I went to the Gothic Nightmares exhibition at the Tate Britain recently. The focus was on John Henry Fuseli (specifically his painting The Nightmare), William Blake and James Gillray.
The exhibition was fascinating, depicting scenes from classical mythology, Shakespeare, Milton etc. This got me thinking about how art works its way into the public consciousness. These days people often equate a book's success by whether it gets made into a successful film. Obviously the books have to be popular to be made into a film in the first place but a good film adaptation can often ensure longevity in a way that surpasses the original books. Take James Bond. People would still quite possibly be reading the original Ian Fleming novels even if it hadn't been for the success of the films but the number of people who would have heard of 007 would be significantly slashed. The Lord of the Rings finally made it to the big screen due to Peter Jackson's love of the source material and Tolkien fanboys the world over waited, ready to rip him to pieces if he dropped the ball. But thousands upon thousands of people who have never read the book now have a whole new fantasy playground to frolic in.
Back in Shakespeare's day the chances of getting a movie option were obviously pretty slim but the Bard had the next best thing. Plays. The public didn't have to sit through an A level in English Literature to appreciate Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. They just watched the plays being performed. Even if they didn't always appreciate the poetry of Shakespeare's dialogue they could always laugh at Will Kemp delivering a fart joke. Plays were the films of their day, ensuring Shakespeare's fame in a way that the written word alone couldn't.
And the paintings by the likes of Fuseli no doubt helped too. When Fuseli wanted to paint a dramatic scene he would turn to Macbeth and the three witches, or good and evil angels battling over a man's soul in Dante's Purgatory, or Siegfried slaying Fafnir in The Nibelungenlied. These stories would have been well-known before Fuseli painted them but his work would point even more people towards the source material. Art lovers would be pointed towards literature and literature lovers would be pointed towards art in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Another thing that struck me about the paintings and sculptures on display at the
exhibit was the dynamism, both of composition and of anatomy. What little art (with a capital A) I had seen in the past often seemed rather stiff and lifeless but this was bursting with energy. Fuseli's depiction of battling angels had the vim and vigour of a Hawkman comic panel. And his painting of Thor wrestling the Midgard serpent put me in mind of Frank Frazetta.
Even Blake, whose work often felt rather childlike to me, showed a vitality I had not previously witnessed in his work. His portrayal of two angels -- one good, one evil -- battling over a baby reminded me of Gil Kane's rendition of Green Lantern.
In fact one series of paintings in the exhibit had been titled by the organisers as 'Superheroes.'
This was brought home to me when, a few days later, I popped into my local Burger King to find it decorated with poster-sized prints from various comics. Covers and splash pages by Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Jerry Robinson and John Byrne. Wonderful stuff. Kirby's crude but kinetically charged work bursting from the frame, Buscema's lovingly rendered anatomy.
Sigh. I wish I could draw.