Fuseli and the Modern Woman review: a ‘charming oddity’ of an exhibition

The works of Fuseli will transport you ‘into the candlelit world of the Gothic imagination’

Half-length figure of a courtesan (1800-10) by Henry Fuseli
Half-length figure of a courtesan (1800-10): Fuseli’s fetishistic touch

Henry Fuseli was “obsessed with sex”, said Mika Ross-Southall in The Daily Telegraph. Wherever he could insert a fetishistic touch into his art, he would: indeed, around a third of the works on show in this exhibition at the Courtauld – subtitled Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism – “depict women’s backsides”. Some are “hidden, teasingly bulging under ribbons and puckered skirts”, others “exposed, often through wisps of gauze”.

Typically, Fuseli’s pictures of female subjects project desire mixed with “contempt” and “mistrust”. Born in Zurich in 1741, he initially trained as a Protestant priest before reinventing himself as a writer and draughts­man in London, where his painting The Nightmare (1782) “became an overnight sensation”. Depicting a “putrid incubus” squatting on a “supine woman”, the image invited fascination and outrage. The painting is not in this show, but its atmosphere of psychosexual dread can be felt in all of the 50 works that are, most of them created for private pleasure rather than public display. The exhibition gives us a sizeable dose of Fuseli’s “fanciful and unsettling” vision, and demonstrates that he was a supremely gifted draughtsman.

Fuseli’s drawings of women with “fantastical hair and bulbous buttocks” may seem odd by our standards, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. But such subjects were fairly common in the context of British artists of the era: think of Thomas Rowlandson’s bawdy cartoons or George Romney’s portraits of Emma Hamilton. The difference is that Fuseli’s pictures transport you “into the candlelit world of the Gothic imagination”. In one, a group of courtesans “subdue a naked man on a bed”, while in another, a woman torments a man in a well “by dangling a leash over him”. In Two Courtesans at a Dressing Table (1805-6), a woman “sits with her eyes closed and breasts bared while her friend puts the finishing touches to her insanely complex hair and make-up”.

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The exhibition’s attempts to provide insights into “gender, identity and sexuality” in the early 19th century are not entirely convincing, said Laura Freeman in The Times. The pictures, however, are wonderful. Of particular note are Fuseli’s loving depictions of ridiculous contemporary hairstyles. “Weird beehives and backcombed manes” dominate. His Portrait of Anna Magdalena Schweizer (1779) sees her “with curls piled half a foot high”. That Fuseli and his wife Sophia had a hairdresser visit them daily comes as no surprise. This “small, select and very strange” show is “a charming oddity”, which will make you long to “book an appointment at the nearest blow-dry bar”.

Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (020-3947 7777, courtauld.ac.uk). Until 8 January

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