Weekend links 549


The Shepherd’s Dream, from Paradise Lost (1793) by Henry Fuseli.

• “16 April. A card from Tom King with news of the tattoo of me that he had put on his arm: ‘The tattoo remains popular, though bizarrely one person thought it was of Henry Kissinger. It also makes for an amusing conversation during intercourse.’ This suggests the intercourse might be less than fervent, my name in itself something of a detumescent.” Alan Bennett‘s diary for the year is always a highlight of December.

• “I know that if I don’t write, say on holiday, I begin to feel unsettled and uneasy, as I gather people do who are not allowed to dream.” The Paris Review removed its paywall on their Art of Fiction interview with JG Ballard.

• “A biologist and composer have turned the aurora borealis into sound to create a magic melding of art and nature.”

If we let it, dreaming gradually erodes wake centrism—that waking consciousness to which Westerners in particular are inordinately attached. You might think of wake centrism as a pre-Copernican-like worldview that presumes waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, while relegating sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions. It is a matrix, a cultural simulation evolved to support adaptation, yet it inadvertently limits our awareness. Wake centrism is a subtle, consensual, sticky and addictive over-reliance on ordinary ways of perceiving that interfere with our direct personal experience of dreaming. To paraphrase the 16th-century British clergyman Robert Bolton, it is not merely an idea the mind possesses, but an idea that possesses the mind. Wake centrism is a flat-world consciousness. It warns us to stay away from the edges, to refrain from dialoguing with dreams and the unconscious.

Rubin Naiman on sleep and dreams

96th of October: an online fiction magazine dedicated to “tales of the extraordinary”.

• “Punk artist Barney Bubbles joins Manet among works given to UK public in 2020.”

• The results of the Nature Photographer of the Year contest for 2020.

• A list with a difference: Twenty Four Psychic Pop Relics by Woebot.

• Merve Emre on how Leonora Carrington feminized Surrealism.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 675 by Teebs.

I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) (1966) by The Electric Prunes | The Room Of Ancillary Dreams (2000) by Harold Budd | Blue Dream (2001) by Sussan Deyhim & Richard Horowitz

Fuseli’s Nightmare


The Nightmare (1781).

Christopher Frayling’s Nightmare: The Birth of Horror (1996) opens with a prologue examining Henry Fuseli’s most celebrated painting:

Henry Fuseli, who later wrote that “one of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams”, and who was said to have supped on raw pork chops specifically to induce his nightmare, made his name with this painting. And engraved versions, produced in 1782, 1783 and 1784, distributed the image across Europe, until Fuseli’s masterpiece became the way of visualising bad dreams.

Although The Nightmare was painted just before the Romantic craze in Western Europe—which revelled in peeling back the veneer of rational civilisation to reveal the “natural” being or the raw sensations beneath, sometimes through the gateway of dreams—it was well-known to the writers and painters of the early nineteenth century. One of them wrote that “it was Fuseli who made real and visible to us the vague and insubstantial phantoms which haunt like dim dreams the oppressed imagination”.

The Nightmare was fascinating—and scary—because it operated at so many different levels at once. It was set in the present (the stool and bedside table are “contemporary” in style), and it was concerned not so much with an individual’s nightmare—the usual subject-matter of dream paintings, often involving famous individuals and their prophecies—as with nightmares in general. It was not A Nightmare, but The Nightmare; not a vision but a sensation. This gave it a direct impact, unmediated by history, which put a lot of critics off.


The Nightmare (1791).

Later generations of critics have had no such problems, of course, nor have the legions of artists and cartoonists who’ve plagiarised and parodied this memorable scene. I had a vague notion of collecting some of the derivations but a quick image search reveals an endless profusion of squatting figures and thrusting horse heads. Wikipedia did provide two of the engraved versions, however. Of the two paintings above I’ve always preferred the later one: the incubus, or “mara” as Frayling calls it, looks more sinister, and the horse head has become an almost unavoidable sexual symbol. No wonder that Siegmund Freud had a copy of The Nightmare on the wall of his waiting room.


Engraving by Thomas Burke (1783).

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Heavenly Love and Earthly Love by Giovanni Baglione (1602–1603).

Chiaroscuro\, Chia`ro*scu”ro\, Chiaro-oscuro\, Chi*a”ro-os*cu”ro\, n. [It., clear dark.] (a) The arrangement of light and dark parts in a work of art, such as a drawing or painting, whether in monochrome or in colour. (b) The art or practice of so arranging the light and dark parts as to produce a harmonious effect.

Following from the earlier post about shadows in art, some favourite examples by masters of chiaroscuro. Another artist not represented here will be the subject of a post of his own in the next couple of days. The Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken (below) was the subject of the horror tale Schalcken the Painter by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a story memorably filmed by Leslie Megahey for BBC television in 1979. Horror and the chiaroscuro effect belong together, as Fuseli’s Nightmare demonstrates, and many of Schalcken’s paintings seem even more curious and sinister after you’ve read Le Fanu’s story.

Update: John Klima points us to Hal Duncan‘s excellent story, The Chiaroscurist, which you can read at Electric Velocipede.

Continue reading “Chiaroscuro”