ruinous casements; clouds across a moonlit sea; dim mists, more ruins; more chasms. Femmes fatales, medusas, sphinxes, vampires. More mutants and monsters, trans- or post-human. Psychic emanations, skulls, skulls, skulls. A cloud that crossed the moon and a razor that sliced an eyeball. A mother thrusting a hank of raw meat at her son and hands rising to snatch it away. Birds with bloody savaged breasts, dropped dead from the sky.

I was left ragged at heart and lowered. And in some sense I was glad to be so. I had come to resent those very rare moments in the show at which there had been cues to remember health and sunlight. I don’t know whether I exactly needed it, but I found myself cherishing this sensation that was like running my finger along a keen blade or turning the volume up to max on a screaming guitar solo: except that here, the cumulative effect had been more deeply in-turned. It was more as if my ears had been alerted to the thud of my heart inside my ribcage, the precarious motor on which all else depends. And yet at length, that thudding had begun to turn banal. Desolated had shaded into nullified and then into numb. The…

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