With almost seventy paintings, the first comprehensive monographic exhibition of the work of the Swiss-born artist Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) at the Kunstmuseum Basel turns the spotlight on two of his most important sources of inspiration: literature and the stage.
Fuseli’s entire oeuvre is steeped in his engagement with the canon of great literature he began to explore during his student years in Zurich. He borrows motifs from ancient mythology, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Shakespeare’s dramas and stages them in “theatrical” tableaus: highly effective compositions in which hard lighting throws the strained and contorted bodies of his heroes and virgins into sharp relief, while visions of specters, fallen angels, fairies, and other supernatural apparitions make for spectacular and often lugubrious fantastic scenes. Spanning the shift from classicism to Romanticism, Fuseli’s art jettisons convention to unfurl a panorama of his idiosyncratic imagination.
Having spent several years in Rome, Fuseli returned to London in 1779 and soon caused a sensation with illustrations of the dramas of Shakespeare. The exhibition Fuseli. Drama and Theatre showcases large-format paintings based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet that the self-taught artist created for two literature galleries dedicated to Shakespeare; these and other works earned him the nickname “Shakespeare of canvas.” From 1790 until 1800, Fuseli himself pursued the project of a Milton Gallery, several key works from which are also on display.
Fuseli’s public image as an eccentric “Wild Swiss,” as he was known in London, is largely due to the scandalous success of The Nightmare; we present the version now in a private collection in Basel. Wider audiences primarily know the artist as a pioneer of Dark Romanticism and “Gothic horror.” The exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel limns a more comprehensive portrait of the man of letters with a brilliant gift of visual invention, surrounding the viewer with his painterly translations of epic plots and surveying his literary universe as well as his dramatic imagination.
Visitors are introduced to the sources from which Fuseli drew inspiration in sections dedicated to ancient and medieval legends, his study of recent and contemporary works such as Christoph Martin Wieland’s Oberon, Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies, and Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. A separate section is reserved for his portraits of writers and his inventions paintings that, rather than adapting an existing literary model, depict “sentiments personified,” which the artist sometimes embedded in narrative contexts of his own devising.