Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (British Library)

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse. Etching on paper. London, 2000. Tate: Purchased 2000 (c) Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse. Etching on paper. London, 2000. Tate: Purchased 2000 © Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman

Terror and Wonder, the latest exhibition to be presented by the British Library, is an overview of the Gothic genre from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, via Byron and the Blair Witch Project, Hammer and Hitchcock, and all the unimaginable tales and creatures in between.

Although the focus is largely literary, which is unsurprising in the context of the British Library, the exhibition is highly decorative in its presentation and a well-considered tribute to the genre. Dimly-lit and theatrically decorated rooms host an extensive range of objects, all framed with sound and projection elements, from the dictated diary entries of Lord Byron and Sir Brooke Boothby, to looming shadows and flashes of the awakening Frankenstein. The overall effect is fittingly phantasmagorical.

Mary Shelley, manuscript of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Mary Shelley, manuscript of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

As an overview of the Gothic genre, in all its forms and fantastical expressions, there are occasional leaps in the curation of the exhibit that seem either under-explained or over-ambitious, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps. Having perceived the intricacy with which Mary Shelley and Matthew Gregory Lewis weaved their Gothic narratives, the almost fanatical excitement of Walpole’s interiors at Strawberry Hill, or indeed the obsessive darkness of a look from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Dante’ collection, the flashy realism of Martin Parr’s photographs from the Whitby Goth Weekend served as a rather gauche conclusion to the exhibition. Perhaps this was the point. Though brilliantly composed, Parr’s photograph of a costumed Goth in mourning attire, sat with a seagull and a fish & chips next to a girl in a neon pink beanie hat, is a sad indictment of a genre that has given us some of our greatest works of literature and film.

The exhibition is strongest when it traces the over-arching themes and aesthetic elements of the genre across time periods, countries and authors. One of the pioneering aspects of Walpole’s Castle for Gothic literature is its mysterious origin story, for the author originally presented it as a ‘found’ manuscript, purportedly penned by an Italian in 1529 and rediscovered in the library of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. This is compared to the nameless narrator of Daphne de Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, and in the Lemony Snicket pseudonym of Daniel Handler, who includes faceless author photos and oblique dedications throughout his children’s book series.

A vampire slaying kit on loan from the Royal Armouries on display in Terror and Wonder © Tony Antoniou

A vampire slaying kit on loan from the Royal Armouries on display in Terror and Wonder © Tony Antoniou

It is these connections and comparisons that inspire the most wonder; mapping the development of a narrative style across hundreds of years, and observing the aesthetic elements as they morph and transform. Fear is a deeply perceptive barometer of a culture at any one time, and it is an emotion that seems to fuel much of our media discourse today. We frame our society in terms of what we fear most, and it is in this way that the Gothic genre plunges far beyond special effects, shock and gore, and intricate aesthetic details.

Enter if you dare. 

William Ballantyne-Reid is a third-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in Gender and Queer theory, with a focus on Post-War and Contemporary American art.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is at the British Library until 20 January 2015.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany (Courtauld Gallery)

Spring might still be over a month away, but the winter rain cannot darken the stunning natural views currently on display at The Courtauld Gallery in “A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.” This exhibition, jointly organized with the Morgan Library and Museum, explores important developments in German and British landscape painting from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These years were a time when artists in both countries increasingly began to turn away from conventional classical landscapes (think Claude Lorrain) in favor of evocative scenes painted directly from nature.  Indeed, the exhibition title captures the idea of personal interaction and interpretation that became central to the Romantic landscape tradition.

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, (1814-15), The Morgan Library & Museum

The oil sketches, drawings, and watercolors in this exhibition are spread across three rooms on the top floor of the gallery.  Their subjects range from rural hills and lush forests to haunting churchyards and imposing ruins.  The first room focuses on early Romantic landscapes by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, John Robert Cozens, and Jakob Philipp Hackert.  Hackert was one of the first advocates in Germany of painting landscapes out of doors, and his careful observations of botanic detail can be seen in the leafy foreground of his View of the Villa of Maecenas and the Falls of Tivoli (1783).  Particularly interesting is the second room of the exhibition, which is filled with paintings and drawings of clouds by Franz Kobell, Johann Georg von Dillis, and John Constable.  This in-depth look at the role weather and atmosphere play in influencing the mood of a landscape serves as an apt transition into the final portion of the exhibition.

Samuel Palmer Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828) The Morgan Library & Museum

The third and largest room focuses on one of the most recognizable characteristics of Romanticism: the sublime.  The overwhelming power of nature is readily apparent in works such as Carl Philipp Fohr’s The Ruins of Hohenbaden (1814-15), which depicts the crumbling remains of a once-mighty structure slowly being engulfed by its sylvan surroundings.  “A Dialogue with Nature” also draws attention to specific motifs commonly found in British and German Romantic landscapes of this time.  Images of twisted and gnarled trees, for example, appear in works by both Samuel Palmer and Karl Friedrich Lessing.  Vivid highlights and writhing lines make Palmer’s watercolor and ink drawing Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (c. 1828) a striking interpretation of this subject.  In addition to pointing out similarities, the layout of the exhibition also invites viewers to compare stylistic differences between British and German approaches to landscape painting.  For example, Caspar David Friedrich’s finely detailed Moonlit Landscape (c.1808) is hung side by side with another nocturnal scene, the more atmospheric On Lake Lucerne, Looking Towards Fluelen (1841?) by J.M.W. Turner.

The landscapes in this exhibition present a fascinating combination of frank observations imbued with poetry and emotion.  Their intimacy and immediacy is sure to leave an impression upon all those who visit The Courtauld’s “A Dialogue with Nature.”

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany is at the Courtauld Gallery until 27 April 2014.