Past the Wit of Man

When it comes to painting scenes from legend and song, there are few who could match Henry Fuseli‘s ability to pick ones that are scary, twisted, and plain weird. As far as history painting goes, he’s the goth you get when you combine an appetite for literature, an admiration for Italian art, and a Romantic twist of mind. His Polyphemus, for example, surpasses anything Blake ever did, or that’s how it seems to an uncultivated peasant such as myself. But there is something even better in Tate Britain, something that overpowers Blake’s version of a scene from the same play. Namely, this thing:

Source: Wikipedia

There is very little that is sinister in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it’s a story about a wedding party that gets lost in the woods where the spirits of the forest are playing tricks on one another. Oberon, the king of the fairies, is pissed off at his queen, Titania, and decides to get even by making her fall in love with a man with a head of an ass. Bottom the weaver happens to be nearby, so his unfortunate head receives the magical treatment that turns humans into ass-headed monsters. The main events of the play take place in the hallucinatory region where imagination and reality, myth and fact, day and night, light and dark, etc. meet and Shakespeare blends it all into a wonderful mess of a comedy where everyone gets married in the end and all is well in both the seen and unseen realms of the world.

What Fuseli has done in this scene with Bottom and Titania and her entourage is epic. The monsters are graceful, the fairies scary, the seductive figures repulsive. It is a dark painting, the light is suitable for a summer’s night, and some of the figure stare out from their mythical realm, ready to burst out a any given moment and grab you, it seems. Most of them are not too strange, because seriously grotesque monsters would be too amusing — just look at Bottom in the middle — but they are subtle distortions of the human and human-like figures we would expect to see in any history painting. It’s the little things that count, especially in the art of making the world seem strange.

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