Fuseli and the Modern Woman review – a dark, perverse mindset laid bare

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To get to Henry Fuseli’s drawings and watercolours you have to climb to the very top of the “stare” case at the Courtauld, which in his day was the home of the Royal Academy and its annual exhibition. This elliptically spiralling masterpiece of Georgian architecture got its nickname from an outrageous print by Fuseli’s contemporary Thomas Rowlandson called The Exhibition “Stare” Case. It shows women tumbling, their dresses flying up to reveal their bottoms, while a bunch of depraved old men watch happily.

It’s worth glancing at the reproduction of this satire on your way up as it provides a context for Fuseli’s enthusiastically perverse portrayals of women. He may seem furtive and odd, yet in his own time he was anything but. Fuseli was hugely successful, a Swiss artist who migrated to Britain, made his name with his 1781 gothic painting The Nightmare, and became Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools.

As for his passion for women, explored in these drawings of fantastical hair and bulbous buttocks, this too was typical of artists in late 18th- and early 19th-century Britain. George Romney not only portrayed Nelson’s lover Emma Hamilton many times but filled sheets with repeated drawings just of her lips, following in the fetishist footsteps of Thomas Gainsborough who makes love to his female sitters with delicate strokes of paint that dwell deliriously on lace and silk. This was an age when James Boswellcasually mentions in his diary that while crossing London Bridge he stopped for a quick, unplanned negotiation with a sex worker.

Fuseli depicts many professional providers of male pleasure in this show. Are they models or fantasies? Two Courtesans at a Dressing Table, a watercolour from 1805-6, transports you into the candlelit world of the gothic imagination. In a darkened boudoir a woman sits with her eyes closed and breasts bared while her friend puts the finishing touches to her insanely complex hair and makeup. They have fashionable feathers in their hair. Where Fuseli departs from the bawdy heteronormative pornography of Rowlandson is by dwelling just as sensually on the accessories as on the boobs: the standing woman’s tight black silk sleeve gives off a sheen you would think impossible in watercolour.

He has no interest in harmonious classical bodies like the plaster casts of Greek statues his Royal Academy students had to draw. Instead, he riffs on Rubens to revel in pear-shaped hips, muscular arms and serpentine necks. Woman in a Sculpture Gallery, from 1798, shows a woman from behind, her low-cut dress revealing a fleshy back while she touches her ample bottom under her sweeping voluminous skirts. This move seems self-conscious, as if she’s deliberately teasing the artist, turning her head away from the dead statues in a living game of arousal. Another woman shows him a tapering back above the asymmetrical curve of her hips, while her left arm is hidden from us, making her even more lopsided: she is using it to caress her own extended right arm. Her left hand explores its pale softness, crawling on her like a white spider.

André Breton claims in the Manifesto of Surrealism that the surrealist movement’s ancestors include the 18th-century gothic style. This exhibition shows why. That woman caressing herself would fit perfectly into a Buñuel film. Breton calls the heroine of a gothic novel “a temptation”. Yet the public for these fictions was imagined as female, and their authors included Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley. Fuseli’s gothic drawings give women power, at least in sadomasochist fantasy: a group of courtesans subdue a naked man on a bed, another torments someone in a well by dangling a leash over him.

Yet at the centre of all this uncurbed fantasy is a conjugal romance. Fuseli’s favourite model is his wife, Sophia, who poses patiently in absurd hairstyles or with her legs crossed, her eyes catching his in an emotional relationship that glows through the dirty-minded games.

It wasn’t always a perfect marriage. In the early 1790s the young Mary Wollstonecraft, fresh from writing her revolutionary treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, fell deeply in love with Fuseli, who was happy to flirt with her. She visited Sophia and proposed they all live together in a love triangle. Sophia was outraged, Fuseli cut Wollstonecraft off – and, it seems from this show, rebuilt his marriage with art.

In a drawing from 1799 she turns to look at us from under a bust of the mythological creature Medusa, depicted as a sublime mask of feminine power. Sophia’s hair is built up like a fancy patisserie, puffed out in two lobes like a human brain. It’s as if her mind is exposed. Sex, suggests Fuseli, is not a physical activity but pure brainwork.

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