Lately I have been researching dark art...art that defies traditional aesthetics and instead focuses on the ugly and repugnant. It is interesting to me that many artists somehow manage to make the fearsome and ugly quite beautiful, as in the following example.
Painted during the Enlightenment, The Nightmare (1781, oil on canvas), by Henry Fuseli instead features dark, irrational forces with no moral meaning at all. The art movement of the time was David’s rational Neoclassicism that had a moral message at its very center.
Here we see a woman swooning gracefully off the side of the bed. She is bathed in light, contrasting with the velvety darkness of the background. A bizarre, hybrid creature makes himself comfortable on her torso. Emerging from the shadows, a spectral horse with glowing eyes and flared nostrils unexpectedly appears.
Although it has a narrative quality, The Nightmare is not drawn from history or mythology… it is an invention of Fuseli’s macabre imagination. The painting has yielded many interpretations, and some experts see it as anticipating the theories of Sigmund Freud regarding dreams and the unconscious.
The painting was first displayed at the annual Royal Academy exhibition in London in 1782, where it shocked, titillated, and frightened exhibition visitors and critics. It now is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.